I wrote about how stupid it is to keep asking the same questions of a person who will never be able to answer them. https://t.co/yKdEVyOMHb
— David Roth (@david_j_roth) May 1, 2020
I wish TNR wasn’t currently spasming through one of its periodic YES BUT THE DEMS ARE BY EVERY DEFINITION WORSE!!! outbreaks (I’ve been subscribing & quitting on a regular basis, for more than 30 years). Because right now I’d pay to read David Roth, but the headlines on the rest of their current roster make me slightly nauseous.
In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.
Of course, it all gets much worse with the sound on; very few things about Trump have ever improved—have not instantly unraveled into a tangle of fragrant grifty waste—upon closer examination. Still, the combination of those familiar close shots, the years of inherited cultural reflex and unconscious media conditioning can make the illusion work for fleeting moments. Since Trump himself has both measured and lived his singularly episodic life in just those kinds of moments, it’s a deal he’s been happy to make. Trump knows what people see when they encounter an older white man standing behind a podium with a certain seal emblazoned upon it, which is the President of the United States of America. He imagined that he might be that man, and now he is. This is all a guess, insofar as anything about What Trump Really Thinks is invariably and inherently a guess, but if there was anything about the job that truly appealed to him when he set out to win the presidency as his own, this sure feels like it. As a lifelong acolyte and addict of television, he could imagine himself in those shots, in that space, doing … whatever a president does.
It seems much less likely that Trump imagined the part where he brutally duffs the response to a pandemic that is now killing thousands of Americans every day and exposing the fragility of the gilded and precarious economy on which he staked his political future and personal legacy. That’s not the sort of thing Trump contemplates, and after years of his presidency happening more or less as someone as vain and lazy as him might dream it—spend all day watching TV and chasing feuds, watch the big numbers go up and up, bask in the adoration of devoted fans who roar with laughter at every garbled punchline—he has proven himself wholly unprepared for the realities of this very difficult job. He only really has so many moves, and because there’s no room within him to learn or care or adapt, he can only hit his mark and expect it all to work this time.
Being there is the point. And being there, in those contextually flattering close shots but also those other ones where he appears to be falling asleep while hanging from an invisible parachute, is why Donald Trump has continued to fight off attempts by the various cynics and masochists to manage him in order to continue claiming the few hours of free daily television exposure that those briefings afford him. So Trump goes up there and does his weird fey bullying thing in response to questions he can’t answer, introduces the CEOs of various companies and accepts their thanks, and breaks in to deliver luxurious adjectival filigrees and wheedling requests for credit and weird obvious lies as promotional addenda to the answers given by the handful of experts also on hand to acknowledge the raging, destructive course of the present crisis. Periodically, Trump veers from his usual riffy emcee-in-chief tone to note how tragic it is that more than 60,000 Americans (as of yesterday) have died in the pandemic he’s so persistently chosen not to manage. But it’s never long before he returns to what matters to him—his numbers, his grievances, himself. “I’m seeing it,” Trump said Wednesday of his belief that an economic recovery will be swift. “I feel it. I’ve felt a lot of things over the years, including, ‘Gee, I think I can win for president.’ You know?”
This performance has long been deeply discordant, especially with Trump’s little whammy-bar runs of gloating and grievance now playing over the daily drumbeat of mass death and economic devastation. It has finally begun to feel as dangerous as it is…