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March 6, 2017

Political Theater

Praising his recent speech, the media has again fallen for Trump’s traps.

Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress last Tuesday was a master class in deception, distraction, and deflection. He showed, once and for all, how setting up just enough smoke and mirrors can earn praise from even his harshest critics and divert attention from his policies.

Van Jones, for example, said after the speech that Trump “became President of the United States in that moment.” The truth, however, is that Trump did not become president in that moment—that occurred on January 20. Rather, he gave an ominous glimpse into our future if we continue to treat politics as a superficial game in which optics and tone reign supreme.

On the afternoon before the speech, Trump again proved how easy it is to take advantage of the press, and by extension, the American people. He met with network anchors in the White House and offered meaningful platitudes about immigration reform and a path to citizenship for those without documentation. A stark departure from nearly all of his previous statements and proposals on the matter, Trump’s comments set off a flurry of headlines before his big speech, all alluding to the possibility of a radical shift in the White House’s thinking on immigration. He was praised by many for seeking common ground on the controversial matter, as if new attempts at compromise somehow trump the past few months of ideological rigidity and unilateral action.

Of course, none of the comments would prove consequential—except in generating positive stories and confusing Americans trying to make sense of his policies. There was no shift: no elusive pivot to the middle. As a senior White House official told CNN’s Sara Murray, Trump’s earlier remarks were simply a “misdirection play.” In other words, Trump’s inner circle was bragging about his ability to play the media.

And played they were. The joint session speech offered more of the same severe rhetoric and proposals on immigration. Important for the pundits, however, was Trump’s subdued tone. In a remarkable feat, the President read pre-written sentences without interruption for a full 60 minutes. While showcasing his basic literacy and ascending to some vaguely “presidential demeanor” in the process, Trump nevertheless offered the same extreme policies. As one senior White House official put it, the address embodied “nationalism with an indoor voice.”

Regrettably, that “indoor voice” is substantive for many in the media. Pundits on network news channels heaped praise on Trump for what was, ultimately, a speech with lots of platitudes, few policy changes, and scarce plans to meaningfully implement policy. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported that even those close to Trump were surprised by the reaction. He tweeted: “Some sources in WH are frankly surprised at how pundits are warming to the speech. Say Trump has not changed, no big shift in policy coming.”

It should not require the very people seeking to deceive and distract us explicitly telling us what they are doing to wake us up. After all, distract and dazzle—or perhaps more accurately, distract and frazzle—has been at the heart of Donald Trump’s tactics from his earliest days in the spotlight. The gambit is perhaps the one thing that Trump is best known for and is indisputably skilled at doing. It is one of the many things he has learned from his father, Fred, for whom he has an almost singular reverence.

Back in 1972, for example, when Trump and his father were being sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination, Donald Trump hired Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel Roy Cohn to represent the Trump company. Rather than settling in the face of very clear evidence, Cohn goaded Trump’s instincts, and the two agreed to hit back harder. Trump held a press conference in New York, where he accused the Department of Justice of fabricating a case against him (an episode that is quite familiar to all of us more than 40 years later). Trump had no factual basis for his claims, but he knew that in simply going at the matter with a hammer, he could effectively win the PR battle.

Cohn pushed forward, seeking $100 million in damages for false and misleading statements from the Department of Justice. Of course, the case was dismissed, and Trump eventually had to settle the racial discrimination suit. This should have been considered an objective win for the Department of Justice, but Trump knew that he could make himself the victor if the narrative was spun properly.

He claimed victory and later wrote, “In the end the government couldn’t prove its case, and we ended up making a minor settlement without admitting any guilt.” That was key for him: He did not admit any wrongdoing. Trump would walk away with his pride intact and begin building a reputation for never letting up or being played.

It was exactly this reputation, after decades of media manipulation and literally thousands of lawsuits, that aided Trump in his rise to the White House. As Mitt Romney put it last year, “Trump is a phony, a fraud.” And his schtick works when all we seem to care about in politics is tone, rhetoric, and optics—when we allow “misdirection plays” to dominate our news cycles.

Too often, we act as though our nation’s politics exist in a bubble, with key players frolicking around Washington in a grand show for the American people. They don’t. Politics is personal. It’s people’s lives at stake. And the truth is that we’ll never escape Trump’s game if we don’t start paying more attention to what matters. The policies. The people. The outcomes.

Dylan Stafford is a first-year in the College.

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