Matt Bai’s Political World
The Artifice of the Deal
Matt Bai, National Political Columnist March 15, 2018
President Trump at a rally in support of Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone, in Moon Township, Pa. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters.
Remember that time, way back about two weeks ago, when President Trump berated leaders of his own party, in front of a room full of cameras, for being afraid of the NRA, and he vowed to pass a bipartisan bill that would make it harder for kids to get assault rifles?
Yeah, well, in case you missed the latest — which wouldn’t have been hard, since the one-day story was instantly eclipsed by a Cabinet shakeup and a special election — that whole thing went away Monday with a mumbled “never mind” from the White House.
Apparently gun control is really hard, and you actually have to focus on it and change some minds and anger some of your friends, and why go through all that when you’ve already gotten the headline you were after. Kind of like the time in January when Trump did the same thing on immigration, summoning lawmakers from both parties to the White House and declaring his full support for a bipartisan compromise. That lasted until breakfast the next day.
And you can already see where this alleged breakthrough summit with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, is probably headed. The shocking announcement last Thursday played on TV like the dramatic opening of a thriller. It’s been a silent movie ever since.
We’ve been covering this presidency for more than a year now, and we’ve seen enough to know that it really isn’t the wild, unpredictable ride we keep saying it is, which is also what Trump would like you to believe. In fact, there’s a highly predictable pattern here, and it all adds up to a breathtaking hypocrisy.
The president who ran an entire campaign against the phoniness and timidity of conventional politics turns out to be phonier and more timid than any of those who came before.
This was Trump’s big appeal to a lot of moderate and independent voters who were understandably disgusted by the state of Washington — the ones who didn’t find his neo-nativism all that inspiring. Trump was supposed to be a man of action and deal-making.
Whatever came of it, good or ugly, this wasn’t a guy who would settle for a presidency built on empty slogans and Rose Garden photo-ops.
Trump’s pitch was that candidates were always talking about challenging the norms of Washington, but once they got elected, all they ever did was mouth platitudes from a teleprompter. That’s what Trump meant when he told an Ohio audience last year: “It’s so easy to act presidential, but that’s not going to get it done.”
He was back on this theme even last week, at a rally in Pennsylvania, when he comically mimicked the way a typical president is supposed to endorse candidates, shuffling around the stage and mumbling like a zombie.
Well, all right. But can you imagine, for a moment, what would have happened if President Obama had announced to the world a plan to remake the health care system, and then decided never to bring it up again?
Can you picture a world in which George W. Bush would have gone before Congress vowing to drive the Taliban from Afghanistan, and then issued a terse statement a few days later saying it was too hard so never mind?
This is exactly what Trump does, again and again. Forget the standard photo ops; his entire presidency, save for a giveaway-laden tax bill that actually originated in Congress, is a string of dramatic flourishes, without even the aspiration to translate them into something like actual governance.
Even this big tariff program he announced, which instantly sent world markets into a spiral, turns out to be mostly bravado. The administration is exempting our biggest source of steel imports, Canada, along with Mexico, and it’s already hinting at a deal with the Europeans. In the end, for all the big (and, I think, misguided) talk of protectionism, a fraction of imports will be affected.
And then there was Trump, just this week, visiting the prototype for his long-promised wall in San Diego. You know, the one the Mexicans were supposed to be paying for.
Theatrics, nothing more.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, too, another idea Trump floated the other day, bringing a thousand sleepy headline writers to life: a new space force for the military. (“That could be the big, breaking story,” Trump said helpfully, in case the assembled reporters didn’t know an entertaining nugget when they heard one.)
Never mind that this idea, as the Atlantic wisely noted, has already been out there a while, and Trump’s administration is on record opposing it. Trump was just looking for an attention-getter. He’ll have Mattis training junior Jedis in Disneyland before he ever gets around to following up on that one.
None of this should surprise us. As I’ve written many times, Trump personifies the entangling of politics and entertainment.
He comes from the world of “unscripted television,” which is only unscripted in the sense that the actual words aren’t written down for the actor to recite. The plot lines are pre-ordained and calibrated to explode in primetime, the overarching directive being to never bore an audience.
Before that, in the 1980’s, Trump honed his celebrity as New York’s serial self-promoter, gaming the gossip columnists the way J. Edgar Hoover once played Walter Winchell. Trump the socialite developer learned at least as much about building brands and expectations as he did about building gaudy towers.
Trump isn’t really a man of action. He’s a man of artifice. He talks and he talks and he talks, the world’s foremost expert on dominating a news cycle, knowing all along that by the time we realize none of it’s real, he’ll have ushered us along to whatever’s next.
And this is the point – that, as an industry, we who chronicle this president and his novel brand of politics seem always to be a step behind the game. During the primaries in 2016, the ratings-obsessed cable channels let Trump call in to shows and carried his rallies live and unedited. (They still do, apparently.)
Only when Trump was well on his way to the nomination did they realize that they’d been played for free advertising. By then, though, Trump had figured out that he could manipulate campaign coverage just by tweeting something outrageous whenever he wanted to change the subject.
Now that Trump is president, we’ve done what we must, which is to cover his various pronouncements with at least some of the solemnity the office demands. When the president of the United States says he’s warming to the idea of a new fleet of space soldiers, because maybe he caught the last half hour of “Contact” on Starz last weekend, we are duty bound to note it.
Generally, I think the media have done a pretty good job of injecting both fact-checking and skepticism into our coverage of Trump, in a way we would have resisted a generation ago.
But we’re still letting this president perform for the cameras as if he were actually planning to govern, without giving nearly as much attention to what happens on the issue once the cameras are gone. We’re still allowing ourselves to be carried along by one dramatic turn after another, because Trump knows instinctively that if he keeps us moving today, we won’t have time to dwell on whatever he promised yesterday.
Trump was dead right about our politics over the years — too much of it became a tired kind of stagecraft. But that kind of stagecraft was almost always designed to sell an agenda.
And that’s the distinction between a serious politician and a con artist. The latter only sells himself.
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