Will someone please let me in on the joke? Or give me the key to the secret portal of Donald Trump knowledge that will help me to understand why everyone swoons every time the guy manages to get through a ten-minute speech without a major gaffe? Everyone knows that both of his speeches on Wednesday were written by consultants and that Trump was merely reading words off the paper and teleprompter, right? What am I missing here?
It wasn’t all that long ago we were relentlessly mocking Barack Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter. Remember all the fun we had talking about how Obama was unable to answer even basic questions unless the answers were loaded into his teleprompter? There was a whole blog dedicated to the topic. Or did I just imagine all that? How did things get so turned around in 2016 that reading a teleprompter is considered an advanced presidential ninja skill, just because Donald Trump is doing it now? The answer is twofold, of course. First, Trump’s thin knowledge of public policy makes his consultants quake in their shoes anytime he’s asked questions about things like the nuclear triad or the UN Security Council. Second is Trump’s penchant for saying obnoxious, offensive, and outright stupid things when he goes off script.
But…OMG DONALD TRUMP STAYED ON THE TELEPROMPTER FOR THE WHOLE SPEECH—SO PRESIDENTIAL!!!
Bakari Sellers described it perfectly on CNN tonight as the “soft bigotry of low expectations” Trump’s supporters have for him.
Has there ever been a presidential candidate in U.S. history for whom the bar has been set so low? As long as Trump gets through a speech without swearing, screaming at a reporter, or spewing a racial epithet it’s lauded as brilliant and “Reaganesque” as Jeffrey Lord described his press conference with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico today. Is Trump really the second coming of Reagan after one meeting with the Mexican president (a meeting that may have made things worse if you believe Peña Nieto’s account of it)? If that’s the case, why wait? Let’s just give him the Nobel Peace Prize now in anticipation of all the tremendous and YUGE world peace we’re going to enjoy once he’s president. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to the loyal Trump fans out there who despised the “Obamabots” for their near worship of His Greatness, the one who was going to lower the sea levels?
What I don’t understand is how his loyal fans reconcile the two conflicting iterations of Donald Trump. First, there’s the Real Trump (@realDonaldTrump on Twitter), untethered from notes and teleprompter, words escaping from his lips in rapid, stream-of-consciousness succession, more often than not wholly disconnected from substantive policy positions. Real Trump speaks in sound bites, slogans, and simple sentences (“So many people. So, so many people. So sad.”) This is the Trump beloved by his supporters, the only saviour of the USA who can do no wrong in their eyes.
Then there’s the Donald Trump who was created in a board room by Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon—a poll-tested Manchurian candidate, chained to his teleprompter and reading words—strung together in compound sentences—that are not his own. With Manchurian Trump everything is negotiable—even the border wall and amnesty—and his fans don’t care. Everything he says is brilliant and part of the plan somehow (Rush said so!). Again, I don’t have the key to the secret portal, so I’m at a loss to explain the thought processes behind these rationalizations. Manchurian Trump is subdued, bland, and under the watchful eyes of his consultants at all times. Whenever he’s wheeled out, the accompanying media soundtrack resembles conversations you’d hear on the way home from a visit to the nursing home: “Grandma had a good day today, didn’t she? She ate most of her strained peas.” Or “Grandpa made it through ‘Wheel of Fortune’ tonight without ogling any nurses! Maybe he’s turning a corner.”
Look, I understand the desperate impulse to look for some sign that Trump is not the person he’s proven himself to be day in and day out over the course of this excruciatingly long campaign. But let’s at least be honest about what we’re dealing with here. A 10-minute scripted speech (or three or four of them) a week after he hired a new campaign team doesn’t fundamentally change who the man is. Love him or hate him, the brash, fire-breathing, thin-skinned midnight tweeter is, in fact, the man at the top of the Republican ticket. Even the Great and Terrible Steve Bannon and the lovely and talented Kellyanne Conway cannot suddenly bestow upon an unstable 70-year-old man the self-control he lacks.
During his press conference with the Mexican president, Trump held it together for 15 whole minutes. And he (mostly) did it again during Wednesday night’s immigration speech. Great. But everyone watching the performance in Mexico—every honest person watching it—could see how uncomfortable he was. I couldn’t decide whether it was more like a hostage video or the Incredible Hulk getting ready to turn green and break free from the podium chains. Maybe it was a little of both. It’s not in his DNA to sit quietly while someone else is in the spotlight and it’s not his style to read a tidy, carefully vetted, consultant-written and approved script. (And in fact, someone let Real Trump out during parts of the immigration speech. He sounded almost demonic as he vowed to have a massive round-up of criminal illegal aliens during the first hour of his presidency.)
Regardless, reading two speeches well does not make Donald Trump “Reaganesque.” Nor does one visit with a world leader. Even the ability to read a policy speech that was written for him by Breitbart’s Steve Bannon isn’t enough to convince me that he’s deserving of that honor. Can we at least be intellectually honest about who this man is and knock it off with the superlatives that bear no resemblance to the actual candidate? At least admit that what you’re after here is a good acting job at this point. You want Trump to “act presidential” even if you admit he’s not actually presidential. Trump is still Trump and no magical thinking to the contrary is going to change that.