I don’t expect to be writing every day, but things are flowing fast and I started a few days behind the inauguration. Trump specializes in generating noise, and making it difficult to sort out what noise is important. This works to his benefit to obscure his executive actions, which already include a partial freeze of federal hiring (except for military, national security, and public security), suspending EPA grants and contracts, reviving the Keystone pipeline, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and suspending mortgage rate cuts, but I can’t see it helping in terms of building public or even Congressional support for any particular course of action. There’s just no focus or discipline.
Likewise, the big story of this weekend was Trump’s debate over the size of the crowds at his inauguration. Some said that this was an attempt to put the media in their place and cow them. It was, but it was also the Trump administration making a virtue out of necessity. Ranting about crowd size when trying to make nice with the CIA, as Trump did on Saturday, is an act of pure instinct, not of strategy. Trump’s instincts have gotten him pretty far, but they also limit his scope for action far more than they would a strategist. When FDR took office, no one really had any idea what he would do.
People don’t trust the media today: a late 2016 Gallup poll put them at 84% untrusted, only slightly below Congress. And Trump leveraged that incredibly effectively during the campaign, because people liked to see Trump beat up on the press. But as a ruling strategy it seems good for generating attention and creating distractions, but questionable for more than that. Sean Spicer’s humiliating climb-down yesterday, where he made nice with the press after calling them a bunch of lying liars on Saturday, was probably the biggest show of weakness ever for the Trump campaign. (I wrote “campaign” instead of “administration” by accident, but I’m leaving it because it seems quite appropriate.) I can’t think of a worse climb-down. Even Trump’s catatonic half-apology for his “locker room talk” was less humiliating, because it was clear Trump didn’t mean any of the things he was saying. Spicer really was trying to make nice. And I cannot imagine it was a hit with the press-haters. “Why is Spicer being so nice to these horrible journalists? What do they have on him and Trump?” Since Trump’s entire career has been one of confidence games, this is the sort of thing that can start to erode confidence.
On Monday, Spicer seemed to appeal for sympathy from the press, saying how deeply Trump is affected by press coverage:
I think it’s unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough…He keeps getting told what he can’t do by this narrative that’s out there…It’s frustrating for not just him, but I think so many of us that are trying to work to get this message out…he narrative and default narrative is always negative. And it’s demoralizing…So, when you wake up every day and that’s what you’re seeing over and over again and you’re not seeing stories about the cabinet folks that he’s putting or the success he’s having trying to keep American jobs here, yeah, it is a little disappointing.
Maybe appealing to the press for pity will work. But it doesn’t sit easily next to the bullying, and Trump is supposed to be the man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. If he’s frustrated and demoralized and disappointed three days into the presidency, he’ll most likely have a lot more of that ahead of him. It does make Trump a model representative of his time, where “You’re a horrible human being who deserves to be bullied! / Whoa, why are you being so mean to me?” has become the default rhetorical strategy of every political faction on Twitter (and quite a few other places), but I fail to see the strength in Trump adopting that strategy. It looks weak. I wish I could have heard the discussions that resulted in Spicer’s choice of engagement on Monday. Four years of bullying the press might not have worked, but surely it would have worked better than this?
And at least some of Trump’s cronies agree. There appears to be at least some sort of fifth column in the Trump administration that’s trying very hard to rein him in by any means necessary. Last August, I wrote:
Trump is one of the most emotionally needy figures in American political history…Trump stands out from other demagogues in that he did not seek political influence from a young age. His overriding concern is not power but love, or at least attention. For most demagogues, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Putin, the love and devotion of the public serve to shore up their political power; with Trump, it is the other way round.
The anonymous administration leaks (from dozens of people, apparently) to the top two papers of record and Politico paint exactly this portrait:
New York Times: Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury. While Mr. Trump was eager to counterattack, several senior advisers urged him to move on and focus on the responsibilities of office during his first full day as president. But Mr. Spicer, who often berated reporters for what he called biased coverage during the campaign, shares Mr. Trump’s dark view of the news media and advocated an opening-day declaration of war.
Washington Post: But Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers — who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency — the new president issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary. But in Trump’s mind, Spicer’s attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.
Politico: One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.
Russia experts can correct me here, but I strongly suspect that Russia’s newspapers have never written things like this about Putin. These descriptions of Trump’s tantrums do not seem fitting for a man who attracts the half-ironic term “God Emperor” from his most fervent supporters. (Actually, describing Trump as a disgusting, unlovable mutant half-worm who thinks he’s the center of the universe and never shuts up may not be so far off the mark, but I would never make such an unflattering comparison.)
Trump cares about love and his own image more than he cares about politics or power, and that is not a survival trait for where he is. I’m sure he’s wishing he could be back at rallies right now, with his adoring crowds. Or at the least, he wishes for some new achievement to pursue. “For me, the important thing is the getting, not the having,” said his ghostwriter in one of his books. What Trump wants to get is fame and approval. But in DC, the only people around to obtain approval from are the national elites. Is it possible that Trump will decide he needs the approval of the press? If he can’t get it by bullying, what will he do? I really don’t know.
The short-term solution is probably the Supreme Court nomination. Assuming Trump picks a hard-line base favorite like Scalia-clone William Pryor, the negative attention will shift onto the nominee and away from Trump, giving him and his administration some breathing room to get their act together. I wouldn’t put it past Trump to pull a Harriet Miers and nominate a crony of his (Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen would be hilarious), but I just can’t see that happening in this tense of a situation. Still, I have lower confidence in my predicted outcomes than I did a few months ago. 2016 was as much an “Everything you know is wrong” year as 2001 was. We’re pretty much living a Firesign Theater album.
A final note on the enormous Women’s March protests. I went back and forth in my mind over their utility. They demonstrate the size of the opposition to Trump, but they won’t prevent him from nominating a far-right Supreme Court judge, or much of anything else. I am not by nature a marcher, disliking being part of a crowd and most comfortable staking out my own position, but I think this caused me to underestimate the therapeutic role the marches played. I get the sense they have restored some of the social cohesion and sense of normality that was thrown up in the air after Trump’s election. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad sort of normality either; rather, it’s one that allows people to feel more comfortable with getting back to their everyday lives. That can easily become complacency, but the mass hysteria and loss of perspective that dominated in November and December was mostly impotent. The march, I think, put a damper on the trauma cycles that were proving incredibly unhealthy on the left. The public competition over who was most demonstrably traumatized by Trump’s election and Clinton’s loss were not just gauche, but toxic. I hope they’re at an end.