When President Trump began the longest speech of his presidency by giving a full-body hug to an unsuspecting American flag at CPAC, it was one of the most cheerfully photogenic moments of his political career. What can top a president giving a PDA to Old Glory? It was wacky, it was unexpected, it was essentially unimaginable in most other countries. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron to follow suit.
The responses from the left were confused, disbelieving, snippy. “What the hell was that?” asked Colin Jost on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”
You would think the point would not need to be explained to a professional entertainer, but in the Trump era many elementary things need to be explained, very slowly, to people suffering acute Trump-related loss of cognitive function. What the hell that was, was entertainment. It was fun, and it was funny. It came across as spontaneous and endearing and very, very American. And it was a reminder that in our two-party system, the more entertaining candidate pretty much always wins the election. Be a boring scold, and your chances fade.
Will the Democrats nominate anyone nearly as entertaining as Donald Trump next summer? I doubt it. Nick Gillespie of Reason, by no means a member of Trump’s MAGA posse, wrote of the speech:
There is simply no potential candidate in the Democratic Party who wouldn’t be absolutely blown off the stage by him. I say this as someone who is neither a Trump fanboy nor a Never Trumper. But he was not simply good, he was Prince-at-the-Super-Bowl great, deftly flinging juvenile taunts at everyone who has ever crossed him, tossing red meat to the Republican faithful, and going sotto voce serious to talk about justice being done for working-class Americans screwed over by global corporations.
Judging by liberal reaction on Twitter, Democrats will continue to make the mistake of assuming that swing voters in the Midwest share their central fixation — opposing Trump no matter what, even if he is praising spring, or chocolate, or America. Instead of conceding even the smallest degree of amusement value to Trump’s flag bit, they tried to turn a cute moment into yet another bullet point on their infinite indictment of Trump. Sample tweet: “I learned in the Boy Scouts 40 years ago that the flag is something to be respected and treated with solemnity. This is not solemn or respectful,” said one observer. Several notables chimed in by quoting some version of a tweet sent by Wisconsin Democratic-party activist and failed congressional candidate Randy Bryce: “‘When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.’ — Sinclair Lewis.” Observe the dynamic: Trump just trolled lefties into opposing affection for the flag. Our president does things by instinct, not calculus, but his instincts have the effect of tricking Democrats into punching themselves in the face.
Few can doubt that Trump has changed the game in Washington. “We are reversing decades of blunders and betrayals . . . done by the failed ruling class that enriched foreign countries at our expense,” he said, in a typical remark. “It wasn’t America First, in many cases it was America Last. Those days are over, long over. . . . America is winning again. America is respected again. And the world knows it.” If Trump mischaracterizes free trade as other countries coming in to “steal our wealth and steal our jobs,” he knows that the Midwest appreciates that he is fighting a tariff war for them, just as immigration restrictionists know that he’s on their side regardless of whether the Wall ever gets built. He has much good economic news to boast about. And he was at his best when meting out merciless ridicule, describing the Green New Deal as a program he was eager to run against: “I’ll take the other side of that argument . . . but they should stay with that argument, never change.” He imagined a country run on intermittent wind power: “When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric . . .’Darling, darling is the wind blowing today, I’d like to watch television, darling.’” He had the audience chortling as he denounced the “fake news” media.
I wouldn’t give as favorable a review to Trump’s speech as Gillespie did. Nevertheless, far from being “unhinged” or a “rant,” as the media kept calling it, the speech was an appealing mix of Morning in America optimism and mockery. The grumpy media reaction — call in the fact-checking monkeys! — misses the point of Trump’s appeal. Everyone knows the man will exaggerate and mislead to pump up his own legend. But everyone also knows that the press despises Trump so much that they have taken to heart New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg’s famous injunction to drop all pretense of objectivity in pursuit of Trump.
The day before Trump was elected his approval rating on average was 37.5, according to the RealClearPolitics average. The last three polls have his numbers at 46, 47 and 43 percent approval, just a hair under Barack Obama’s ratings at the same point in 2011. This is happening amid what the media insist, as they are always insisting, is an extremely rough stretch for Trump — the shutdown, the defeat over financing the Wall, and Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress. Meanwhile, the media keep convincing themselves that each new development in the Trump scandals is the one that will seal his doom. To the average voter, though, it’s been two years of diminishing returns. Scandal fatigue has set in. The various Javerts on Trump’s case need to deliver something juicier than anything they’ve come up with so far if they want to turn the public resolutely against Trump.