First and Lasting Impressions

Photo: WhiteHouse.gov

The first draft of this week’s column was written during those heady hours between 10p.m. eastern time on the evening of February 28th and the late evening of the following day. During that precious period it appeared President Donald J. Trump had completed and passed a crash course in normal human behavior. By the end of the week the hope of Tuesday evening had fallen onto the short pile of Trump administration high points. A time to be remembered as a fleeting wisp of glory known as Trumpelot.

For a brief moment of normalcy it appeared we had something to work with.

After 40 days of chaos, Donald Trump showed up last Tuesday night ready to act like a president of the United States. His first speech to a joint session of Congress had to put some people at ease and maybe even give some of those Americans who voted against Trump reason to hope. Not hope that Trump will turn out to be one of the best presidents in American history, but the simple hope that maybe he can turn off the showman brute and at least act like a leader. Even if it is just an act. Someone playing that role is someone other politicians in Washington can work with. The perception of competence and sincerity is enough in politics to get things started.

If anyone needs an explanation as to why Trump won the election — if you are still trying to figure that out — his performance on Tuesday and the real time reaction of members of Congress made it clear. Trump stood at the podium as a representative of the average American who looks at Washington, D.C. and asks, not only what have you done for me lately, but why the Hell are we paying you people? In his blue and white striped tie he looked less like a salesman and more like someone who has read a few books and thought about things. Yes, a tie can do that. Trump also looked and sounded like the reasonable guy in the room. He was standing in for the average American voter as he asked everyone to drop their petty grievances to do the job they were elected to do. Yes, it is true that he continues to hold on to his own petty grievances, and by the end of the week he had at least one new one, but in the search for hope we need to suspend reality at times.

The customary decision by most Democrats to sit on their hands as Trump tried to reach out to them in the spirit of compromise symbolized all that is wrong with Washington. A few Republicans also revealed moments of disdain for the president and his message. Whether this was part of the Trump strategy or not the pictures worked in Trump’s favor. He was elected as an outsider sent to shake up the current system. His light connection to the Republican Party and conservatism gives him the potential to be the dealmaker he claims to be, but if Democrats refuse to help him govern purely out of spite, as matter of political strategy, or habit — Trump may end up winning on public relations. Congressional obstruction does not play well when compared next to presidential leadership.

On the us versus them battlefield Trump has set up, he represents us while the members of Congress who smugly sat passing judgement on the man we elected, represent them. Former President Barack Obama helped Trump last week when it was announced that Obama and his wife had signed a book deal worth as much as $60 million. The Obamas left office with high approval ratings and with many wishing they could stay another four years, but cashing in for a big post presidency pay day, a month after leaving office, drives home the point that there is one set of rules for the elite and another set of rules for everyone else. Trump voters will not miss the hypocrisy of the Obama book deal. Trump has successfully set himself up as the elitist willing to level the playing field.

It is important to remember Tuesday’s speech was only one speech and that going in the bar for Trump was very low. All he needed to do to win good reviews was be his best self. He had to leave the hot rhetoric of the campaign behind and use language meant to bring the country together. In tone he succeeded, but in terms of content his speech was still full of references to walls, criminal immigrants, blood, radical Islamists, an America first perspective that may be unreasonable in today’s world, and promises and claims of success quantified in lots of millions and millions and billions and billions. In other words, there were no details. If that is part of a long-term negotiating strategy that’s fine, but if the lack of detail shows there is no plan to achieve Trump’s vision, it’s a problem. He and his advisers still appear to be running the White House like a television show in which the main character claims achievement, but the audience never sees the actual work, because the show is only an hour long. It is not clear to anyone that the Trump team understands how a bill becomes law or that the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone.

Now comes the hard part. Was Tuesday a turning point or an act? One report this week said Trump realized going into Tuesday night that his tone had to change. This would be a good sign, because his lack of presidential decorum is at the root of all his opposition. There are many people who didn’t vote for him and still can’t support him based mainly on the fact that they find him personally offensive. This group of Americans is not judging Trump on his policies they are simply saying, “he does not represent me,” therefore he is not my president.

Many political observers have predicted the turning point for Trump would be based on his own poll numbers — his personal popularity. More than most politicians, Trump seems to have a burning desire to be loved by the crowd. With polls showing him with an approval rating in the 30’s, and lower than any other president at this point in his first term, perhaps he has decided the communications style that got him to the White House won’t keep him there. Maybe he is just now realizing that national politics has nothing to do with New York real estate or international branding. He is playing a new game, with new rules, new expectations and a game that one man can influence, but not fully control.

Saturday morning Trump accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower toward the end of the 2016 campaign. The charge surprised even his closest advisers who did not see it coming and could not explain where it came from. And so we have our answer. Tuesday was not a turning point it was an aberration. Donald Trump has, once again, proved himself unfit for the office he holds. Less than half way to the end of the first 100 days how many more counts do we need before we bring forward a full indictment of this presidency?

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Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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