For an hour and 20 minutes on Tuesday evening, the world stood still for CNN and MSNBC. Despite setting a record for length during the televised era, President Trump gave a fairly normal version of the State of the Union ritual, with the usual catalogue of accomplishments claimed and wish list of legislative action he wants taken. His use of the tired cliché of ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things was lengthy, but also not as tedious as it might have been in the hands of a president with less showmanship.
But for the 24/7 cable-news networks that are not named Fox News, the wait for it to end was agony. While the president spoke, in a rarity in prime time since the inauguration, CNN and MSNBC were not able to air a single second during which hosts or other talking heads could speculate about the Russia investigation, charges of collusion, or the possibility of impeaching Trump.
The frustration of some on-air personalities after the speech ended was palpable. But their astonishment that Trump had gone 80 minutes without discussing the only things they’ve been talking about for a year made two things clear.
First, the contrast between Trump’s discussion of the economy and other real-world issues and the quagmire that is the Russia investigation showed how the latter has completely obscured the former in mainstream-media coverage in the last year.
Second, the speech proved that if Trump could consistently stay on message throughout the year, his poll ratings would be higher and the Republicans’ prospects in November would be much brighter.
Anyone who’s watched much network news, especially CNN and MSNBC, in the last year understands that (barring natural disasters or mass shootings) there is very little that can divert them from their laser-like focus on the Russia investigation. Each daily development that is even tangentially related to the Mueller probe, or to the House Republican investigation of possible abuse of the FISA court to spy on the Trump campaign, is treated as the top news of the day, almost no matter what else is going on.
Their task of keeping the country obsessed with the issue is made easier by the president. His tweets and statements firing back at his foes only add to the feeding frenzy.
The cable shows’ panels of journalists commenting on the latest Trump outrage du jour rarely include a dissenting voice: The president is a scoundrel, his actions are indefensible, and his ultimate doom is certain. This ensures that no matter how juicy the story, the analysis inevitably becomes a tedious exercise in which Trump critics wink and nod at each other in a manner in which their presumably anti-Trump audience appreciates. To note this is not to deny that almost all of the president’s troubles, including the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, resulted from something stupid that emanated from his mouth or Twitter account.
It is to say, however, that the picture these outlets paint of the Trump administration and the state of the country is a cartoonish portrait of a nation in crisis. For CNN and MSNBC, Trump is always on the brink, and the proverbial other shoe is always about to drop. Calm, dispassionate analysis of the Russia story, taking into account the fact that there is still no proof of any underlying crime of collusion, is treated as disinformation designed to justify a nefarious Trumpian plot against democracy.
That’s why Trump’s free 80 minutes was so jarring to the networks.
During the speech, a completely different portrait of America emerged: a booming economy, record low unemployment, and victories abroad against terror. Sticking to the skillful script written for him, Trump engaged in none of his trademark improvisations blasting foes or making inappropriate remarks. He made a reasonable case for his stand on immigration and his plans for an infrastructure bill. Not only did he sound like a normal president, but he pointed to accomplishments that, Twitter and gaffes notwithstanding, made the country sound not only normal but on the upswing.
There is a case to be made that the soundtrack Trump provides for his presidency undermines his administration more conclusively than anything his critics can say. But the shock of having to listen to a good speech reminding Americans that the sky isn’t falling on Trump’s America was a difficult experience for many talking heads, and it showed in their petulant post-speech commentary.
When Trump concentrates on governing and on selling his message, he and the Republicans win.
But the lesson to be gleaned from this episode is about more than liberal media bias. When Trump concentrates on governing and on selling the message that his deregulation and tax cuts are leading to higher wages, more jobs, and general prosperity, he and the Republicans win. When he sinks in the scrum over Mueller, he loses. With his polls on the upswing since the passage of the tax cuts last month, the possibility of a narrative of his presidency that doesn’t center on Russia is emerging. That should encourage his supporters as much as it exasperates his critics.
The State of the Union provided us a glimpse of what our politics would be like if Trump were a disciplined communicator. Such a scenario would be a bleak prospect for Democrats seeking to run against a colluder with Russia deserving of impeachment, not a president riding high on a wave of business optimism, soaring stock prices, and growing jobs figures. Fortunately for them and sadly for Republicans, sightings of a scripted, disciplined Trump are rare. So long as that is true, CNN and MSNBC will have plenty to talk about, and Republicans who’d like to run on the economy will instead spend the year dodging questions about Trump.