White House

Trump's Presidential Theater of the Absurd

Republican-aligned media accepts and amplifies whatever he says, setting up terrible incentives.

Comedy and tragedy.

Photographer: ryasick/iStockphoto via Getty Images
  • ITEM: Trump frequently claims he'll do something -- roll out a plan, make a decision -- "in two weeks" and then does not follow up.
  • ITEM: Trump's $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia turned out to be almost entirely fictional -- turns out that what "deals" there were preceded the Trump administration, and nothing in the new "deal" moved forward from previous tentative steps.
  • ITEM: Trump on Monday held a mock signing ceremony for his decision to endorse privatizing air traffic control. 
  • ITEM: EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has been touting 50,000 new coal jobs which turn out to be closer to 1,000 new coal jobs.

The accomplishments of the Trump administration have a knack for turning out to be hollow -- this week has been a pretty brutal reminder of that, and it's only Tuesday. But how does it affect Trump's ability to govern? 

On the one hand, it certainly has -- and should -- contribute to problems for Trump's professional reputation. News consumers who have no involvement in government might well be duped by this kind of thing, but those who have to deal with the president have no doubt already learned that his word cannot be trusted, which imposes all sorts of constraints on the White House going forward. 

On the other hand? It probably is true that Trump has successfully convinced a lot of people who get their news mostly or entirely from Republican-aligned outlets that he's having one fabulous success after another, so for example a CBS survey last month found 95 percent of strong Trump supporters think he's "effective." The problem is that catering only to hard-core partisans is pretty useless for a president, since those folks are going to buy whatever he's selling regardless of what it might be. 

Beyond that, this kind of presidential spin hardly seems worth the resources that the Trump administration is putting into it, which seems like an awful lot.

Presidents who were supposedly very good at managing the media -- Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, perhaps Barack Obama -- nevertheless had approval ratings which rose and fell with events, just as if White House spin was pretty much irrelevant. And of course Trump himself has terrible polling numbers

So it's hard to see any significant upside and easy to see a downside in the bluster coming from the president and his administration.

Trump would probably be following this strategy regardless of how media coverage worked. 1 Still, for this particular president, it probably provides positive re-enforcement to have Fox News and other Republican-aligned media amplify his claims without question. But whether it was Trump or someone else in the Oval Office, Republican-aligned media accepts and amplifies whatever he says, setting up terrible incentives.

Trump isn't actually doing most of the things he's claiming to do, which also means he, his administration, and the Republican-majority Congress, are in many cases failing to enact policies which conservatives claim to care about. Every time Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh pretends along with Trump, it just increases the incentives for all Republicans to be lazier and lazier. Why formulate policy when pretending to have enacted it gets the same results? Or, to take the flip side: Why work up a coherent, sophisticated critique of Barack Obama when making things up or taking words out of context is accepted by friendly media and, consequently, by rank-and-file Republican voters? 

The problem isn't that Republican voters will believe whatever Trump and other Republicans tell them; in fact, all voters tend to follow partisan and same-group opinion leaders, so some of this is perfectly normal. The problem is that it's just too easy. There's no need to fashion reasonable-sounding talking points, or (even worse) to take actions that make the talking points reasonable. And since public policy is hard, politicians without incentives to formulate viable policies tend not to do so. Which might seem to work okay in the short run, but in the long run it works out badly for everyone -- including, as George W. Bush found out, the politicians who seem to be able to get away with feel-good bromides right up until things start going badly wrong. 

Of course, some cheerleading from party-aligned media is inevitable. But the degree to which the Republican press does it, and the extent to which (some) Republican readers and viewers insist on discounting other information sources, sets up a terrible incentive structure for Republican politicians. And when Trump's particular pathologies get thrown into the mix? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. As many have pointed out, it's a strategy which works well for a small-scale con artist who need only succeed with a small percentage of pitches, and that's Trump's training.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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