Saturday, March 04, 2017

Donald Trump's extraordinary, extraordinary moment.

For a moment there, it appeared that Donald Trump had turned a corner. He delivered a speech to Congress last Tuesday widely acclaimed to be presidential in tone. Pundits had suggested in the hours leading up to the speech that Trump would unveil a softer tone on immigration. He was going to heed the words of his new National Security Advisor and eschew the use of the term radical Islamic terrorists. A New Donald Trump was going to emerge.

When I listened to Donald Trump's speech to Congress, the extent of my halo effect problem with him made it difficult for me to buy into the New Donald Trump theory. After several years of listening to him, I have developed a pretty bad attitude. I am predisposed to not believe anything he says. It is a terrible admission--particularly now that he is sitting in the Oval Office--though not one that I believe is unique to me.

Trump has worked hard to earn my distrust. For years, all I heard from Donald Trump were words that were consistently, demonstrably, and most of the time intentionally, false. For the past half decade or more, back to the Birther movement, he has been the most aggressive practitioner of rumor mongering and fake news as a political tactic in the country, enthusiastically repeating or promoting one conspiracy theory or another.

As he started to speak on Tuesday, reading from a teleprompter, he spoke to the threats against Jewish communities across the country and the shooting of two Indian software engineers in Kansas. He spoke with a presidential tone about a nation "that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms." He evoked the words of JFK and the responsibility of each generation to continue the pursuit of truth, liberty and justice. "I am here tonight," he pronounced, "to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart."

I recognized the voice, but the words seemed out of place. The simple act of saying that the message of unity was deeply delivered from my heart, highlighted how at odds his words were with the persona that he cultivated so assiduously. I could not help but recall a tweet from David Duke earlier that day. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK and a prominent personality within the alt-right, tweeted, "President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these [threatening] calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda." Then, a few hours after Duke's tweet, Trump floated the idea to a group of states attorneys general that the rash of threats to Jewish communities might be "false flag" efforts "to make others look bad."

That was the Donald Trump I knew; the Donald Trump who has spent years walking a fine line between his flirtations with racists and bigots, and adhering to the standards of civil society; the Donald Trump who, in direct contradiction to his words in that speech, has given license to the rise in hateful actions we have seen across the country for months now, against immigrants, against minorities, against gays and trans people, and against Jews. Tuesday, it appeared, was just one more day. In the morning, Donald Trump was David Duke's guy; that evening, he gave a speech that pundits declared proved that he had finally embraced the mantle of the presidency. But it was all just words.

He read the speech from a teleprompter, and it was clearly a speech with input from those close to him who were trying to clean up his act and put words in his mouth. He stuck to the script diligently, and he delivered it well, but I just knew that this was not the @realDonaldTrump. It was just a matter of time and we would hear the @realDonaldTrump slip into the speech.

And it happened. He could not control himself. "Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited. Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force..."

Busted. As the Gipper would have said, There you go again.

Back in August of 2015, on Sarah Palin's cable show, Trump rolled out this meme, an alternative fact which would become a stock piece in his stump speech and elemental to his American carnage leitmotif. There are, he insisted then, foreshadowing his speech on Tuesday, “93 million people out of work. They look for jobs, they give up, and all of a sudden, statistically, they're considered employed.” 

It was a meaningless number then, and it is a meaningless number now. His number includes students, retirees, the infirm and those working in the home. But Trump is addicted to hyperbole, the mundane facts of the world as it is bore him. It is a lot more interesting to paint a picture of a nation in ruins than talking about the 7.8 million officially unemployed, or even the somewhat larger number including underemployed and discouraged workers. Trump's interest was not then, and is not now, in accurate information. 93 million out of work was emblematic of his deceptive, deceitful use of fake news and alternative facts to rile up his base. Mexican rapists. Syrian terrorists. Muslim presidents. False flag attacks by Jews. All part of the bombastic dissembling of the man who is now our president.

Yet lo and behold, in the hours after the speech, cable news pundits confirmed that which they had predicted. Donald Trump came off as presidential. His tone and bearing exceeded that very low bar that has been set for him. As it turned out, he hardened, rather than softened, his tone on immigration, and he uttered the words radical Islamic terrorists with particular relish--as if to rebuke H.R. McMaster for suggesting that he should do otherwise--but he placated those pundits and network analysts by giving a nod to paid family leave.

For more than a year now, over the course of the campaign, and now into the early weeks of his presidency, we have been promised at critical moments that, this time, Donald Trump is going to pivot. And like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, each time people believe that this time will be different.

And yet, the pivot never comes. This Tuesday, we were duped again, suckered in one more time. For twelve hours or so following the speech, it looked like he had done it, he was softening his tone, managing his Twitter finger, becoming presidential. He was pivoting! A measure of his success was the vitriol launched from the left against Democrat activist turned CNN analyst Van Jones who declared Trump's recognition of Carryn Owens "one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period." To those that feared that Trump would finally rise to the occasion and become a unifying president, the notion that Trump might get his act together as Jones suggested was terrifying.

But they needn't have worried. By the next day, the illusions of a normalized Donald Trump faded quickly. The Washington Post turned the attention of the political world to Jeff Sessions' dissembling about his Russian contacts, and Donald Trump returned to full coverup and deflection mode. The tweeter-in-chief resumed his morning ritual. And there was Lucy, walking away with the football, shaking her head and laughing, as those who had bought into the New Donald Trump story lay flat on their backs, like Charlie Brown taken in once again.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

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