The most amusing part of the Trump transition has been watching its effortless confounding of the media, often in fewer than 140 characters. One morning, after a Fox News report on lefty nuttiness at some obscure New England college — a flag-burning that led a more-contemptible-than-usual campus administration to take down the school’s own American flag — Donald Trump tweets that flag burners should go to jail or lose their citizenship.
An epidemic of constitutional chin tugging and civil libertarian hair pulling immediately breaks out. By the time the media have exhausted their outrage over the looming abolition of free speech, judicial supremacy and affordable kale, Trump has moved on. The tempest had a shorter half-life than the one provoked in August 2015 by a Trump foray into birthright citizenship.
Trump so thoroughly owns the political stage today that the word “Clinton” seems positively quaint and Barack Obama, who happens to be president of the United States, is totally irrelevant. Obama gave a major national security address on Tuesday. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s son got more attention.
Trump has mesmerized the national media not just with his elaborate Cabinet-selection production, by now Broadway-ready. But with a cluster of equally theatrical personal interventions that by traditional standards seem distinctly unpresidential.
It’s a matter of size. They seem small for a president. Preventing the shutdown of a Carrier factory in Indiana. Announcing, in a contextless 45-second surprise statement, a major Japanese investment in the U.S. Calling for cancellation of the new Air Force One to be built by Boeing.
Pretty small stuff. It has the feel of a Cabinet undersecretary haggling with a contractor or a state governor drumming up business on a Central Asian trade mission. Or of candidate Trump selling Trump Steaks and Trump wine in that bizarre victory speech after the Michigan primary.
Presidents don’t normally do such things. It shrinks them. But then again, Trump is not yet president. And the point here is less the substance than the symbolism.
The Carrier coup was meant to demonstrate the kind of concern for the working man that gave Trump the Rust Belt victories that carried him to the presidency. The Japanese SoftBank announcement was a down payment on his promise to be the “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” (A slightly dubious claim: After all, how instrumental was Trump to that investment? Surely a financial commitment of that magnitude would have been planned long before Election Day.) And Boeing was an ostentatious declaration that he would be the zealous guardian of government spending that you would expect from a crusading outsider.
What appears as random Trumpian impulsiveness has a logic to it. It’s a continuation of the campaign. Trump is acutely sensitive to his legitimacy problem, as he showed in his tweet claiming to have actually won the popular vote, despite trailing significantly in the official count. His best counter is approval ratings. In August, the Bloomberg poll had him at 33 percent. He’s now up to 50 percent. Still nowhere near Obama’s stratospheric 79 percent at this point in 2008, but a substantial improvement nonetheless.
The mini-interventions are working, but there’s a risk for Trump in so personalizing his coming presidency. It’s a technique borrowed from Third World strongmen who specialize in demonstrating their personal connection to the ordinary citizen. In a genuine democracy, however, the endurance of any political support depends on the larger success of the country. And that doesn’t come from Carrier-size fixes. It comes from policy — policy that fundamentally changes the structures and alters the trajectory of the nation.
“I alone can fix it,” Trump ringingly declared in his Republican National Convention speech. Indeed, alone he can do Carrier and SoftBank and Boeing. But ultimately he must deliver on tax reform, health care, economic growth and nationwide job creation. That requires Congress.
The 115th is Republican and ready to push through the legislation that gives life to the promises. On his part, Trump needs to avoid needless conflict. The Republican leadership has already signaled strong opposition on some issues, such as tariffs for job exporters. Nonetheless, there is enough common ground between Trump and his congressional majority to have an enormously productive 2017. The challenge will be to stay within the bounds of the GOP consensus.
Trump will continue to tweet and the media will continue to take the bait. Highly entertaining, but it is a sideshow. Congress is where the fate of the Trump presidency will be decided.