Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, mood swing edition

What else did Trump do this week?

He experienced some mood swings.

Self-satisfied. Vice News reported this week that RNC and White House staffers have been preparing twice-daily "propaganda documents" for Trump's personal enjoyment. ("Propaganda document" is the term used inside the White House.) The document consists entirely of pro-Trump headlines and cable news screenshots that praise him. On days where no really favorable coverage is available, aides insert photographs of Trump "looking powerful" for him to admire.

The practice apparently started as a means for Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus to gain a regular audience with Trump—and to be a regular bearer of good news. In fact, Spicer and Priebus fought over who would get to deliver it: Trump is notoriously susceptible to flattery. Also, having regular face-time with him is more important than it would be for any other president, as he is known to be easily swayed, meaning the person who gets the last word often gets their way.

This appears to be an aspect of the larger tendency of Trump's employees to control him by controlling the media he consumes. Since this includes keeping unflattering things from him (including the fact that they keep things from him), it's not at all clear whether Trump knows even now the real purpose of the "propaganda document."

Pissed off. Retired general John Kelly, the new chief of staff, has inspired hope that he will be able to bring some semblance of order to the epically chaotic Trump White House. Trump seems to respect military men (as much as he is capable of respecting anyone, which is to say, inconsistently) and for a few days, at least, White House staff reported that Trump was making a real effort to impress Kelly. The evidence: that Trump had begun paying attention in meetings.

But setting that remarkable accomplishment aside, Kelly has apparently failed in the greatest challenge he set himself: gaining some semblance of control over Trump's Twitter addiction. Perhaps fearing that Trump would engage in nuclear brinksmanship 140 characters at a time if he didn't intervene, Kelly optimistically sought to steer Trump's tweets towards safer topics. 

Not only did Kelly not succeed, but Trump learned about the plan to influence his ability to be "MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL" and was, in the words of an aide, "pissed."

Bellicose. Trump's nuclear taunts at North Korea this week alarmed many Americans, who saw Trump's weirdly casual use action-movie phrases like "fire and fury" and "locked and loaded" as exactly the kind of deranged rhetoric the Kim regime usually spouts at the rest of the world. Apparently fearing that North Korea would feel the same way, aides promptly leaked that Trump was merely in a "bellicose mood" and that his improvised threats should not be taken seriously.

Deranged (but just for pretend). Trump himself was reportedly thrilled at the attention his nuclear threats earned him, quite possibly because of the rally-round-the-flag effect it had in at least one poll. (Trump remains about twenty percentage points underwater in his overall approval ratings.) But lest he be misunderstood, he retweeted a Fox News explanation of his erratic behavior: that he was merely pretending to be erratic, so that North Korea would not know how to handle him.

This is not the first time a strategy like this has been tried: President Nixon deliberately tried to make Communist leaders think he was impulsive and irrational, so that they would avoid accidentally provoking the United States into a first nuclear strike.

However, as Nixon was aware, this only works to your strategic advantage if you are not simultaneously telling the whole world that it is just a ruse.

Sad and persecuted. His statement yesterday about the Charlottesville tragedy made clear that Trump was either ideologically unwilling or politically unable to condemn terrorist murders when committed by white supremacists. But today, his homeland Security advisor Tom Bossert pushed back, saying that "What you need to focus on is the rest of his statement."

Fair enough: the rest of the statement does give some indication of Trump's emotional state. Immediately after saying
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.
—which was the sentence that provoked almost (but not quite) unanimous outrage, Trump added:
It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.
He then said:
Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it's been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they're coming back to our country. We're renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it's very, very sad.

...Federal authorities are also providing tremendous support to the governor [of Virginia]. He thanked me for that.
In other words, Trump was distressed that people might think this was somehow his fault, and that the terrorist murder of an American by his white supremacist supporters would overshadow his "trade deals." But he was pleased to be thanked on behalf of the parts of his government actually involved with the response.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president who needs twice-daily flattery is not mentally healthy enough to do the job.
  • It's bad if a president is so easily manipulated that his staff is fighting over who gets to do it.
  • At this point it doesn't really matter whether Trump cannot, or merely will not listen to the people begging him to think before he tweets.
  • It is not clever strategy to tell a nuclear adversary something and then tell the entire world you didn't mean it.
  • A president who, in a statement about a terrorist murder, can't talk about terrorism but can't not talk about his "great" negotiating skills, is a disgrace to the office.