When did our bar get so low that a lying, cheating, women-abusing, immigrant-bashing, Russian-colluding, hate-and-fear mongering, alt-right supporting (and supported) businessman of negligible ethics and integrity suddenly became “presidential” just because he got through a ghost-written, teleprompted speech without falling off the stage, while trotting out predictable sideshows handpicked for maximum visceral and visual wallop?
Are we so desperate to get past this national nightmare we’ve been in since November 8th, 2016, that we’re willing to strap on the same blinders Trump supporters wear 24/7 and redefine what the word “presidential” means, to actually diminish its value to an adjective akin to giving a third-grader an award just for showing up to class?
I don’t know about you, but I’m disinclined.
Yet, despite giving a speech that, in the much-less-amber glow of morning, has been noted for its expected saturation of Trumpian prevarications (”Donald Trump has completed his first ever speech to Congress as President. And almost every major claim made in it appeared to be false.” Independent), pundits galore, notably from media deigned as “fake news” by the purportedly now-presidential Emperor With No Clothes, were literally flush with admiration for the man who, days/hours earlier, was denigrating them for their cravenness and dishonesty... as he signed away legislation to protect natural waterways against polluters, LGBT citizens against discrimination, and American lives against mentally ill persons attaining guns.
While David Axelrod cooed, “If I’m the Trump team I’m very, very happy with this speech,” Van Jones, a heretofore liberal soldier who’s been exceedingly vocal in his push for #Resistance and the ascendance of his #LoveArmy, was apparently so swept away by Trump’s dog-and-pony show he actually extolled: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.” This was after Trump shot a spotlight on Carryn Owens, the widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in the botched raid in Yemen... you know, the one that Trump blamed on the military, on President Obama, and, if he could have, probably Hillary Clinton and the purple Teletubbie.
When even the father of the heroic Ryan slammed Trump days before the speech for his opportunistic co-option of his son’s death as a talking point — “Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?” — how is it that smart men like Axelrod, Jones, and others in the media were so smitten by the transparent gesture?
America has Battered Wife Syndrome. Or, in this case, do we call it Battered Citizen Syndrome?
You know the script: “All’s forgiven. Again. But look how good he’s being! We’re pretty sure he’ll be better from now on. He promised there won’t be a next time. He’s actually a really nice guy. He didn’t mean it. He kind of apologized. It was an open fist. He really does care about us. We’re stuck with him. It’s better to work with him than against him. If we treat him nicely he won’t hurt us. We have no where else to go anyway.”
Should we feel sorry for the media at this point? Do we forgive them for their malleability? It’s tough out there in Trump world, so I get the predisposition for journalistic whiplash. But I, for one, was gut-punched by the degree with which they fawned over the political theater of Trump’s first speech to Congress. It felt like a betrayal of sorts... and just as we were starting to feel defensive of our free press after Trump’s persistent bashing!
Is it that, after being so soundly scolded and smited from the guest list, some in media are desperate to get back in? That seems too simple, but both Jones and Axelrod work for and with the same media that Trump has barred from the table after repetitively denouncing them as “the enemy of the people,” as “fake news,” as horrible, terrible, really, really bad, dishonest folks who don’t like him and are out to do him wrong. In fact, he made this point with particular hysteria in a speech only days ago that was so rambling, so irrational, hostile, and alarming that even Trump himself predicted the reviews: “Tomorrow, they will say: ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.” And for once he was right. That is what they said. Because that is what he did. And it was irrational, hostile, and alarming.
And yet, here we are, days later, and these same guys are literally fawning over a speech that was rife with incorrect facts and unsupported campaign-like promises, accented by the appearances of key personnel meant to push viral buttons, even (and I can’t stop shaking my head at this one) a disabled person, Megan Crowley, featured, clearly, to wash away the stench of Trump’s “hilarious” mocking of a disabled reporter. Vox:
After mocking a disabled reporter during his presidential campaign (twice), which, according to one poll, people considered one of the most inexcusable acts over the course of his entire campaign, Trump has angered some disability advocates by using a woman with a disability, Megan Crowley, as a vehicle to justify his stance on loosening regulation on the Food and Drug Administration. Crowley who had the rare illness Pompe disease, was saved by an innovative treatment created by a company her father launched in 1999.
“This is not the moment to use disability as a prop,” Kate Meuser, who has cerebral palsy and works in marketing in Washington, DC, told Vox. “[Megan’s] father founded a company to find a cure. Many people don’t have that luxury.” Though Meuser recognized Trump’s probable intention to “make a point,” she said she is more concerned about the future of the Affordable Care Act, since she, like many others living with disabilities, depends on the program.
And that’s the point, really: while Trump has clearly been coached and coddled and coerced into acting more palatably presidential for the sake of a high profile speech, he is still the crass, craven, calculating despot leading the charge on dismantling the Affordable Care Act, still spearheading raids to rip immigrants out of hospital beds, still grinning as he signs executive orders negating environmental protections; still Tweeting sophomoric insults to world leaders, famous actresses, fellow businessmen, and politicians who see through his inept buffoonery.
He’s still the man who defines black lives in terms of crime-ridden “ghettos,” women’s healthcare as bargaining chips in the hands of old white men; still marginalizes all Muslims as potential terrorists and immigrants as “bad hombres” to corral behind walls. He’s still the conman who was ordered to settle, for millions, with unwitting Trump University students; who’s used bankruptcy as a standard business practice, who’s refused to reveal his taxes (and likely hasn’t paid any), and has more conflicts of interest than tubes of skin bronzer. He’s still the guy who demeaned President Obama as less of a leader than Putin, and, it seems likely, still the guy who colluded, in some form or another, with that wily Russian to tip our election.
He’s still the man who, despite his expressed antipathy for “fake news” and “leaks,” spent years denigrating President Obama as a non-American based on purported “facts” he could never deliver and “leaks” that didn’t exist. He’s still the man who publicly shows disrespect to his wife while carrying the baggage of sexual assault acts and abuse braggadocio against women. He’s still the man who screamed about Hillary Clinton’s emails and server and telephone and is now conducting secure national business at dinner tables surrounded by invited guests. He’s still the man who promised to “make America great again” by draining the swamp and yet appointed Cabinet members of dubious ethics, backgrounds, qualifications, and aptitudes for the jobs. He’s still the guy who never failed to criticize Clinton for giving well-paid speeches to Goldman Sachs but who now has a staff stuffed with former members of that same company.
He’s still... Donald Trump. Liar. Pretender. Conniver. Manipulator. Aggrandizer. Xenophobe. Fear mongerer and hate purveyor. Yet, somehow, in the blink of a crafted speech, he’s become “more presidential”... just for showing up to class like the errant third-grader.
Thankfully, some in media are not dropping to their knees: John Cassidy at The New Yorker published “DON’T BE FOOLED, DONALD TRUMP DIDN’T PIVOT” Wednesday morning. Michael Grunwald at Politico penned the cautionary, “Salesman-in-chief: Last night Trump promised America could have all the cake it wants, and lose weight too. What happens when he needs to deliver?” Richard Wolff at The Guardian pointed out that “The president’s first address to Congress was full of inconsistency when compared to his words and deeds in the White House,” in “Donald Trump’s Congress speech was a heroic effort in contradiction and cliche” (though I might quibble with the word “heroic”).
If one well-choreographed, lie-saturated, manipulative speech is all it takes for some to forget the abuse, the fear, the hate, the denigrations, the embarrassments, the shameful lack of dignity, decorum, respect, consideration, and political intelligence we used to demand from presidents, the bar is set too low. If the impulse is to declare him “presidential,” to conjure up optimism, to normalize his fascistic tendencies and actions, the bar is set too low. If we can look up from the floor, raise our pleading, blackened eyes to see our abuser as someone to aggrandize, forgive, and capitulate to, our bar is set too low.
We are not the battered captives of an abusive overlord; we are not, and should not be, easily manipulated by pander and propaganda. We are idealistic, compassionate, truth seeking Americans who demand and expect the best, the wisest, the most intelligent words and deeds from our presidents.
That didn’t change last night. And we still do not have that president.