By David K. Shipler
Mark Twain is said to have once advised, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” So it might be said of Donald Trump. If you don’t like his policy on this or that, just wait a few minutes. It was true during the campaign and has been the case since the election.
His shifts have stoked the wishful thinking that some on the left have embraced since his candidacy. First, his cruelly personal, bigoted assaults were supposedly so off-putting that voters would surely flee from him in droves. On the contrary, he did better and better as the primaries proceeded.
Then, conventional wisdom in the press and political establishment held that a) he would moderate his tone during the general election campaign to appeal to a broader electorate, or b) his repeated misogyny, crude ignorance of the world, and narcissistic rants would propel him into the dustbin of history. He did not moderate, and he made history instead of being buried by it.
All assumptions about the power of good manners, truth-telling, and common decency fell by the wayside. Whenever Trump said something obnoxious, and especially after the recording surfaced of his boasts about his predatory sexual preferences, The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations rushed to hear from the distraught and fractured Republican leadership about the party’s imminent disintegration and how it might put itself back together again after the expected devastating loss.
Most of the chattering class, including conservative Republicans, couldn’t believe that voters would tolerate his rude attacks on sacred cows—the parents of a U.S. soldier who had died in combat, a former P.O.W. named John McCain, a Miss Universe, a handicapped reporter—or his flirtation with Vladimir Putin or his nonchalance about NATO commitments and the spread of nuclear weapons. But even when his poll numbers dipped after an egregious remark, the support then steadied and never signaled the collapse that some political coverage predicted.
Grassroots evidence from the field had too little impact on political analysis, which was often woven with prospects of his demise, even while Trump-Pence yard signs were proliferating like mushrooms, folks were piling into his rallies, and millions of supporters—thrilled by his confrontational message—were looking past his dangerous faults at his appealing roughness. Some of his supporters wished his flaws away. Again and again in interviews, people at his rallies said he didn’t really mean that or that he’d hire smart people to temper his erratic personality and shape his policies, or that he had been misinterpreted. Again and again, one heard a coarse Trump statement reworded by an admiring voter into a more benign phrase.
Indeed, reinterpreting Trump has become a way of life, and will be undoubtedly for the next four (or eight) years. Since the election, his every moderating adjective has been magnified into hope on the left, resentment on the right. The weight of the presidency will compel him to be “presidential.” His love of being loved will nudge him toward a centrist posture of broader appeal. His childish rants—against the cast of “Hamilton,” against “Saturday Night Live”—will be tempered by staff, as if he were a child king in need of a regent: Vice President Mike Pence or Chief of Staff Reince Priebus or son-in-law Jared Kushner. The wishful thinkers are thinking overtime.
Their flickering flame of hope is kept alive by Trump’s oblique hints at policy changes: torture now doesn’t work, he’s just discovered after apparently failing to pay attention to what professional interrogators have been saying for fifteen years. Maybe climate change is happening, he now says, and maybe—just maybe—there’s some connection with human behavior. Maybe Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted after all for her non-criminal email arrangement. Trump toys with the people and the press, teasing out headlines, loving the country’s compulsion to hang on every word, as if we were a mob gathered in the square to watch the emperor give a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
This is not policy. This is showmanship. Policy is revealed in the characters he is bringing into his administration: extreme right-wingers like Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, who wants to funnel taxpayer funds away from public schools into religious and other private schools; Muslim-haters like Frank Gaffney and Steve Bannon, who think every mosque is a front for the Muslim Brotherhood; racists like Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, who will further emasculate the civil rights and voting rights missions of the Justice Department.
Most telling, perhaps, is that unlike John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and probably most other presidents, Donald Trump is too weak in self-regard to laugh at himself. He cannot find anything amusing in Alec Baldwin’s brilliant caricatures of him on Saturday Night Live. He cannot stand seeing his blemishes magnified on the screen.
If he ever feels secure enough to laugh at himself, even just a little, there might be some justification for a bit of wishful thinking. And sometimes, wishes come true.