One thing I noticed a long long time ago when I first came to the USA was that people here (and by extension, the media) love a redemption narrative.
The steps in the story are utterly predictable:
– Individual with a good (in some cases, virtuous) public profile either starts to behave publicly like a total dick, or crazy person, or is discovered to be secretly behaving badly.
– Individual is excoriated, body-slammed by the internet, the media etc. and suffers various negative consequences, up to and including loss of liberty, bankruptcy etc. etc.
– Individual suddenly changes behavior, often accompanied by ostentatious public displays of new-found virtue.
– Media and public acclaim reformed behavior of individual and praise said individual to the heavens
– Everybody pats themselves on the back and lives happily ever after.
This is the sort of arc of crash followed by redemption that some celebrities and public figures in the USA follow all of the time.
Somewhere in there, God and Jesus Christ often figure prominently. If I could have a dollar for every time I have seen a fallen-but-now-trying-to-rise individual claiming to have “found God”, I would be writing this posting from Bora Bora instead of Pennsvylvania.
This feel-good narrative cliche is relentlessly promoted by the media, who love a “bad person made good” story. It is also immensely satisfying on an emotional level for believers in simplistic good vs. bad morality tales.
The problem is that in their eagerness to find examples of this narrative, just about everybody ignores substance and becomes fixated on style.
Which brings us to the speech by President Trump last night.
It seems that, for a change, he not only had somebody write out his speech in advance, but he actually stuck to it, and did not veer off-script and into his favorite habit of speaking off the cuff, blurting out all sorts of peripheral comments, allegations and promises. Of course, this meant that he had to stick to the text on the teleprompter.
Some media commentators have been acclaiming his speech as somehow indicative of his “being Presidential”, “growing into the job”, “pivoting” etc.
Pardon me while I burst out laughing.
One thing that I notice immediately about all of these praising cliches is that they say almost nothing about substance. They are all about style and perception.
Style and perception are, as the words themselves should make clear, not in any way connected to substance.
One of the easy-to-spot endemic weaknesses in US electorates, obvious to anybody who grew up outside the USA, but seemingly and puzzlingly non-obvious to people born in the USA, is a fixation on style as an indicator of substance. I have lost count of the number of times that I heard people complimenting Ronald Reagan for “acting Presidential” or “behaving like a President”. (The cynic in me always wanted to yell “Of course he can act Presidential, he was a ****ing B-movie actor!” but my British DNA forbade me to utter that).
My take-away from these comments is that it is not enough for Americans that their President actually, you know, be the President and do all of the things that Presidents are supposed to do. He or she actually is also required to “look Presidential”.
This probably helps to explain why, given the choice between a competent but unexciting Democrat (Gray Davis) and an action-hero actor (Arnold Schwartzenegger) for the Governorship of California, a majority of electors voted for “The Governator” – more than once. Quite clearly, style won out over substance, at least the first time around. (Schwartzenegger actually turned out to be an OK governor, but one can quite easily make the right choices in life for the wrong reasons).
In Donald Trump, the electoral college elected as President a man whose entire public life has been based on relentless, narcissistic self-promotion. He had no experience in politics whatsoever; however, unlike more weaselly and equally dishonest fake insurgents like Ted Cruz, who had spent decades in Texas politics, Donald Trump could plausibly and truthfully claim to be “not a politician”, which was definitely part of his appeal.
The problem with a “not a politician” candidate being elected to a political post is that the system around you, a political system (with all of the good, bad and ugly that this entails) expects you to operate within it, not outside it. This is especially true of the US President, whose role is deliberately constrained by the Constitution in order to avoid the “Great Dictator” result that crippled European countries. The President has relatively little direct power, most of the power is “soft”power such as patronage. The idea that Donald Trump espoused of “blow the system up” is not one that he could put into practice alone. He needed willing collaborators, who would be difficult to find, since once they get into office, most politicians realize that the system as it currently works is the source of nearly all power. They will be about as enthusiastic about blowing up the system as fish would be about having their river drained.
Donald Trump, since taking office, probably believing way too much of his “blow the system up” rhetoric, has ostentatiously and publicly tried to govern without reference to any of the norms of Presidenting. Those include (but are not limited to) asking for and listening to advice, keeping your mouth shut until you actually know about something, not trying to undermine your own government departments in public, and not pissing off other countries and their leaders.
Then there is the expectation that the President will at least make a good-faith effort to be truthful in public pronouncements.
Donald Trump has been unable or unwilling to do any of these things. As a result the first 45 days of his presidency have been a total train-wreck, which is not only profoundly disturbing to people in the USA (outside of his supporters, who probably regard most of the recent outcomes as a feature, part of the “smash the system” impacts), but also deeply unsettling to the rest of the world.
Which brings us back round to…Trump’s speech last night. Not only did he speak from a teleprompter (which would be something hardly worth commenting about, were it not for his past refusal to use one, and the fact that when Barack Obama used one, the GOP pissed and moaned about it like he had committed some cardinal sin), but he seemingly was able to get to the end without either crashing and burning, or veering off into the weeds.
One would think that this is a pretty low bar for a public official to clear. What could be simpler? Read it in advance, get the delivery right, run though in private, fine-tune, go to the House, deliver it. No questions from those damn media assholes afterwards, just go home, watch the highlights on TV.
However, to read the media, it seems that Donald Trump did not so much cleat the bar with the speech as hit it out of the park. Apparently he is now a reformed man, a True President who not only is The President, but looks the part.
Folks, this is horseshit.
Donald Trump, when you take away the brownie points for, you know, sticking to the script, said nothing that was in any way superior to anything he has previously said in public. The speech was the usual collection of falsehoods, pious-sounding appeals for “unity” and “co-operation”, and deeply duplicitous promises totally at odds with recent actions.
Yet the media thinks he is in some way reformed.
Either the media commentators saying this are hopelessly gullible, or they have been ingesting some mind-altering substance that I do not want to ever ingest.
A focus on style over substance is fatal to any attempt at honest appraisal of actions or success. Looking Presidential is not enough. Ronald Reagan looked presidential, yet he ran up the deficit terribly, was a dangerously hands-off leader, and was regarded by the rest of the world (but not by the oblivious US) as a failed B-Movie actor who lucked into the job, rather than a President who happened to have been an actor.
When Donald Trump really changes, as in, he stops behaving most of the time like an out-of-control halfwit asshole, I will start believing claims that he has changed. Until then, all of this back-patting is total flim-flam which further erodes the very limited remaining credibility of the media.