Imagine telling a banker that she looks bankerly or a professor that he looks professorial — and meaning it as a compliment. What you'd be implying, of course, is that your expectations were so low that you didn't anticipate the banker or professor would even look the part, much less actually do the job competently.
Trump is so erratic, spouting falsehoods on the regular and boasting about his election win at inappropriate times, that all it takes to impress many journalists is a single hour of acting like what he is — president of the United States. Trump's bar is practically subterranean, and the media grades him on a curve.
“President Trump's first address to Congress may be remembered more for what he did not do than what he did,” Paul Singer wrote in USA Today. “He did not relitigate the election results, he did not assail the media (much), and he did not call anybody names.”
Slate's Will Oremus put it more bluntly: “Donald Trump managed to speak for an entire hour without sounding like an unhinged demagogue.”
For a performance free of schoolyard taunts, Trump is collecting kudos.
This is not a new phenomenon. Almost a year ago, on Super Tuesday, Megyn Kelly told Fox News viewers that Trump was “sounding presidential” during a news conference in which he described himself as a “unifier” and referred to Republican primary rival Ted Cruz as “Ted,” instead of “Lyin' Ted.”
When Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in August, CNN commentator Ana Navarro credited Trump with a “personality transplant” because “for the first time in his life, during this campaign, he actually said some positive, constructive things about Mexican Americans.”
Navarro had been a harsh critic of Trump, and Kelly seemed to have been designated by the billionaire as a media nemesis. Yet to earn their praise, all Trump had to do was stop hurling insults.
Well, yesterday didn’t go too badly. President Donald Trump went to the African American History museum, where he disavowed racism and spoke out against a new wave of anti-Semitism. He didn’t tweet his thoughts until 6:23 p.m., when he said the “so-called angry crowds” at town halls around the country were “planned out by liberal activists.” There were no massive blowups to speak of.
No massive blowups = pretty good day. That's where we are. Trump's address to Congress was, as The Fix's Aaron Blake wrote, an objectively good moment for the president. But in press accounts of his speech, Trump is also a beneficiary of basement-level expectations.