The Donald Trump Show is getting stale, old, and, frankly, a little bit boring.
President Trump’s big speech before Congress on Tuesday night was the epitome of the show. There was the gross hypocrisy of “the time for trivial fights is behind us,” the campy propagandism of creating a Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, the prepared remarks in all caps calling to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
Trump knows a thing or two about publicity stunts.
Shorn of context, to witness a president of the United States deliver a speech so devoid of the customary humility or sense of America’s role in the world would be shocking. Just as it would ordinarily be shocking to see a president attacking the media as the “enemy of the American people” or denouncing a “so-called judge” or any of the other dozen or so bizarre things that Trump does in a given week.
His campaign was fascinating from state to finish — if at times horrifying — because of the litany of similar novelties. His business — brand licensing and real estate — succeeded by the same attention seeking. His reality TV career is the same story.
But Trump is no longer a novelty candidate, a branding magnate, or a B-List TV show host. He’s now the president of the United States. He’s the subject of constant, obsessive media attention. And like any overexposed celebrity, he’s getting tiresome.
If you take any one moment from the Trump Show out of context, it’s striking. But together, Trump’s antics are now banal. He says, tweets, and does weird things. He gets attention. He pisses people off while thrilling others. Tonight, he even managed to attract attention and garner praise for slightly dialing it down. But speeches are supposed to be tools to help do the work of actually being president — learning about the issues, making decisions about trade-offs, and collaborating to get things done.
Amid the nonstop and increasingly tedious theatricality, Trump is only ever performing the role of the president; he’s never doing the job.
The Trump Show never stops
On the campaign trail, a politician gives speeches to energize supporters and to persuade the persuadable. The point of campaigning, for most politicians, is to try to win so they can govern.
When you take office, you continue to make speeches. But — especially if you are the president — the speeches then become handmaidens of governance. You give speeches to help put issues on the public agenda, to elevate a particular perspective in Congress, and to say something meaningful about priorities and trade-offs.
Trump has, it’s clear, no interest in governing. He only just discovered yesterday that health care policy is complicated. He claims to be deliberately leaving political appointments unfilled as some kind of gesture of small-government zeal, but in reality because he seems too lazy to come up with a properly vetted roster. He clearly had a blast campaigning but had no expectation that he would actually win. That allowed him to campaign in an unusually irresponsible manner — tossing off incoherent or impossible promises with no consideration of how difficult, or downright impossible, it would be to deliver on them.
The surreal campaign that resulted from this — the Trump Show — was a thing to behold. But having won, Trump now faces the humdrum task of turning his nonsense into something workable. Yet while there are certainly people plugging away at this — Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, Steve Bannon, Mick Mulvaney, and various Cabinet secretaries — Trump is clearly still focused on the show. Given the chance to reboot and explain what he wants to do, Trump simply gives another campaign rally speech.
Congress needs some presidential leadership
There are a whole bunch of issues pending in Congress on which it would be useful for the president of the United States to weigh in and attempt to shape the debate.
One such issue is the Affordable Care Act, where Republicans would, broadly speaking, like to rescind its tax increases on the rich and pay for them by cutting spending on providing insurance to the poor and the middle class. Some Republicans have gotten leery about the practical implications of this approach, and are now talking about restraining their ambitions somewhat — leaving the Medicaid expansion in place, for example, or giving states the option to retain the ACA framework. Others are adhering dogmatically to the view that the spending must all go.
Some indication from Trump about what he is willing to accept and what he thinks should be done would be useful. Instead, he gave us — as he invariably does when he discusses the topic — vague platitudes about how “we should help Americans purchase their own coverage,” with no word on how generous that help should be or how it should be paid for.
On tax reform, things are much the same. Trump claims that his “team is developing historic tax reform” but told us nothing of the trade-offs it might entail or when a full plan might be available.
He talked, extensively, about trade, as he always does. But he talked about it vaguely, as he always does. He said future deals would be “fair” without saying anything about what they would look like or how they would be achieved. The infrastructure portion of the speech described no particular plan, and the reference to a more “merit-based” system for legal immigration likewise offered no details.
Nobody who’s watched anything Trump has said over the past six months learned anything new, in part because it’s rarely clear whether even Trump cares about the details of what he says.
You can’t parse a president who doesn’t sweat the details
In a normal address of this sort, the role of a policy reporter is to serve as a kind of translator. Having spent days, weeks, and months following policy debates in Washington, we are able to catch the quick references in the president’s speech and understand them in fuller context. In that spirit, for example, I might note that Trumps’ reference to creating “a level playing field for American companies and workers” appears to be a move toward endorsing a controversial corporate income tax reform that big exporters like but retail chains hate.
The problem is that to draw that conclusion would require us to believe the speech went through a traditional drafting process. That the Treasury secretary and the National Economic Council director and the legislative liaison staff all briefed the president on the meaning of the line, and that he therefore made a coherent, deliberate effort to embrace this plan.
I feel like I can actually hear the editing battles between Bannon and Priebus in this speech. The tonality really veers around.— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) March 1, 2017
But here’s another theory. The speech seems to be largely the product of tensions between Reince Priebus’s traditional Republican Party ideology and Steve Bannon’s populist nationalism. Priebus is close to Paul Ryan, who likes the controversial tax reform. But one interpretation of the tax reform idea is that it’s protectionist trade policy, which Bannon likes. So the two of them may have put the line into the speech even though Senate Republicans and the Trump administration economic team seem to think it’s a bad idea.
The premise of taking a close look at these speeches to read the tea leaves, in short, is that the president actually understands the policy issues facing him and cares about the words he’s speaking. With Trump, that’s far from true. He doesn’t like to read briefing books or make hard choices. His words about clean air or infrastructure or anything else are completely meaningless until we see real plans. And there’s no real indication that we ever will. The show is an increasingly meaningless spectacle.
The real story is what’s happening in America
None of this is to say that the Trump administration, as a phenomenon, isn’t important. American politics and government are always important because they directly impact the lives of millions of people.
The Trump show doesn’t matter. What matters is that thousands of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents in cities across America now feel they have been “unchained” to start enforcing immigration law in a more random, more terrifying manner. Beyond the details of Trump’s executive orders, reports of Customs and Border Patrol agents at airports stepping up their level of aggression in detaining and questioning harmless foreigners have been ubiquitous. Jewish community centers around the country are experiencing an unprecedented surge of bomb threats. The new attorney general is openly dismissive of Justice Department inquiries into racism and abuses at police departments nationwide — meaning that misconduct issues are likely to become more severe.
At the same time, Trump’s victory has caused mobilization on the American left that is faster and more powerful than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. From the millions who participated in Women’s March events on inauguration weekend to the rapid-fire mobilization of people and lawyers to counter the first iteration of Trump’s travel ban, people are active.
This resistance to Trump is flooding congressional town hall meetings and has thrown the GOP’s health care strategy into disarray — taking the larger legislative agenda with it. Despite considerably lingering tensions between supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Bernie Sanders, Democrats are, on a practical level, working together against Trump — exemplified by Keith Ellison taking Tom Perez, who recently bested him in the race for DNC chair, as his guest to the speech.
The real-world consequences of Trump’s governance matters enormously, and so does the pushback Trump is getting. The struggles between the forces Trump has empowered and emboldened and those he has frightened and energized will determine the future course of the country. But the Trump Show itself — the series of tweets, speeches, interviews, and provocations undertaken by the president of the United States in lieu of governing — is tedious and irrelevant. It’s time to start learning how to tune it out.