The dysfunctional Trump administration can make even good ideas politically toxic, and there is nobody to blame but the president himself
The problem with Donald Trump was never that he is an evil racist bogeyman who is going to whip up the American people into a frenzy of violence targeted at women, gay and trans people or ethnic minorities. This much was always hysterical leftist nonsense.
No, the problem with Donald Trump – as has become increasingly clear with every new day of his administration – is not that he is some kind of evil mastermind but rather that he is a small and superficial man, totally unfit to hold the highest political office in America; an impulsive man-child who is incapable of moderating his behaviour or restraining himself from acting on his first, worst instincts.
Worse still, Trump manages to diminish the stature of everybody close to him. While few people who joined the Trump administration at the beginning can be described as world-class minds, the likes of chief of staff Reince Priebus or press secretary Sean Spicer were once perfectly respectable party functionaries. Now they have made themselves a laughing stock through their contortions, evasions and the feuds they get themselves into while trying to advance Trump’s agenda and defend the garbage that comes out of his mouth.
But the real tragedy is that Donald Trump’s failure will take down a few genuinely good ideas associated with the administration, while through his own ineptitude, the president is succeeding in making some very nasty people in American politics – people whose reputations should rightly be in the gutter – start to look good through their opposition to him.
Take a look at the mainstream media, specifically the Washington DC political media class. These people were rightly distrusted even more than politicians by the public, fuelled in part by their slavish deference to the George W. Bush administration over Iraq and then their fawning, sycophantic coverage of President Barack Obama. These are the people who report and comment on the news with a thin patina of objectivity, but whose intermarriage, socialisation and business relationships with the political class make bias and groupthink all but inevitable.
When President Trump boycotted this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner he made a smart move by eschewing a black tie event with celebrities and DC power players to hold one of his trademark rallies in Pennsylvania. The WHCA responded by transforming the dinner into a gaudy, sanctimonious and cynical celebration of the First Amendment, portraying the establishment journalists assembled as fearless seekers after truth. This might have looked ridiculously self-regarding had Reince Priebus not doubled down on Trump’s idiotic, throwaway pledge to amend the First Amendment to make it easier to sue newspapers for libel – on the very same day.
Nobody seriously believes that the Trump administration will try to alter the First Amendment, or that such a move would be successful even if he did try. Nobody even really believes that such a discussion took place in the White House. But by even raising the subject and having his lackeys back him, Trump has positioned himself as directly antagonistic towards the media. And while this may play well with the base, it makes it almost impossible for principled conservatives to support him.
The same goes with Sean Spicer’s ongoing war with the occupants of the White House press briefing room, which has now escalated to the point where briefings are increasingly being given off camera, in smaller more restricted gaggles or without so much as audio recordings being permitted.
White House Correspondents’ Association President Jeff Mason said they are “not satisfied” with the White House putting a halt on their daily, on-camera briefings.
In an email to members of the association, Mason said he met with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to discuss the issues of the briefings. The White House has increasingly changed the daily briefings, either not having them on certain days, making them increasingly short, or hosting off-camera briefings, sometimes even not allowing the use of audio from the briefings.
“The WHCA’s position on this issue is clear: we believe strongly that Americans should be able to watch and listen to senior government officials face questions from an independent news media, in keeping with the principles of the First Amendment and the need for transparency at the highest levels of government,” Mason wrote.
Again, this is needlessly antagonistic, and a direct result of the fact that the president is an impulsive man-child who obsessively watches the daily press briefing and gets angry when his aides fail to deliver as forceful a defence of the presidential exploits than Trump would like.
The consequence is that the White House now has a nervous communications team which is reactive rather than proactive, which cannot rely on their boss not to torpedo his own administration’s efforts with a careless tweet and which is struggling to find a replacement for Sean Spicer, who is apparently being “promoted” out of the press secretary role. But more importantly, the consequence for the country is both the perception and sometimes the reality that the White House is trying to hide something, that they are unwilling to defend their policies in public because they are indefensible.
Even the good measures taken by the White House are executed poorly, in such a way as to discredit once-worthy ideas. The decision to open up White House press briefings to a number of “Skype Seats”, so that regional reporters and bloggers without the backing of large east coast media organisations are able to ask questions on behalf of their readerships, was an excellent idea. It was more than a nod to the Trump base (who tend to despise and distrust mainstream outlets like CNN or the New York Times). It was also a fair and accurate acknowledgement that news from the White House should not be filtered exclusively through the Washington DC-based political media class.
But as with so many other things in the Trump administration, a potentially worthy idea was ruined in the execution. Rather than using the Skype Seats to promote small regional news outlets or promising bloggers of varying political stripes, the White House issued press credentials to InfoWars, the conspiracy-minded site created by Alex Jones.
That’s not to say that absolutely everything emanating from Infowars is “fake news” – and a valid case for giving the organisation press credentials can be made. But having the likes of InfoWars as the de facto poster child for opening up White House press briefings to a wider pool only gives the establishment media every excuse they need to reassert their exclusive closed shop once the Trump administration is gone.
Pointing out the hypocrisy and decadence of the supposedly objective mainstream media, modernising the way that the White House briefs reporters and opening up the White House to smaller and regional news organisations. These are all potentially good actions and ideas, but all of which have been tarnished through their association with the Trump administration. The same goes for real-world policy in a whole host of areas, from immigration reform and border security to mitigating the negative effects of globalisation on workers – all problems which were ignored and festered under previous administrations, but where Trump is often doing more harm than good.
When Donald Trump’s administration reaches its merciful end – barring some kind of foreign policy calamity or self-inflicted political self destruction – we may end up most regretting not those few things which the president actually manages to get done, but the handful of once-promising ideas which fell by the wayside because the administration either couldn’t do them or implemented them in an incompetent way. We will mourn those initiatives which could have benefited the country and won popular support of only their association with Donald Trump had not rendered them toxic.
And conservatives especially will mourn the fact that through his incompetence, Donald Trump has managed to make so many bad people – from unrepentant open borders activists to the mainstream media – look good, and seize the moral high ground.
Even if you agree with Donald Trump on 100% of the issues, one surely now has to admit that the president is his own worst enemy when it comes to implementing his own policies.
And for those of us who oppose Trump, any relief at the fact that his presidency and its worst potential excesses are stuck in the quicksand is tempered by the fact that as a result, America is drifting without proper leadership while the few sensible measures advanced by the Trump administration are now so radioactive that they may never again see the light of day.
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