So much for the watchdogs: Don't worry about the media normalizing Donald Trump, worry about them enabling him

Donald Trump is on pace to self-destruct — that is, unless the media keeps enabling him

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 29, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

President-elect Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)
President-elect Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)
Now that the smoke from the election is finally clearing, the challenge facing the Trump opposition is becoming obvious. It is immense. If anyone thought that the Trump campaign was some kind of a show or simply a means to an end and that Trump would "pivot" to a more presidential bearing and attitude, enough time has now passed to put any such hopes to rest. He is as unstable as ever.Unlike other president-elects, Donald Trump has held no press conferences and is mainly communicating through Twitter. But his choices for his staff and his Cabinet tell some of the story. He remains dependent on his children and close campaign advisers, which were culled from the dregs of the GOP consultant class and right-wing fringe. And his cabinet choices mainly hail from the constituencies of Wall, Big Business and the extremist edge of the conservative movement.

But lest anyone think there's ideological rhyme or reason for his choices, The Washington Post reported that his main concern is simply that they look the part. He admitted that he chose retired Marine Gen. James Mattis because he's "the closest thing to General George Patton that we have," but that is assumed to be mainly because he looks a little bit like George C. Scott, who played Patton in the movie. Transition officials said that Trump passed over Senator Bob Corker for Secretary of State because he is too short and he never seriously considered John Bolton for the leading role because of his mustache, which Trump apparently hates. Mitt Romney and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson were apparently the top choices because of their silver hair and broad shoulders, which fit the image Trump has for a secretary of state.

Trump's Twitter feed shows a disturbing portrait of a shallow egotist who spends way too much time watching TV and virtually no time learning how to do the most important job in the world. He's taking credit for things he isn't doing and ignoring all the norms and rules that usually apply to presidents. In other words, he isn't changing. And just as the bizarre reality show of a campaign stymied 17 GOP rivals and the campaign of Hillary Clinton, his nascent presidency shows every sign of stymieing the Democrats and the political press.
Political scientist George C. Edwards III at Texas A&M argues in this piece in the Washington Post that all is not lost and that reality will eventually bite when Trump is unable to persuade the people to support him.  He says there are four questions that might predict if he can accomplish that:
  • Did Trump receive a mandate from the people?
  • Do Americans support the general direction of Trump’s policies?
  • How polarized is public opinion?
  • How malleable is public opinion?
The answer to those questions is obvious. He did not receive a mandate, most Americans do not support the general direction of his policies, public opinion is extremely polarized and the only people whose opinions are malleable in his favor are those who already support him.
Edwards writes:

Although Trump seems to enjoy an extraordinary rapport with his most enthusiastic supporters, the question is whether he can change the views of those who do not support him. The evidence is clear that his efforts are unlikely to succeed. Indeed, presidents find it difficult even to change the views of their fellow partisans who happen to disagree with them on an issue.

He says if presidents fail to accurately assess their level of support and work within that they are prone to overreach and political disaster.

This analysis is comforting, if only because it makes one think we will come back to some sort of equilibrium once Trump fails. But there's a feeling of whistling past the graveyard about it. Haven't we been assured over and over again for the past 18 months that Trump was going to "overreach" and suffer "political disaster?" And doesn't he just keep coming like The Terminator, impervious to all the normal political pitfalls?

The problem we face is that Trump is sui generis and he is operating within a unique circumstance. The party he now leads was already at a peak moment of extremism and are unable and unwilling to act as a moderating force. And the modern media environment has made it possible for a fabulist like Trump to create an alternate narrative that is likely to be believed by millions of his followers, who are already far more gullible than most people.

Politico reported that Republican officials who show any independence are already feeling the heat from Trump's enforcers. When Representative Bill Flores of Texas rather mildly declared that some of Trump's policies might not be in keeping with conservative principles he was attacked by Breitbart and Sean Hannity, which sent a horde of Trump supporters calling for his head. And he's not alone:

"Nobody wants to go first," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who received nasty phone calls, letters and tweets after he penned an August op-ed in The New York Times, calling on Trump to release his tax returns. "People are naturally reticent to be the first out of the block for fear of Sean Hannity, for fear of Breitbart, for fear of local folks."

And that's nothing compared to what they are facing if the president himself tweets a call to arms to his millions of supporters.

This is not business as usual. And attempting to deal with this phenomenon as if it is has not worked up until now and is unlikely to work in the future.  No typical politician can do what Trump is doing. His followers see him as the ultimate Green Lantern president, a super-hero who doesn't have to follow the rules. It's not about reform for them, it's about magic. Looking back at previous presidencies, or trying to create a "better message" is inadequate when Trump can lie with impunity and offer up a stirring story of success and victory in an alternate media universe. The question is what will work and I don't think anyone knows the answer.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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