So President Donald Trump is taking his act on the road again. Apparently being president isn't nearly as much fun as running for president and he needs to cut loose in front of an adoring crowd to charge up his batteries. So he's having one of his victory rallies in Florida on Saturday. And yes, they're calling it a campaign rally so stock up on the Stoli and Beluga caviar, because that means Trump is already running for re-election.
On Thursday he gave his followers a little teaser by holding his first real press conference since the inauguration. It was what professional presidential scholars refer to as "a doozy." The press was more pungent in its criticism. CNN's Jake Tapper called it “unhinged” and “wild" and a "Festivus airing of grievances." MSNBC's Chris Hayes tweeted, "We can agree across all ideological, political and partisan divisions that this is a deranged performance, right?" Even Shep Smith of Fox News seemed shell-shocked, saying, “It is crazy what we are watching every day; it is absolutely crazy.” CBS News’ Scott Pelley said, "Today we learned the length of the president's fuse." (Which unfortunately brought to mind what my great-aunt used to say about her first husband: "He was a 6-foot, 3-inch stick of dynamite with a little bitty fuse.")
That was just the tip of the iceberg. The Daily Beast reported:
[A]s the official White House press conference disintegrated further into unhinged criticism and belligerent sniping, reporters seated in the East Room could hardly contain themselves. There was an awkward mix of laughing with Trump, and chuckling at him as the president kept venting and sneering. The reporters present couldn’t stop quietly gossipping about Trump. “What is going on?” one journalist whispered to another. “This is insane” and “What the hell?” were other popular refrains in the room.
There have been dozens of articles and listicles already published about this inane and surreal event, so I won't go through the whole litany again. If you've got the time, it's worth watching the whole press conference just to bear witness to the wholesale destruction of what we used to call the dignity of the office. Trump makes George W. Bush look like George Washington by comparison, and Bush was the guy who spit a wad of chewing gum into his hand before signing the Treaty of Moscow.
Trump mostly concentrated on how much he loathed the lyin' press and despised all the fake news, oddly insisting that it's nothing more than a cover-up for Hillary Clinton's "terrible loss." In fact, he just can't quit her, which presidential historians note is very odd:
I think there's a good reason Trump does this and it's related to why he needs to get in front of his cheering followers. He is obviously in over his head and cannot deal with the complexity of the task he has been elected to perform. If anyone watching the campaign thought he must have hidden depths he or she has been disabused of that by now. His full range of talents were on display on stage in those rallies.
Trump told us during the campaign, "I yam what I yam," and so he is. He is a trash-talker. But unlike the trash-talking master of all time, boxer Muhammad Ali, who pretty much invented the form, Trump is a Wrestlemania political performance artist who unfortunately believed his own hype. Ali talked trash, but he also had the goods. Trump does not.
During the GOP primary he took out one rival after another by bestowing them with puerile nicknames and hurling nasty insults in their faces. They didn't know what hit them. When he got to Hillary Clinton, it was also no holds barred. He said to her face that she was filled with hate, called her the devil and paraded women who had accused her husband of assaulting them in front of her. He made barely restrained cracks about her looks and insisted over and over again that she was weak and didn't "look like a president." He played the crude, aggressive wrestling "heel" throughout the campaign, and his supporters roared with pleasure as he took down his opponents one by one.
Trump participated in professional wrestling storylines for years. He loves it. Indeed, the press conference on Thursday showed that he's lost without it. He needs a rival, a real opponent. He doesn't have one at the moment, so his shtick just seems wild and unfocused, as if he were flailing at phantoms. Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University, described it as "bizarre theater," saying "he turned a presidential press conference into a reality TV show in which he can be the star and browbeat anyone who objects to him with the power of his office."
Of course, Trump has always used "the media" as a foil, and since he assumed office and no longer has a specific opponent to spar with, consigliere Steve Bannon has tried to make the press corps into the rival at whom Trump can swing his bat and keep his show going. Bannon has called the media "the opposition" and clearly pumps up Trump, not that it's hard to do that since the president spends inordinate amounts of time assessing his image on television and clearly doesn't like what he sees.
But it won't work. The press isn't "the opposition" and the presidency isn't a competition or even a phony wrestling match. If you want to compare it to a form of entertainment, it's a drama — often a tragedy — and the press is the Greek chorus. It makes no sense to turn media commentators and reporters into key players, particularly when there are real political adversaries out there jockeying for position. But Trump seems to not be interested in fighting real battles or even engaging in genuine politics. It's all a pageant to him, a fixed narrative, a rigged game in which he's is supposed to be the big winner in the end, with the cheering and the booing just being all in good fun. But nobody's having any fun, least of all him. And putting on a show is all he knows how to do.