That didn’t last long. It never does.
A week after Donald Trump was hailed by some media figures for a “change of tone” in his coronavirus briefings, the US president on Tuesday praised a doctor who believes in alien DNA and demon semen, grumbled about his low approval ratings and abruptly walked out when challenged by a female reporter.
It’s presidential, Jim, but not as we know it.
It has become a familiar pattern. Trump’s outrage machine has numbed the media so that shocking statements are normalized to the point that they no longer register as news. It’s therefore actually more newsworthy when he says something vaguely similar to what a President Jeb Bush or President Marco Rubio might have said.
In other words, “Trump touts junk science” or “Trump accuses Obama of spying” is no longer new and unexpected, but more likely to be met with a shrug. But “Trump embraces science” or “Trump shows compassion” would fit the definition of genuinely surprising and headline-making.
The consequence of this brings to mind former president George W Bush’s phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Any hint of Trump struggling for redemption is lauded out of proportion. Clinging to an optimistic view of human nature, some media commentators need to believe it’s true.
When he won the presidential election in 2016, there was endless talk of a “pivot” to presidential that never came. When he delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress in January 2017 and honored the widow of a Navy Seal, the CNN pundit Van Jones declared: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah recently compiled seven clips from late March and early April in which the MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski spoke of “a dramatic shift in tone” and others noted a “somber tone” or similar.
Trump was only speaking as any world leader might be expected to speak. But because it went against his expected type, it was worth remarking on. Soon, however, he reverted to his more familiar style, lambasting reporters – especially women of color – pushing hydroxychloroquine despite the evidence and going down in flames with idle speculation about injecting disinfectant.
So as Noah pointed out, last week’s pivot was deja vu all over again. In his first coronavirus briefing since April, Trump warned that “it will probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better” and endorsed wearing masks. It was hardly a “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” moment but, when the bar is as low as bleach injections, Trump was rewarded.
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, tweeted: “Trump’s press conference today marks a change in tone and a more disciplined and realistic approach. It will be a good message for the public and he will benefit from it politically. Welcome news.”
Yet even at that briefing, Trump took the time to bestow his best wishes upon the British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell – charged with being part of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring. If any other president had done so, a firestorm would have raged for days. With number 45, it was merely another here today, gone tomorrow controversy.
And as the Associated Press noted, “The change in tone lasted a day … by Tuesday, the Republican president had returned to lashing out on Twitter at his Democratic critics.”
Indeed, it was soon enough the same old Trump, culminating in his retweet on Monday of a video in which a group of lab coat-wearing doctors pushed false and misleading claims about Covid-19, then his defense on Tuesday of one of the doctors who rejects the need for face masks and promotes hydroxychloroquine, as well as claims that alien DNA is used in medical treatments and some gynecological problems are caused by people dreaming about having sex with demons.
This assault on presidential tone is not trivial. It is a key characteristic of the consoler-in-chief role of the American president in times of crisis and tragedy. Some say Bill Clinton became “presidential” only after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But with Trump, the repeated media narrative of him pivoting to more presidential behavior is a triumph of hope over experience.
Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post columnist, wrote on Tuesday: “The media’s fetish with ‘tone’ seems to tell us more about the media than Trump. It is part of the mainstream media’s collective determination to avoid spelling out how irrational and impulsive he actually is.”
The media engages in “gaslighting” by disingenuously presenting Trump as a rational president, Rubin added. “The media’s acknowledgment of the frightening reality we have lived with for four years will come, I suspect, only after Trump leaves office.”
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