Trump Media Narratives That Won’t Die
There are quite a few media narratives about Trump. They exist only because they are perpetuated. Earnest journalists and pundits repeat them over and over again, lending them credibility. But in reality, there is little if any evidence to support them as independent theories.
There’s the Trump-as-a-magician narrative. Trump deploys strategically placed maneuvers and distractions as a way to dictate coverage and implement his agenda. He is playing chess, we are playing checkers. There is always a grand, overarching strategy or game plan that supersedes all the seemingly illogical tweets.
The problem? It isn’t true. Take two recent examples.
In November of 2018, the Washington Post reported Ivanka Trump had used her personal email account for official government interactions, a violation of federal law and quite hypocritical for a member of the Clinton-lock-her-up family.
The next morning, following the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the president personally dictated an official White House statement with eight exclamation marks, beginning with “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!”
According to John Bolton, Trump then told advisors that “this will divert from Ivanka.”
“If I read the statement in person, that will take over the Ivanka thing,” he added.
Second, there is the now infamous Bible photo-op. The president, moments after declaring himself an ally to peaceful protestors, removed such protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades to pose with an upside down Bible across from a Church he’s been to once.
The idea to stage the photo-op only came after reports of Trump hiding in a bunker leaked to the media, enraging the president. Trump, desperate to change the news cycle, walked outside in an attempt to prove he wasn’t scared of protestors.
Given these examples and countless others, it is hard to imagine that there is some grand scheme. Or that he is some four dimensional chess master. Trump isn’t proactively setting traps, he’s reactively trying to survive. One of the first in-depth looks at the Trump administration, by the New York Times, was aptly titled, “Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation.”
This is your puppeteer?
There’s also the Teflon Don narrative, the idea that nothing sticks to this president. But there’s evidence that Americans are moving away from the constant headache of Trump’s presidency. He has recently claimed 96% approval within his party seven times. The actual number is quite lower. His overall approval rating sits at 38%, and those that “strongly disapprove” of him double those that “strongly approve” of him.
There’s also the Trumpian “madman” fallacy, which contends that the President is unpredictable, a supposed strength in negotiations. This, too, is false.
But the most abhorrent Trump media narrative is the “tone” trope.
“‘It’ll get worse before it gets better’ — Trump shifts tone, asks Americans to wear masks,” “Trump, sinking in polls, shifts tone on virus,” and “Trump Reboots Virus Briefings With Warning and a Shift in Tone” were just a few of the headlines to emerge after Trump’s first coronavirus briefing since April.
Trump’s performance, which included wishing an accused child sex trafficker well, was exalted by a fawning press. The comedian Trevor Noah compiled a montage of mainstream media figures heaping praise on Trump’s “tone,” “pivot,” or “somberness.”
Beforehand, the briefing was teased in an effort to boost ratings, the ultimate pleasure source for Donald Trump. When asked if Dr. Fauci would be present, the press secretary replied, “you’ll have to tune in to see.”
“I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching in the history of cable television. There’s never been anything like it,” Trump said in the lead up to the briefing.
“We had a good slot,” he added, referring to the prime time slot his briefings once held.
The briefing was short on new information or expert advice and long on the usual bluster. Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci were noticeably absent at the briefing. Even Vice President Pence was nowhere to be seen.
Mental gymnastics are required to label such an ordinary showing as a “pivot” to something novel. Lies about the national stockpile, travel restrictions, supplies, the fatality rate, and even the Veteran’s Choice Act littered the briefing. The usual pugnacious tone during the question and answer segment of the press event should have precluded any media narrative that Trump had fundamentally changed.
Trump, who is down in the polls, needs a boost. The media complied. Earlier this year, the Daily Beast reported that Trump is acutely aware of how to manipulate media coverage of himself. By feigning somberness, Trump learned that he could get positive headlines.
“It’s so easy, can you believe it?” the president said in 2017. “All I had to do was be a little nice… and do something beautiful [and now they’re] saying all these terrific things about Trump.”
The media’s fascination with season two of the Clorox variety hour is centered around one line. “It will get worse before it gets better,” Trump muttered. That’s all Trump had to do to get positive coverage. Utter one fact. Acknowledge one so glaringly obvious certitude.
There was no pivot. He can’t do that. And even if some foolish naif were to believe in such a fairy tale, the magic dust would soon be washed away when commonplace Trumpian antics return.
And even if there was a pivot, which there was not, and even if this pivot were not temporary, which it would be, why did it take so long? The virus has killed 144,000 Americans, and it took Trump months to don a mask. Republican aides have admitted that Trump has gotten bored with the virus.
I understand why Trump would feign soberness. What I can’t understand, and perhaps never will, is how the media falls for it.