Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

November 23, 2016

The Election of Wishful Thinking

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.


  1. This is very interesting. Very recently - sometime in the last 24 hours, I think - I found myself feeling a tiny bit hopeful, the first flicker of hope I've felt since the election. Hearing him change his stance on torture so quickly, after hearing from a general that it doesn't work, made me pause and think: if he's open to advice from people who actually know things, maybe there's hope. Then, someone reminded me that he is surrounding himself with people who purport to "know things" but who have it all wrong, from Bannon to Sessions, and on from there. So, pffft, my hopes dashed and I remain deflated like a floppy balloon.

    If we are to wait and wish for him to be secure, we'll be waiting and wishing forever. Better to wish he'll decide he really doesn't want to be President after all. It was all just a ruse to boost his brand. At least there'd be partial truth in that, for a change.

  2. Oh, I like this comment by Lynn Dickinson and I totally agree. Trump is a TRUE NARCISSIST! He doesn't HAVE any ideology - He doesn't have any substantive beliefs - He has NO CORE!! He's an empty shell! Tony Schwartz explained it all very, very well before the election. He's EMPTY! - Constantly looking for approval - applause - validation - something to fill up the empty core (which can only come out of an emotionally deeply deprived early childhood - DEEPLY deprived.) He has none of the RIGHT STUFF INTERNALLY. He's a SHOWY SHATTERED URN who's good at PRETENDING to be whole. But he's not whole. He has no capability of changing in a meaningful way - whatsoever. Sadly. It's really a tragedy for our country that so many people bought the sales pitch from the Master Huckster Carnival Barker - as that is all he is and I do believe he will lead the country to basically rack and ruin. Look at his DREADFUL picks for his cabinet and other offices!!! He actually has no idea how terrible these picks are! He doesn't seem to UNDERSTAND ANYTHING!! It's absolutely tragic - Dreadful. Disastrous! Devastating. A calamity for our country. He'll try to undo 70 years of progress in every way he can!! And it won't be pretty as it unravels. The only thing I can say that's even slightly positive - in a thoroughly perverse way - is that the people who voted for him will eventually GET THEIR JUST DESSERTS! But the rest of us will have to suffer the punishment, too!
    It's truly tragic - for our country.
    And by the way, allow me to recommend David Frum on Trump. He seems to get it right, all the way. He says, it's all about the deals - the crooked deals! - the shams! - and nothing else!! (basically.) Very sharp of Frum!! He's right on the money with this - right on the money - (heh heh heh.)

  3. P.S. The other thing about Trump that's really scary is that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. Now those are the most dangerous people there are! - and the scariest. Look out for people like that - and they're all over the place. Trump is an excellent example. And really scary that way. And dangerous. Frankly I find him - and the power he's wielding all over the place - like a mindless emperor - like an enfant terrible - terrifying.