Trump and the Limits of Showmanship

Thursday was another roller coaster day at the Trump White House. During an interview on Fox News, the president's Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, said that the Trump had 'evolved' on his signature issue. The next morning, the president via Twitter, of course, contradicted General Kelly and asserted nothing had changed; his commitment to build the wall and have Mexico pay for it was as firm as ever - just the latest example of mixed signals, confusion emanating from the White House.

When General Kelly replaced Reince Preibus, I prematurely celebrated the White House turning the corner.  I mistakenly attributed to Priebus the chaos and turmoil that marked the first six months of the Trump administration. In my defense, I did not have the benefit of watching Trump in action - something that I was finally able to do thanks to his televised meeting with congressional leaders to hash out a bipartisan deal on DACA.

While the media celebrated the live coverage of the meeting as an unprecedented chance for the public to see ‘the sausage being made’ (as if politicos didn't change their behavior once aware cameras were rolling), conservative talk and television personalities were solely focused on praising the president's performance.  I happened to be listening to Rush Limbaugh as the meeting was being broadcast live and El Rusbo’s instant analysis was that the meeting was not about crafting a compromise on immigration. Rather, the meeting was designed to show the president fully in command and not some demented child portrayed in Wolff's book 'Fire and Fury'. Coincidentally, the same talking points were used later in the day by Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Now that I think about it, perhaps Rush's political analysis is not astute or insightful; he simply receives talking points ahead of other commentators. 

The one conservative pundit who clearly doesn’t receive talking points from the White House is Ann Coulter. She called the meeting 'the lowest day of the Trump presidency". She added the president fulfilled every description of him in the Wolf book. He doesn't listen, doesn't have command of the issues, he agrees with the last person he talks to. Although I do not agree with Coulter's harsh assessment, the president’s performance was far from masterful. What I saw was a man clearly out of his depth and bluffing his way through the meeting.

It was obvious to me that Trump has spent no time studying, examining or thinking about the issues. Many have reported that in private Trump is much more a listener than a talker and that he asks many questions. I have no doubt - after watching the meeting - that this is true. However, I don't see it as a sign of great intellectual curiosity but rather a bluffing mechanism. Trump would never be able to go toe-to-toe with someone who had done his homework. By asking lots of questions Trump is able to hide his ignorance and come across being a 'listener'.

I am not suggesting that Trump is not an intelligent man; he clearly is and has excellent political instincts. It just that he’s not interested in learning the issues or settling on a particular ideology. Above all Trump is a showman. He knows how to entertain the masses and draw attention to himself and as such the only measure of success that matters to him is ratings, great reviews and long lines to see his show. This explain why Trump spent a great deal of time during his campaign rallies talking about the latest polls - the political equivalent of ratings – showing him ahead, the crowd size and the ‘thousands’ outside who 'could no get in'. This explains his obsession with media coverage, having to discredit the Wolff book at all costs. Trump doesn’t measure success in terms of whether the policy has merit or whether it’s a step towards the objective he’s trying to achieve.  As a showman, Trump only judges success in terms of good polls and good reviews from the elite media such as the New York Times.

By relying on his skills as a showman, combined with his refusal to bow down to political correctness, Trump crafted a winning campaign. Unbound by ideology, Trump was able to adopt policy positions based on audience reaction. I will make an exception for trade since he has consistently for decades decried free trade as devastating for the American working class. On every other issues Trump has taken multiple positions, changed his mind sometimes in a matter of hours. Just look at the recent roller coaster on DACA. During the meeting Trump said he would sign whatever Congress will put on his desk only to reject the first deal offered.

In all likelihood, Trump came up with his policy agenda as follows – again with the exception of trade. He read Breitbart and other right-leaning sites, listened to talk radio (probably Michael Savage) and picked up a copy of Ann Coulter's "Adios, America" and scanned through the book. I seriously doubt he read it through -- he doesn't strike me as someone who will take the time to read an entire book on any subject. He picked up certain themes and went about testing them with the audience. Building the wall along the southern border proved to be an immediate hit and more hits were accumulated along the way such as the Muslim ban.

Once Trump reached the White House he found himself with an agenda that he wasn’t committed to and nearly impossible to get through Congress. He surrounded himself with different factions presenting different approaches to governing – the showman again trying to find the next hit. He probably felt like a pinball bouncing from one faction to another, trying to get his popularity up but that’s his only measure of success and not what is right for the country or what he promised on the campaign trail.  And that is why there is no end in in sight to the wild roller coaster ride that began a year ago.