Well, so much for that “pivot.” On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump slowly read some complete English sentences from a teleprompter, and the pundit class went wild, declaring to everyone who would listen that the great transformation of a reality television boor into a real-live human of presidential-like substance had finally transpired.
Some hours later came the next few turns of the screw: a slew of U.S. officials disputing Trump’s claim that his botched SEAL raid had yielded actionable intelligence, and a new Washington Post bombshell intimating that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak ― in direct contradiction to testimony Sessions had offered at his Senate confirmation hearings.
And with that, the White House was once again plunged into chaos, the media narrative had been sent to Media Narrative Heaven, and all those who’d boldly proclaimed the at-long-last-coming of the presidential pivot deservedly found themselves wearing the dunce cap. On this week’s edition of the “So That Happened” podcast, we examine the extraordinary turn of events.
It’s anybody’s guess why the commentariat would get so invested in the hope of a Trump transformation. The search for life on Mars is closer to being realized than the quest to discover the “better” Donald Trump. And it’s not like there hasn’t been sufficient warning. For the past month-and-a-half, the Trump White House has been a chaotic farce, each day hitting a new vein of flop sweat ― which then floods the newshole to bursting.
It’s not just the constant leaks, astonishing revelations and confused policies that underscore the disorder. This White House fails at the mundane mechanics of the office, like briefing relevant agencies on executive orders, learning the ethics guidance that would forestall easily preventable errors, and remembering not to conduct important national security discussions in full view of the Mar-a-Lago membership.
At this point, imagining that Trump is going to “pivot” is akin to Charlie Brown believing that this time he’s going to kick the football Lucy is holding straight through the uprights. Stay tuned for the new Peanuts special, “Well, It’s A Hard Lesson, Charlie Brown.”
The news that arrived the day after Trump’s speech to Congress dealt a similar lesson. But why was that speech in particular seen as the force that would arrest the Trump White House’s continued, certain trajectory? It offered no real shift in policy or governing philosophy. The big announcement was Trump’s intention to create some special office to demonize immigrants under the guise of supporting victims of crime. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that victims of crime already get a lot of state support and that the immigrant community is much less likely to commit criminal acts than the rest of us.
There was, of course, a lengthy applause break for the widow of fallen Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens ― which Trump used to perform his “appreciate the congrats” routine, stealing another man’s adulation for himself. Which came, by the way, not long after Trump denied any personal responsibility for Owen’s death. One wonders what might have happened if President Barack Obama had pulled a similar self-congratulatory stunt on the back of a dead soldier. Or, at least, I thought it was right to wonder what might have happened. Apparently, this is OK now.
So what was it that sold Pundit World so completely on a presidential pivot? How did they come to extract this idea and so assuredly herald it to their audiences?
It goes without saying that the media have had a fraught relationship with Donald Trump. But beyond our tendency to shovel him onto our screens willy-nilly and our failure to come to grips with his appeal, there are deeper pathologies at work.
Over at Deadspin, Alex Pareene deftly identified one of them:
Here’s what you have to understand about the sort of people who become anchors, nonpartisan pundits, centrist columnists, and cable news political correspondents: They didn’t sign up to be the resistance. They don’t want Donald Trump to fail. They want him to “pivot” and “act presidential.”
Yeah, there are guys (and it is guys, for the most part) out there who spend their whole careers trying to be Dan Rather staring down Nixon or Cronkite turning on Vietnam ― or even just Tim Russert making some elected mediocrity stammer with a patented “tough question” ― but mostly these guys want to be witnesses to Great Men Making History. They want to Respect The Office Of The Presidency.
This is true. There are an astounding number of people in this industry who don’t really live in America in any meaningful way. They make no claim to being civic participants. They are merely audience members at the Great Drama of Politics, offering up their Statlerisms and Waldorfitude from the balconies above the fray, seeing the citizens who get ground up in the gears of our politics ― the victims of travel bans and financial calamities ― as mere background actors in a bad movie about Great Men (mostly men, anyway), the power they wield and their electoral fortunes. To this crowd, the demonization of immigrants or the misery of foreclosure victims is just an interesting part of the scenery.
Politics is merely a game to them, and they’re the sports reporters. “Team Red really surmounted the challenge of the opioid crisis on their way to a touchdown, but we’ll see if Team Blue can capitalize on North Carolina’s transgender bathroom ban!” Work long enough in this industry, and you’ll discover that one of the ways you can really limit your career opportunities is to insist on maintaining some sort of kinship with ordinary people. More often than not, the rewards accrue to those who can most effectively confuse objectivity with viewlessness.
This all goes along, day by day, and it helps to instill the notion that the media don’t really have a duty to anybody. But that isn’t entirely true. Back in September, the New Republic’s Brian Beutler found where the media’s duty truly lies while picking through some “basic anthropological facts about the press itself”:
The press is not a pro-democracy trade, it is a pro-media trade. By and large, it doesn’t act as a guardian of civic norms and liberal institutions ― except when press freedoms and access itself are at stake. Much like an advocacy group or lobbying firm will reserve value judgments for issues that directly touch upon the things they’re invested in, reporters and media organizations are far more concerned with things like transparency, the treatment of reporters, and first-in-line access to information of public interest, than they are with other forms of democratic accountability.
That’s not a value set that’s well calibrated to gauging Trump’s unmatched, omnidirectional assault on our civil life. Trump can do and say outrageous things all the time, and those things get covered in a familiar “did he really say that?” fashion, but his individual controversies don’t usually get sustained negative coverage unless he is specifically undermining press freedom in some clear and simple way.
Emphasis mine, because that last sentence holds the key to this whole mystery. What part of Trumpism always seems to animate the media to action and skepticism? Attacks on the media.
And what one feature of Trump’s typical orations was noticeably missing from his address to Congress? An attack on the media.
If Trump sneaks away from the press pool to have a steak dinner, you will have every J-School mope with a Twitter account lecturing him about what a terrible contravention of norms that is. If he keeps calling the press the “enemy of the people,” well, I don’t know, media executives might have to rethink the White House Correspondents Dinner, harrumph harrumph!
Meanwhile, anyone with any relevant political interests beyond this one part of the First Amendment is standing around wondering where all that passion goes when they’re the ones under the hammer.
In an amazing turn of events, it turns out that the White House was completely shocked that they’d won the fervent praise of the pundit class so cheaply:
Don’t be shocked yourself. This is the pattern you will see time and again: As soon as Trump gives the media a moment’s peace, he becomes “presidential.” Nothing else ― the lies, the divisive policy proposals, the gratuitous ego-stroking ― matters. Flatter the press, earn a pivot. This is how that works.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here.