Donald J. Trump careens from one controversy to another, leaving a deluge of dizzying tweets in its wake. Little seems to be more reassuring to him of his power than to see his rhetorical dust storms tear across the country, dropping jaws along the way.
One thing that is quite clear from Trump’s outrageous, protocol defying, hate-rhetoric filled campaign, followed by his winning stretch this far, is that he can be incredibly convincing. At the same time, he cannot be taken for his word. He is a dissembling showman more frequently than any politician Americans have known.
It is tempting to want to assume that the real person behind the showmanship would be a decent human being who will ultimately act in the nation’s best interests. But his presidency remains a question mark. The weight of evidence suggests that Trump is always performing to an audience, pandering to them, tuning his rhetoric to what would be music to their ears. Then does it really matter what he is like when he is not being a reality TV star, closed-off from most and locked away from cameras? I highly doubt it.
Most recently, Trump is buzzing because he reportedly summoned two dozen high-profile TV executives and journalists to his offices off-the-record on Monday only to scold them for being dishonest and disobedient. And on Tuesday, he had a live-tweeted sit-down with the New York Times, which at first was scheduled, then cancelled with a Twitter rant and again rescheduled. Once he had settled down in the boardroom, he dropped the threat to prosecute Democrat adversary Hillary Clinton, casting aside the campaign promise that was the origin of ‘Lock her up’ chant, and heaped unabashed praise upon President Obama.
He softened his earlier disavowing stance on climate change by admitting that it had “some connectivity” with human activities, expressed doubts about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and unequivocally disavowed the alt-right for celebrating his victory as its own. He disparaged the Republicans who averted their backs on his candidacy and strongly defended his appointed senior advisor, Stephen K Bannon – the former Chief Executive of Breitbart magazine, against being called a racist and an anti-semite. Trump also batted away the concerns on how – and if – he would rescind control of his global business empire to avoid a conflict of interest as the President.
On the subject of him “raising up” the libel laws, he reassured the assembled NYT journos on press freedom in vague terms — “I think you’ll be happy”, he said. Even though he said he had been treated “roughest of all” in its coverage, his closing remarks to the Times included applauding it for being not just a “great, great American jewel” but a “world jewel”.
Only Seven hours ago, Trump had tweeted:
The altered stances of yesterday, especially on climate change and the Clintons, from his campaign days would read as Turncoat Trump of many of his supporters, and as a move towards moderation to many of the rest. However, this apparent walk backwards does not amount to a lot as it is unclear if he only said these things to humor the Times.
Frank Bruni, a Times columnist present in the Grey Lady’s room with Trump, notes that the Trump that came to the Times came with “a desire to be approved of, with a hunger to be loved”. Trump attributed his reconsideration of use of torture and waterboarding on terrorist suspects to a conversation that he had just had with General James Mattis, a retired Marine general under consideration for secretary of defense. Never mind that experts have been saying that for year.
Bruni observed, “It was as if he’d never really thought through the issue during that endless campaign, and it suggested that the most influential voice in Trumplandia is the last one he happened to listen to.” His office appointees so far, the likes of Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn and Jeff Session, are not good news.
As Dara Lind wrote last month for the Vox, “With Trump, showmanship is all we have got.” Not facts. Not trust. It remains to be seen if this will eventually change in the future, when Trump would be expected to walk the talks he gives from the White House.