correction: An earlier version of this column said Charlie Parker played the tenor saxophone. While Parker could play the tenor saxophone, he was predominantly known for playing the alto saxophone.
What a relief it must be to President Trump to have, finally, some sidemen in his jazz combo of national distraction.
Aside from occasional guest appearances by the ghost of Rudy Giuliani, The Donald has largely been a one-man band for four years, since the day at Trump Tower when he played that crazy riff involving the escalator and the rapists and the Wall. His fingers fly over the keyboard of his phone like Charlie Parker burning up the alto saxophone. But imagine Bird sitting in with a high school band: He must take every solo.
That’s been Trump’s burden, until lately.
In case you haven’t noticed, the president plays the national media like a fiddle, like a Steinway, like Prince played his Cloud Guitar. He drives the conversation like Max Roach on drums, driving “A Night in Tunisia.” Even Mother Nature wailing the blues can’t compete with Trump for attention. She parks a Category 5 hurricane over a Caribbean archipelago, reducing a city to sticks, leaving whole neighborhoods dimly visible like wraiths beneath the floodwaters and littering the streets with corpses. Trump changes the music with a flourish of his Sharpie.
Even so, this virtuoso performance of media manipulation — shifting the subject from death and destruction and suffering to an argument over weather forecasts for coastal Alabama — could last only so long, right? Just when it seemed time for the next Trump improvisation, however, his band stepped up to play.
A couple of political appointees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, pitched in by chastising the forecasters who had the temerity to dispute Trump’s daffy storm warning. This kept the groove going through the weekend. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross took the next turn out front, after news leaked that he threatened to fire meteorologists who refused to play in the president’s key.
A veteran of past presidential administrations once explained to me that every White House struggles to communicate its mission to the sprawling federal bureaucracy. Presidents must be so clear about their principles that staff members who might never set foot in the Oval Office still have a strong sense of the leader’s priorities. The Hurricane Dorian distraction suggests that Trump’s people are figuring him out. They’re coming to understand that the president’s principles boil down to control of the news. By riffing madly, Trump fixates the audience, makes himself omnipresent and coaxes journalists into looking like fools.
(I choose that last phrase with care. We’re not as foolish as Trump makes us appear. Yet there we were, as Bahamians were starving, giving valuable bandwidth to the ludicrous idea that the president might be in legal jeopardy for drawing on an official map.)
His minions are realizing it’s easy to please the president. Just follow his lead, amp up the crazy, and keep the distractions coming.
Consider campaign manager Brad Parscale, another example of a soloing sideman. At the GOP state convention in California recently, Parscale laid down a provocative theme: “The Trumps will be a dynasty that lasts for decades.” To reporters after his speech, he offered variations on the theme: “I just think they’re a dynasty. I think they’re all amazing people . . . with amazing capabilities,” Parscale tootled. “I think you see that from Don Jr. I think you see that from Ivanka. You see it from Jared.”
This clever concoction of despotism and celebrity worship — with a dash of “Succession” mixed in — was exquisitely calculated to set the media humming and timed perfectly to amplify an Atlantic cover story on the purported rivalry among Trump offspring to assume their father’s mantle. Nothing like palace intrigue to distract the populace.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, stood for a solo recently when asked to square new restrictions with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Poet Emma Lazarus famously wrote: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” But what she meant, Cuccinelli offered, was a limited invitation to those “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Cuccinelli’s ability and willingness to say this with a straight face were positively Trump-like.
“Politics” hasn’t always been a dirty word. It is rooted in the Greek idea of the “polis” — a community organized around certain rules and customs for life together. Serious, important business. But for Donald Trump and his simpatico hirelings, politics is an entertainment channel, and power lies in controlling the programming. What strikes his followers as comedy (watch the clumsy reporters chase the elusive Sharpie!) strikes his critics as a horror or a freak show. Either way, they’re transfixed.
And the band plays on. And will continue playing until the country at last tires of dancing to this tune.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.