Matthew Yglesias comments on the Trump show after the President's speech to Congress on vox.com.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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