Politics & Policy

Trump Trumps Trump

President Trump addresses a joint session of Congress, February 28, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jim Bourg)
Those who found Trump monstrous were shocked by his impressive speech. Then they returned to form.

Following the conventional wisdom on the Trump presidency is a little like taking a mind-altering drug while riding a roller-coaster. You know that you are being hurled up and down and around in a succession of dizzying revolutions, but somehow it doesn’t seem quite as normal an experience as that.

In the twelve or so hours after the State of the Union, the air was thick with the sound of second thoughts on the Trump presidency: The president had been “presidential.” He had spoken well, reading the teleprompter accurately, and not deviating into self-justifying asides. He had denounced bigotry and anti-Semitism. He had followed Nixon to China on immigration reform, hallelujah. His familiar themes of patriotic unity and rebuilding America were expressed in lighter and more optimistic language than in his “dark” and “divisive” Inaugural, with its grim talk of “carnage.” His tribute to the widow of the slain Navy SEAL had been an inspiring moment in an inspiring speech. And so on, and so on, and so on.

I don’t think anyone described the president as “the New Trump,” but it came pretty close to that. And this favorable impression was then reinforced by reports of polls that showed that the voters, maybe having listened to the pundits, liked it, too. One such poll showed that almost four out of every five Americans approved of the speech to varying degrees.

Politically speaking, that’s important. If the president is thought to be an impressive figure within the mainstream of presidents, so to speak, and to enjoy wide popular support, he will be in a better position to push through his political agenda.

Probably for that reason, pundits started having second thoughts about the second thoughts at around lunch time on the same day. They weren’t always the same pundits, of course. Some were responding critically to the first round of pundits who had had approving second thoughts; others were putting a more skeptical gloss on their own earlier-in-the-day approval. But the general effect was to explain that Trump’s speech had not been nearly as successful as the initial set of reactions had suggested. Not by any means. In fact, parts of it, like the curate’s egg, had been downright disgusting,

So what had produced this illusion of success? The answer that bubbled up from the collective subconscious of the punditocracy was that Trump had seemed to give a good speech because he was being compared favorably, indeed indulgently, to Trump, who, as everyone knows, is impulsive, scatterbrained, given to plucking figures from the air or his last night’s television viewing, vulgar, credulous, hostile to every form of self-discipline, including logic, and wholly incapable of giving a good speech or a polished performance.

Accordingly, when we thought we saw him reading from the teleprompter accurately, or delivering powerful words with panache and amusing ones with a twinkle, or paying a touching tribute to the widow of a Navy SEAL, or making a coherent case for lower business taxation, these were illusions produced by our relief that he had not actually fallen off the stage, hit Speaker Ryan, lost his trousers, or spoken in tongues.

Now, some items in this indictment are true. Trump is impulsive, quick to anger, and sometimes inaccurate. And as Rich Lowry observed, one wondered why he had not paid minor tributes to the zeitgeist such as denouncing “bigotry” before. But the picture as a whole is false — not only in the broad sense that Trump has had successful business and media careers but also in the narrower one that, as he showed in the campaign, he is a confident and accomplished public speaker. His skill is closer to that of a stand-up comic than to FDR’s or Reagan’s, but he can wow an audience with the best of them — see in particular his riff on winning — and he presented America with a set of arguments that shaped a new and formidable coalition of voters.

His oratorical skills compare very favorably with those of most of his GOP primary rivals, let alone Mrs. Clinton, who can barely recite a list of poll-tested partisan platitudes with any conviction. It was silly of the pundits to suppose that this actual Trump would be unable to master the more formal skills of rhetoric required for an address to Congress. And, in the event, he triumphed over both halves of a divided audience in the chamber, winning over the Republicans with a mix of his ideas and theirs, and leaving the Democrats looking stranded and uncertain outside a new mainstream of patriotic politics.

Many reporters frankly argue that they have a duty to abandon impartiality where he is concerned, treating him as, in effect, an unconvicted criminal.

Does that new mainstream flow from the chamber through Middle America? Such pastoral visions have danced deceivingly before the eyes of Republicans before. But they have always met an insurmountable obstacle: The media was hostile to the GOP and friendly to the Democrats, and it subtly shepherded its audiences onto the Left bank. Republicans and conservatives bitched about this, but in the end, they accepted the professionals’ advice that more would be lost than gained by open hostility to the media. Media bias grew less and less covert as a result. And Trump, not being given to over-subtlety, said so. That has prompted the media to be openly hostile to Trump — and to those Republicans sympathetic to him — to the point where many reporters frankly argue that they have a duty to abandon impartiality where he is concerned, treating him as, in effect, an unconvicted criminal.

That hostility has produced three effects. The first is that it has driven coverage that as a regular thing places the worst possible interpretation on Trump’s motives in any and all stories. Thus, his use of the word “carnage” to describe the social reality in America’s worst urban areas is treated as “dark” and “divisive,” although it has been the common coin of liberal social commentary on urban decay and violence since the riots of the late 1960s, and although Trump used it to pledge help to the people trapped in such situations. His remark that “they lost him,” about the death of the Navy SEAL, is seen as an attempt to shift blame from himself onto the senior military when, as Hugh Hewitt has argued, it is far more likely to be an expression of sympathy for warriors who have lost one of their own. That hostile interpretation is then further abused to suggest that the president’s motive in hailing Ryan Owens’s widow was heartlessly hypocritical.

And of course we are still waiting for any serious evidence to support the widespread journalistic speculation that Trump was in collusion with the Kremlin to “hack” the U.S. election in order to pursue a pro-Russian foreign policy. Well, Trump has been elected now, but he isn’t pursuing a pro-Russian foreign policy. Quite the reverse. As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, on the five most important measures to favorability to Russia, Trump is pursuing a firmly anti-Russian policy while, on the same measures, it was Obama who until January had been pursuing the pro-Russian policy that his journalistic admirers were blaming on Trump.

Maybe I should add that shrewd and informed Kremlinologists such as David Satter (a regular NRO contributor) and David Remnick of the New Yorker have concluded that the motive behind such Kremlin interference as there was in the U.S. election was in general to suggest that American democracy is a hypocritical farce and in particular to undermine Mrs. Clinton, whom the Russians, like everyone else, expected to be the next president of the United States.

The picture of Trump that emerges from this biased coverage is so implausibly negative that when the real (and fallible) Trump appears, as he did in Tuesday night’s speech, he seems to be a fairly decent fellow and a commanding leader.

The second effect of this partial and hostile journalism is that the picture of Trump that emerges from this biased coverage is so implausibly negative that when the real (and fallible) Trump appears, as he did with Tuesday night’s speech, he naturally seems to be a fairly decent fellow and a commanding leader. But the standard of comparison that so flatters him is not his own impulsive personality but the implausibly negative image of him shaped by the media.

The third effect is to weaken the media as an adjudicator of political issues. Though the Republicans never won the media impartiality they needed to talk persuasively to the voters, the open hostility and bias of the elite press have now given them what they wanted: Most of the public sees the press as belonging to one side of politics and distrusts it accordingly. Trump’s row with “the fourth estate” — scorned by some establishment Republicans — has sharpened this perception. And as Lee Smith points out in a recent Tablet article, this weakening is also the result of a serious decline in the quality and skills of journalism as it struggles to combine the political partisanship of the star-struck Obama years with traditional rules.

I had been stopped short by this opening sentence of a political report when I came across it in the Washington Post:

Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of the country’s capital, Stockholm.

It took editorializing a tad too far even for an opinion column like the one I’m writing now. And incorrectly? What was that doing in a news report? In the lede, too? And what was cause and what effect in this wandering back and forth? But it was Lee Smith who noticed the most fascinating implication of its syntax — and made me laugh out loud when he did so. What this ungainly sentence is saying is earth-shaking: Donald Trump can foresee the future!

Well, that would explain a lot that has happened this week. Otherwise, there are still a great many things that could go wrong for the Trump presidency — if his enemies were not so determined to make them go right.

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