Friday, February 17, 2017

A President Misjudges His Audience

Whenever a major political event occurs or news story breaks, it's only a matter of time before political commentators shift from a discussion of the topic itself to predictions about its "political" implications—by which they usually mean its presumed effect on the attitudes of the typical American voter. "It's true that all of Washington is obsessed today with [a new international treaty / a congressional budget agreement / a missile test launch by a band of Nova Scotian separatists]," they'll ask each other, "but do you really think this issue is important to the average [factory worker in Ohio / factory worker in Michigan / factory worker in Indiana]?"

Accusations that the political media devote too much attention to poll-driven "horse race" journalism and not enough to the substance of policy are neither new nor entirely invalid. But the political implications of current events are hardly irrelevant or frivolous subjects of analysis—after all, how can Americans understand their political system without understanding politics? Neither "substantive" nor "political" coverage should be produced, or consumed, to the exclusion of the other—we need plenty of both to be properly informed about what's going on in the world.

The real problem with "political" analysis is that it is too often restricted to dissecting the results of past polls or speculating about the results of future polls. In truth, the subject of politics encompasses much more than the collective opinion of the mass public at any given moment. If we insist on judging the importance of political events through the narrow lens of whether or not they cause immediate, measurable shifts in citizen attitudes, we often risk missing the real story.

As you may have heard, President Trump held a long and contentious press conference yesterday that left the press with a lot to chew on—not least because journalists themselves were primary targets of Trump's anger and sarcastic contempt. One instinctive response to such a development is to engage in extensive debate about whether or not the average voter, or even the average Trump supporter, will feel more or less warmly toward Trump because of his behavior on Thursday. Did Trump hurt himself in the eyes of John and Jane Q. Public by his blustery performance? Did smacking around the press instead merely endear him further to the denizens of middle America who installed him in the presidency? Or do "real people" (a Washington phrase that, even though it is usually used half-seriously, still contains an off-putting element of unwitting condescension) not care either way, because they have other things to occupy their attention?

But this reflexive how-does-it-play-in-Peoria mentality misses the true story, at least in the present case. Over the past four weeks, a pivotal class of political actors both in this country and around the world has rapidly converged on the belief that the Trump administration is a terrible mess in nearly every conceivable respect. Members of Congress (of both parties), interest group leaders, bureaucrats, federal judges, media figures, foreign leaders, and even top staffers (and would-be staffers) within the White House itself are by all accounts agape with disbelief at this state of affairs, which has no remote parallel in the modern history of the nation.

Trump apparently wished to dispel this conclusion on Thursday, but his antics only reduced his stature still further in what turned out to be a serious political miscalculation. (The New York Times reported that the press conference was Trump's own idea, overruling the well-founded misgivings of his advisors—or at least that's what the advisors ran to tell the Times after it was over.) Trump may not believe that he needs to care about whether or not other political elites—a term I use descriptively rather than pejoratively—view him as competent, trustworthy, honest, patient, strategically acute, or mentally well-balanced. Or maybe he does care, but has no idea how to conduct himself in order to create such an impression.

Either way, the political implications of the press conference have little to do with whatever slight or temporary effect it might or might not have on the president's public approval rating. The most important audience for Trump's appearance was the highly observant set of other influential political figures whose trust and cooperation is essential to the success of any administration, but who have grown increasingly uneasy over the course of the past month. Even if nobody else watched or cared, the president was making a fool of himself before a powerful group of people with considerable capacity to frustrate his policy ambitions and damage his political standing. When even the Kremlin is beginning to waver in its enthusiasm, it's time to wonder how many governing allies the new president will manage to maintain during his time in office.