If a boring and exploitive speech can be called a political success, Donald Trump’s State of the Union address was it. Maybe you are bewildered by Trump’s triumphs. His approval ratings have been abysmal. By the time the tax-reform bill passed, it was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation in modern history.
So how is it that polls showed such a positive response to last night’s speech?
It is enough to make you feel as if you are turning into Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, who has made a bizarre sideline in concocting theories as to why Trump is succeeding. Here’s my theory: President Trump is the star of the world’s biggest reality-TV show, and most of the political media are its producers and fetch-its. A producer lives and breathes her show. She often develops a deserved contempt for its star, who far overrates his own charisma and underrates the work of those around him. Her experience of the star is entirely different from that of the audience, which in Trump’s case is the American public.
As the star of the show, Trump has advantages over traditional politicians. Most pols put work into maintaining a stable public persona, establishing a brand. Some try to project themselves as energetic and compassionate, others as wise and possessed of probity. And so they use their little bits of airtime to do the same thing over and over again, which is pretty boring but generally effective. (It isn’t called “message discipline” for nothing.) Trump’s persona is so well-established by years of attention from local and national media and The Apprentice that he can instead focus his energy on creating drama: picking fights, changing moods, sowing chaos among underlings. Sometimes he says he wants to “be tough” on a particular rival or issue, and sometimes he says he can “soften.” He makes enemies, but he always keeps an eye out for the potential drama to be wrung from reconciliation.
The effect is that he can monopolize the media’s attention for months with bad behavior the way that a reality-TV star monopolizes attention for segments between commercials. He reportedly says that some countries are “sh**holes,” he’s the subject of a crazy rumor involving a porn star, and he has that historically low approval rating. The media, acting as the unintentional collaborators in the Trump Show that rules everyone’s lives, set expectations for his behavior laughably low. Then the star emerges for the final segment of the episode, in this case the State of the Union. Instead of the gibbering, cursing, charmless jerk of the earlier segments, we get someone else. Trump gives his best reading of a long speech full of the usual SOTU emotional blackmail and wedge issues. The American audience laps it up. Polled Republicans almost unanimously love the speech. Almost half of Democrats say the same. He always seems to pull through in the end, our Donald.
I have no idea if this dynamic is sustainable for four years. As someone who works in political media, I find the way that Trump takes all the oxygen out of the room asphyxiating. And television series usually do go into terminal decline someday. But this feels like the way the Trump presidency was meant to unfold. He has mostly given up his fight for a populist redesign of the GOP, having found that the Republican Congress isn’t interested. His cabinet and White House have mostly been re-stocked with dutiful hands who save him from his own worst proclivities — the producers in the media helped make sure of that, lest they lose their own jobs too. And he himself is free to play the president on television, as all of America looks on transfixed.