The inaugural pageantry continued last weekend, as Donald Trump attended a service at the National Cathedral in Washington, thus exposing the world to the curious spectacle of Trump singing hymns. (“Crown me with many crooooowns. And I know crowns, okay? Believe me.”) After that, it was off into perhaps the weirdest first two days of a presidency on record.
There was Trump’s chest-puffing speech at CIA headquarters in Langley, in front of the poignant wall of stars that commemorates intelligence officers killed in action, which earned him unusually strident condemnation from a former CIA director. There was the White House’s first banana-republic press conference, during which Sean Spicer declared that Trump’s inauguration had attracted the biggest crowds ever (it didn’t), bashed the media, and then retreated without taking questions. And there was Kellyanne Conway’s landmark defense of Spicer in which she asserted that he’d merely offered up “alternative facts,” which I think is a bit like alternative energy in not being an actual thing.
So those who prayed that the Oval Office might somehow transmogrify Trump into a responsible statesman have been left wanting. Throw in an ongoing obsession with his ratings and the very real possibility that he got Tom Brady to smuggle him into the AFC Championship game under the quarterback’s coat, and you have a president who still can’t distinguish the televisual from the substantive. It isn’t just that Trump and Friends lie; it’s that they lie over meaningless PR micro-scandals that don’t matter. The media then barks and blindly chases their rear bumper, which is why the lion’s share of the political coverage lately has focused on the frivolous issue of crowd size. These were not a banner two days in the history of the American republic.
But there’s something else at work here. Last weekend, Trump also began implementing policy, and much of it was quite good. There was his executive order defanging Obamacare, which, as David Catron points out at the American Spectator, is far more of an overhaul than it appears, instructing the feds and the states to obstruct implementation of the law’s onerous provisions and codifying the government’s intention to strike it from the books entirely. A freeze on all new and pending regulations was enacted on Friday and Trump has since suggested he could cut the number of federal regs by as much as 75 percent. Huddled staffers are haggling out a dramatic slash in government spending.
On foreign policy, Trump officially yanked the cord on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling trade deal with East Asian nations that technically was already dead. He also prepped for the upcoming visit of British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose friendship he’s eager to solicit, reportedly even referring to the unflappable May as “my Maggie.” That’s probably more self-flattery (“I’m the second coming of Reagan, okay?”) than it is a real bilateral aspiration, and no doubt May chafed at the reference. But with Britain’s European Union tormentors baying for blood outside Downing Street, May needs Anglophone allies like the United States in her corner. Don’t expect any Hugh Grant-esque “bugger off” statements to the American president anytime soon.
Much of the punditry’s reaction to Donald Trump has focused on the risk of distraction. “Don’t let his boorishness distract you from his scandals!” or “Don’t let his Twitter outbursts distract you from his assaults on democracy!” Here’s another possibility: what if the splashy idiocy of Trump and his surrogates ends up distracting from a serious and substantive blitz on policy? If Trump can help unshackle businesses while implementing an Obamacare alternative that works and enhancing the special friendship, the public might just ignore the industrial pipeline of lunacy pumping out of the Oval Office. Voters tend to focus more on how presidencies tangibly affect their lives while the media loves controversies, especially the ones that Trump drops like loose change across the 24-hour news cycle. This will further split the people from their press—which, of course is exactly what Trump wants.
Or maybe Trump’s loutish narcissism will end up impeding his ability to get anything done. But don’t become so fixated on the CNN chyrons that you miss what voters are actually thinking. We already made that mistake during the election; we shouldn’t make it again.