When Donald Trump won the New York GOP primary on April 19, he gave a speech that was shorter and more subdued than his usual Wizard of Oz–like rant. Instead of calling his vanquished opponent “Lyin’ Ted,” he called him “Senator Cruz.” And the corporate media heard their cue.
On television, pundits lined up to testify that Trump was “very disciplined,” “less combative,” “fundamentally different,” and, above all, “more presidential.”
We’ve been riding this roller coaster for a while: The press claims sightings of a more presidential Donald Trump, only to later be shocked, shocked, that he’s still the same outrageous showman they’ve known all along. After Trump tied Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination, the commentariat went from Trump 2.0 to “WTF?” But just three days later, when the presumptive GOP nominee finally said a few nice words about Paul Ryan, they were patting him on the back for his “baby steps,” as CNN’s Dana Bash put it, toward more presidential behavior. “So perhaps, perhaps,” she said, “he is sort of getting it, and he’s saying, look, it’s different now.” Expect them to eventually attaboy Donald for no longer suggesting that the Clintons murdered Vincent Foster.
You can partly blame the mainstream media’s urge to presidentialize this man on their usual false-equivalency narrative, according to which Donald and Hillary are more or less playing in the same league. But the MSM are also struggling to follow an even more deeply embedded script—a kind of comic-book origins story. The leap from common man to dignified leader of the free world is part of the national myth. And Trump’s journey from reality-TV star to potential POTUS, from pop to pomp, is no different, in kind, from those stories that start with a Georgia peanut farmer, or a Hollywood actor, or even a Kentucky rail-splitter. But if Donald Trump wins the election, the storyline would require him to star in a particularly dramatic, real-life fairy tale, one we haven’t seen before: an Internet troll turns into a prince. It appears that the mainstream media are rehearsing for the day when they might, despite all of Trump’s glaring flaws, have to make that transformation stick.
For his part, Trump mocks such assiduous attempts to pomp him up. “It’s very easy to be presidential,” he crowed at a Connecticut rally last month, and then acted it out:
“My wife tells me to be more presidential, my daughter tells me to be more presidential, and [advisers] Paul Manafort and Corey [Lewandowski] and a lot of them say, ‘Be more presidential,’” Trump complained.
But this man’s a star—his roles disappear into him, not the other way around. “If I acted presidential, I can guarantee you this morning, I wouldn’t be here,” he assured the crowd. “I sort of don’t like toning it down…. Isn’t it nice that I’m not one of these Teleprompter guys?”
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“Presidential” is an amorphous thing. It’s different from being qualified or “fit” for the office, though those qualities color it. It’s not about being a leader. (Hard to admit, but Il Duce Donald certainly is one.) It’s shallower than temperament. (Many have said that President Obama has the “perfect temperament” for the job; for the record, Trump said the same about himself.) And it can exist with or without that deeper moral quality we call character. Indeed, “presidential” is a low bar, but that’s all that many of us want: the bare minimum, the illusion of standards, anything to help resolve the cognitive dissonance of a President Trump.
Trump may not be presidential by any logical standard, but he is fantasy presidential. It’s a populist dream: A true outsider, who has lived among the people, will come to power and set things right. The fantasy goes back a long way: King Arthur, Prester John, the Man in the Iron Mask, every era has its version of the once and future king.
Most presidential movies turn on this conceit. A down-to-earth nobody accidentally becomes president, and his gauche inability to lie or manipulate winds up bending the greedy elites to serve the people for a change. Think Mr. Smith Goes to the White House. In 1993’s Dave, a temp agency manager must pretend to be POTUS and ends up winning the love of the first lady and saving democracy. In Chris Rock’s 2003 Head of State, a lowly DC alderman gets his party’s nomination after the leading candidates die in a plane crash, and, figuring he doesn’t have a chance, starts telling inconvenient truths and wins in an upset. Hollywood fantasies aren’t reality, of course—in most films, the regular-guy upstart is an honest, inclusive liberal, not a deceptive billionaire bigot.
But the coming presidential blockbuster will change all that. Trump adviser Manafort says that the Republican convention in Cleveland will be “the ultimate reality show.” The Democratic convention in Philadelphia won’t be anywhere near as exciting as Trump’s surprise guests, musical acts, and comedy routines—and not one, not two, not three, but four nights of Trump!
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“In the creation of the presidency, there’s a built-in contradiction,” David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers University and author of Republic of Spin, told me. “On one hand, we rebelled against a monarchy, and it was very clear we’d have an office that was not a king. On other hand, after failure of the Articles of the Confederation, there was ambivalence. We needed a strong executive, but also someone who had wisdom, virtue, who wouldn’t be corrupted, and that pointed to a land-holding citizen.”
Hitting the right mix of regal and regular has bedeviled presidents ever since. George Washington, Greenberg says, “had certain trappings of monarchy, like a gilded chariot, and he’d play up certain ceremonial aspects of the office.” John Adams was thought to have aspirations to actual monarchy, and was mocked for his potbellied attempts to look noble. Thomas Jefferson dressed more plainly, spent less time on ceremonies, and didn’t even wear a powdered wig. When the British ambassador visited Jefferson, he thought he’d been deliberately insulted by his “utter slovenliness,” according to the White House Historical Association, and that “the insult extended to his sovereign and his country.”
The president to whom Trump is most often likened is the anti-banking populist Andrew Jackson. Following his 1829 inaugural, Jackson threw a public party at the Executive Mansion, and, so the story goes, a drunken mob of his backwoods supporters nearly destroyed the place. Jackson was a white supremacist who ran the first mass deportation in the United States, forcing tens of thousands of Native Americans from their homes on to the infamous Trail of Tears. Jackson, who will be replaced by abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, is currently the victim, Trump said, of “pure political correctness.”
Jackson is also the first in a long line of lowborn, high-achieving leaders whose backstories fed the American myth that the presidency can reveal a common man’s true nobility. He was a self-made man, but his flawless high cravats and enormous top hats, like his plantation that spread over two states, were anything but common. In fact, the lesson seems to be that no president can fly with just one wing—being too common diminishes voter confidence.
“You really saw this ambivalence over what is presidential with Jimmy Carter’s campaign,” Greenberg said. “The candidate was trying to cultivate a real-guy persona, an authenticity. He would carry his own garment bag, sleep at people’s homes.” He added, “All recent presidents have flirted with this, because it’s important that they didn’t seem too high and mighty, above the voters. But, as with Trump, authenticity for Carter can come at the price of seeming presidential. He ultimately couldn’t command the authority he needed to command the presidency.”
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I’ve believed for a while that a prime reason Trump is running for president is to bury the public humiliation he suffered at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. When Obama so coolly burned him for his birther crap, Donald, stuck in the audience, cameras trained on his frozen smile, was unable to reply. His candidacy is his reply.
But why the obsession, the sickness to go birther in the first place? It’s his racism and ambition, of course. But it may also be one of the era’s most consequential cases of psychological self-projection. (It wasn’t Obama who lied about his birthplace but Trump’s own grandfather. Friedrich Drumpf was born in Germany. But during the World Wars, in America, where he had immigrated, that went over about as well as a Muslim POTUS. So, not even bothering to fake a birth certificate, Drumpf claimed to have come from Sweden—a lie that Donald perpetuated in The Art of the Deal.)
Regardless of why Trump has birther hate coming out of his whatever, engineering a whole system of lies to take down a president should alone disqualify him for the office, should alone blunt media musings over whether he’s “presidential.” It’s one thing for the Republican Party to gloss over Trump’s birtherism. (Why wouldn’t they? It’s the bullhorn version of the dog whistle they’ve been blowing for decades.) But it’s another thing entirely for the news media to let it slide.
When Chuck Todd, or Anderson Cooper, asks him if still believes Obama was born outside of the United States, Trump will say only, “I don’t like talking about it anymore.” You can’t force him to answer what he refuses to, his would-be interrogators seem to figure, and so they move on. If you want to maintain access, you don’t push too hard. And, hey, the birther thing is old news—we can’t keep up with all the garbage Trump shoots out of his mouth as it is.
But as James Carville wrote recently, “When a politician says he doesn’t talk about an issue, that’s precisely the issue you should ask him about.” “Trump’s birtherism,” Carville went on, “is far, far more important” than his other crazy shit. It’s his “original sin,” and yet the “press have largely ignored the issue that made him a political phenomenon in the first place.”
Fox and other right-wing media went after Obama for his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright almost nightly for weeks—to the point that Obama had to address it in a (masterful) speech on America’s racism. Can you imagine if the media regularly, relentlessly grilled Trump on his birther con? If they gave it a fraction of the time they devote to polls and predictions? Of course, Trump supporters would triple-down on vilifying the media. But by avoiding the question, the press is helping to make Trump and his bigotry more acceptable.
The media are even normalizing Trump by assuming he can change in a fundamental way. Hope springs eternal and all that, but, more than most people, Donald Trump seems calcified in habits and instincts that were formed long, long ago. He’s a “man-baby,” Jon Stewart said recently in a podcast, but, “don’t worry. When he becomes president, he’s going to be totally mature.”
The pressing question is less about Trump’s capacity to change and more about how the media will change—either to accommodate his rise, or to grow up themselves. We’ve never faced someone like Trump, a veritable medium onto himself. What can journalists do to avoid repeating the kind of lapdog performances that resulted in the Iraq war?
Maybe the best advice, coming from Rachael Maddow and a few other journalists, is to go at who he is, at his character, his bigotry, his cons, and stop getting lost in his policy flip-flops. Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s On the Media, argues that you just can’t treat him like a normal candidate:
Look, by its nature, journalism subordinates old news to the latest development. But, in this case, being slave to the fresh angle is simple malpractice, because every moment spent on Trump policy and process buries the lead. The lead is that a man who wants to build a wall, who wants to ban Muslims, who sees women only as potential vessels for his–“no problem there, I assure you”–could be the president of the United States. It was the lead in July. It is the lead now. It will be the lead in November.
Every interview with Donald Trump, every single one should hold him accountable for bigotry, incitement, juvenile conduct, and blithe contempt for the Constitution. The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough.
But the likelihood that corporate media will really step up is about the same that Trump will become presidential. In the now-infamous words of CBS CEO Les Moonves, the Trump circus “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”