Nothing Donald Trump did in Helsinki was a surprise: Can we dial back the outrage and get to work?

Is Donald Trump profoundly unqualified to be president? Of course — but the surprise and outrage are fake news

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published July 18, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Andrew Harnik)
(AP/Andrew Harnik)

This week's press conference held by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, after their summit meeting in Helsinki, came on the heels of what Salon's Heather Digby Parton has called Trump’s Chaos Tour. Going into the press conference, expectations of a presidential, diplomatic, articulate Trump were zero to nil. He had already stunned the world with blunder after bluster after faux pas on his Europe tour.

Not one thing that Trump did during his encounter with Putin was any sort of surprise. Everything he did was entirely true to form. Indeed, everything he did had been previewed beforehand.

Face it: He was consistent.

So how is it that after the predictably outrageous press conference he held with Putin we find ourselves expressing shock and surprise – yet again -- at Trump’s contemptible behavior?

It certainly is valuable to document Trump’s failings as a world leader and his inability to function as a democratically elected politician. It is also important to list the various ways that he has disgraced his nation and failed to understand his own job description. But that’s not the dominant mode of the coverage of the press conference.

Instead, so much of the coverage was an expression of moral outrage. When pundits weren’t having their own meltdowns, they were covering the meltdowns of others.

Here’s how we all knew this would play out before Trump and Putin were even in the same room: Trump would ignore decades of protocol and diplomacy. He would disparage his own country and suck up to Putin. He would insult the media, preferably CNN. He would say something nasty about Clinton and bring up her emails. He would whine about Robert Mueller's investigation. He would deride the findings of U.S. intelligence. He would fail to acknowledge that Russia has any sort of adversarial relationship to the United States and the West overall. And he would speak in a language that only sometimes resembles English.

We knew he would do that, because that is what he has done from the second he announced his candidacy. (Indeed, long before that as well.) And we knew Trump would do that because since he assumed the presidency he hasn’t changed even a particle.

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But it gets worse. Because, despite the fact that we can rely on Trump being Trump, both the mainstream news media and Trump’s critics still seem to find ways to be shocked about it. If there was any sort of interesting reveal in the narrative of responses to the summit meeting, it was the fact that at least a handful of Republicans finally decided to criticize him. Thus far, though, most of those GOP critics have been the predictable voices of reason from within the party.

Exactly how many times do we have to go through this cycle before we notice the pattern -- and adjust our own reaction to his behavior?

Parton, for instance, writes, “It’s hard to believe an American president would say such a thing,” in her piece summarizing Trump's list of outrageous comments in Helsinki. She’s entirely right, of course. It is hard to believe an American president would say such a thing. But it is no surprise whatsoever that Donald Trump said those things. Not only did we know Trump was going to do what he did, we know he will do it again -- and again, and again.

And no, the encounter with Putin was not the day that America was shamed by its president. That happened on Election Day, and Inauguration Day and every subsequent day. It has only been more of what we could already see coming.

So much of our righteous collective disgust over Trump's behavior stems from the fact that many of us are still in utter disbelief that he is actually president. That sense of bewilderment makes perfect sense, given the story of his rise to power — and the many questions about that rise that remain unanswered. But what makes no sense at all is the idea that Trump will suddenly go off script and become a functional adult and a competent leader. That is not happening. Not now, and not ever.

So rather than cover the story of Trump’s next idiotic, inflammatory and/or geopolitically dangerous move, perhaps reporters and commentators should expect it, and cover the outrageous act as simply more of the same. More Trump being Trump.

That way we could stop wasting our time smacking our foreheads or letting our jaws go slack in disbelief, and get to the real work: Figuring out how to stop him and save our democracy.

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By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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