Trump’s Contradictions (sort of) Explained

One thing everyone agrees on regarding Donald Trump is that he is obsessed with the media, and particularly with media coverage of himself. A few months back, some naïve people took literally an online satire describing Trump’s addiction to a fictitious “Gorilla TV.” I knew it was satire — and ineffective satire — since Trump wouldn’t care about gorillas unless they wore MAGA T-shirts.

Trump’s new economic advisor, Larry Kudlow (a TV star), says Trump is really a free trader at heart, and that the whole tariff thing is not about tariffs, but about better deals. Asked what would happen if Trump’s tariffs actually set off a full-blown trade war, however, Kudlow can only say, “Hopefully we won’t get to that point.” Even he admits, in other words, that his own explanation of his boss’s position is incoherent and unverifiable.

These days, it has become impossible to overlook Trump’s almost daily self-contradictions, or his practical reneging on campaign promises. He is for free trade — but also for tariffs. He will deport the illegals — but he will give citizenship to 1.8 million illegals — but then again he won’t (today). He will build a wall — but there will be no “real” wall. He will put the military on the border — but it will not really be the military.

At the same time, the Trump diehard never seems to run out of ammunition with which to defend Trump against charges of betrayal, along the lines of, “But he never said he would deport them all! He always mentioned that he would bring the good ones back.”

So which is true? Is Trump really contradicting himself, or has he merely been misunderstood by those who believed he was saying what they wanted to hear? (It’s a strange way to defend one’s hero, admittedly — “Yes, I voted for him because of Promise X, but I now realize he never really promised that, so I can happily continue to love and trust him” — but cult membership tends to have that sort of effect on the mind.)

In a way, both are correct; but in a way, neither. The Indian rope trick Trump’s supporters are playing on themselves is at least as justifiable as the “Told you so” satisfaction of the anti-Trumpers. For what both sides are seemingly ignoring is the spectacularly superficial and “fake news”-oriented element of the man’s character, and even of his being.

Trump is, first and foremost, a creation of media hype. He has made the bulk of his public name and reputation by means of bestsellers, reality TV, Larry King, Howard Stern, Fox News, gossip columns, and social media. He is the Don King of real estate, and now of politics. He lives in headlines and teasers. His voice is a soundbite. His mind operates in the world of cliffhangers and “Is that your final answer?” The glory of that media-created ersatz universe, the influence of which on the popular mind Trump has exploited all the way to the White House, is that the “final answer” is never really final. There will always be another contestant next week, a new variation on the old theme, a new “moment of truth,” which is to say that in this entertainment reality, there is no genuine moment of truth — which, in turn, is to say that in this world there is no truth at all.

This entertainment world is the one Trump inhabits. He is a public persona, and only that. There is no “real Trump,” anymore than there is a “real strategy” behind his various grand declarations of any given moment, which is why even his administration insiders, like Kudlow, cannot confidently explain what he is really doing — they do not, and cannot, know. He is doing what TV does, namely stringing the audience along, always aiming to keep up the element of shock and unpredictability in the name of the great dream of every entertainment mogul: a ratings bonanza. In Trump’s presidency, as in the rest of his public life, every week is Sweeps Week. 

And one lesson a media savvy, TV news-addicted carnival barker learns quickly and learns well, is that the headline is everything. It doesn’t matter whether the content of the story bears any resemblance to the thrilling promise of the headline. Most viewers or readers will barely notice the story’s concluding paragraphs; their curiosity or desire to know is sated by the shiny object of the banner headline. Trump has used this entertainment rule to great advantage. He won his substantial following with headlines that suited their taste. He covered his butt and revealed his more likely course of action in the figurative fifth paragraph of the story — which his fans blissfully ignored when the headline was so well-calibrated to appeal to them. 

And now that the fan base is securely invested in Trump’s leadership and grandeur — that is, now that they would feel like fools for admitting how badly they were hoodwinked — they are only too happy to dig through the details they previously ignored in search of rationalizations for Trump’s betrayals, which they now label “chess.” This is the meaning of Trump’s famous statement during the primaries that he would not lose his base if he shot a man on Fifth Avenue. That was Trump’s version of “There’s a sucker born every minute.” As long as you keep inviting them back with the enticement of a final resolution “on next week’s show,” they’ll stay with you indefinitely. Habit is a powerful motivator, and Trump, like all effective entertainers, has a gift for entrenching himself as a habit in the minds of people desperate for some excitement to stave off the boredom of modern life.

A bad habit.

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