The media hanging on his every word is just icing on the cake
Late last year, as the primaries were just heating up, pundits and commentators were busy, trying to make sense of the Donald Trump phenomenon. His stump speeches were more akin to the stream of consciousness rantings of an out-of-control id than what was expected from a serious presidential candidate. He frequently contradicted himself and, more often than not, told bold-faced lies. He insulted groups and individuals, making his party’s leaders squirm. And yet his crowds were huge and passionate and his poll numbers were high and getting higher. The political class was baffled.
One Sunday morning, the Washington Post and New York Times both ran what purported to be “analysis” pieces arguing that Trump might not be as right-wing as some feared. Their methodology was questionable, at best. Both authors argued that maybe the best way to discern the candidate’s real policy positions would be to take his contradictory pronouncements on any number of issues and attempt to reconcile them. Both concluded that maybe the candidate was indulging in his own crude form of triangulation and that the real Donald Trump was neither a true conservative nor a liberal, but a moderate, at heart!
The entire exercise was as amusing as it was wrong-headed. What they didn’t understand then, and what apparently many pundits still don’t get, is that policies, or even words themselves, don’t matter to Donald Trump. It’s the performance and the reaction it gets that counts. All the rest is misdirection designed to confound gullible analysts and garner more attention.
This game of misdirection was on full display during the past few weeks leading up to Trump’s big immigration performance on Wednesday. The speech had been scheduled and then cancelled a few weeks back—all of which made its delivery more anticipated. And so while Hillary Clinton was raising money, delivering serious policy addresses, and staving off more bad news related to her never-ending email saga and issues related to the Clinton Foundation, Trump was titillating the media with the possibility that his position on immigration might be evolving.
Was he moderating his views to appease Republican office-holders who needed their standard-bearer to moderate his positions? Was he attempting to broaden his own appeal to win Hispanic and African American voters? Was he finally making the long-awaited shift to becoming “a real presidential candidate?”
While television pundits bloviated and the columnists filled pages of newsprint speculating about his intentions, Trump gleefully led them all on a wild goose chase. Even the candidate’s supporters got caught up in the game. Some attempted to explain away a possible shift, arguing that “he never really meant that stuff about mass deportations or the wall”. Others worried that any softening would cost him dearly since his base support came from hard core nativists who believed that the wall would be built, Mexico would pay for it, and all “illegals” would be deported.
The day before his much hyped “policy speech” on immigration, Trump announced that he would fly to Mexico to meet with that country’s president. All eyes were now just where he wanted them—on him. The media frenzy grew. It was “all Trump, all the time”. One network even featured a countdown clock in the corner of the screen counting down the seconds to the “big speech”.
What was thought to be “a bold and risky” meeting in Mexico turned out to be a rather ho-hum affair. The wildly unpredictable, controversial American candidate met with the wildly unpopular Mexican president and both said little that was of interest to anyone. It was left to the media to make the absence of fireworks into a big story. And then it was on to the speech.
What I always find intriguing about Trump policy speeches is the delivery. Whenever he attempts a major policy address he has taken to reading his remarks, rather awkwardly, from a teleprompter. But Trump, being Trump, can’t help but go off-script. He reads a line and then makes a comment—as if to agree with what he just read. The overall effect is a bit comical.
The speech was reported by Trump opponents to be “an exercise in hateful rhetoric” filled with misstatements of fact and by supporters to be a “restatement, with added details, of Trump’s hard line position” on immigration. In reality, it was both and more—it was a show, and, for Trump, that’s what matters.
Fact checkers had a field day pointing out that Trump misstated, exaggerated, or just plain made up statistics or claims contained in his remarks. To his already bigoted position on which immigrants would be allowed into America, Trump added new, deeply disturbing criteria—new immigrants must be shown to “share our values and love our people” and that they be selected on the basis of “their likelihood of success in US society”.
But the speech was also filled with Trumpian contradictions. At one point, the candidate reaffirmed that there would be no amnesty and that those here illegally would have to return to their countries, while in another place he suggested that those who are here illegally who have families and are working hard could stay—but then left that hanging without clarification. One network, falling for this misdirection, ran a lower third saying “Trump softens, hardens, softens stand”.
In the end, however, it’s important not to be carried away with analysing what he said or attempting to discern what he meant. It’s a fool’s errand trying to make sense out of nonsense. Because for Donald Trump, the policy formulations don’t matter, neither do the misstatements, exaggerations or contradictions. What matters is that he built a “huge” audience in front of which he performed well. He appeared presidential in the afternoon and then reverted to hate-filled demagogue at night—and his folks loved the incitement and loved him. Like everything else he does, it was a show. All the rest was misdirection designed to confound and draw more attention—and he loved every minute of it.