Nearly 100 days into the Trump presidency, corporate media are still struggling to reckon with the man that occupies the White House. An administration so proudly reckless in its actions and so brazenly detached from the truth has routinely overwhelmed political reporters whose accountability muscles have atrophied. And from cable news panels to newspaper op-ed pages, Trump’s aberrant behavior has so traumatized the media establishment that it often seems to operate in a state of collective shock.
This disconnect with the White House, however, presents a fundamental problem for elite pundits. Their “serious” stature and editorial relevance—their livelihoods, in other words—rest upon their proximity to and influence on power. Normalizing and currying favor with power—no matter how abnormal or extreme—is an occupational hazard.
So too is a calculated unpredictability. That columnist or talking head who relentlessly hammers upon Trump’s open bigotry and meticulously documents Trump’s many lies is likely to get fewer page views or see fewer green rooms than the one who offers up the occasional contrarian take or dose of approval.
Frustrated by the president’s obvious ignorance, juvenile impetuousness, and endless norm-breaking, elite commentators have started resorting to a kind of Pygmalion punditry. To show how smart they are, these pundits have begun considering Trump in much the same way Professor Henry Higgins did Eliza Doolittle—as mostly a problem of manners and refinement to solve.
This fan fiction is little more than an intellectual dodge, however, where the press helpfully reimagines Trump as he might be, rather than analyzing him for what he really is. Less than three weeks before the election, for example, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan (10/20/16) produced her own pretentious entry in this genre under the headline “Imagine a Sane Donald Trump.” Her ostensibly critical piece was really an act of rhetorical jiu jitsu—praising Trump with faint damnation. Her Higginsesque focus rests almost exclusively on remaking Trump’s style and messaging, which often suffers from turning conservative subtext into too-obvious text. Notably, Noonan doesn’t bother much with recasting Trump’s actual policies into “sanity.”
“Sane Donald Trump would have explained his immigration proposals with a kind of loving logic.” Yes, Noonan actually wrote that sentence. (Even more inexplicably, she won a Pulitzer Prize for it.) Yet she never dared to confront the bigoted, xenophobic framework of those proposals, or offered details on how something like a Muslim ban could ever be lovingly explained. Similarly, in her telling, a “sane” Donald Trump campaign “cannot begin as or devolve into a nationalist, identity-politics movement,” and it would reject “those who look down on other groups, races or religions.” That’s the great thing about creating a wholly fictional Trump: It lets you totally disappear inconvenient facts like his very political career being founded upon the racist, Islamophobic “birther” conspiracy theory.
Time and again, the media firmament has looked for excuses to refashion Trump into someone he is not. On the eve of the inauguration, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman (1/18/17) spent an entire column posing a series of “What if?” questions to create an alternate universe of Trump’s tweets. A few weeks later, Friedman’s op-ed colleague Russ Douthat (2/11/17), in a column headlined “Can This Presidency Be Saved?,” duly noted that Trump has “free will” and that “there is no necessary reason he could not wake up tomorrow and decide” to change essentially everything about his approach to politics. “This isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s kind of easy,” Douthat concluded—two weeks before Trump made the stunning claim: “Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.”
A day after Douthat, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt (2/12/17) weighed in with his own thought experiment: “Imagining a Successful Trump Presidency.” Hiatt ran through a long list of possible outcomes on US domestic and foreign policy, before asking the self-evident question of “whether the administration has the discipline and finesse to pull off these difficult balancing acts.” But it is Hiatt’s disclaimer, tucked in the middle of the column, that perfectly captures the shallow detachment of so much of this Pygmalion punditry: “In any case, you can see something like a best-case scenario taking place. I should make clear: I don’t mean best-case in the sense of good policy.”
The commentariat’s hopes for a kinder, gentler Trump persona skyrocketed after Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress in late February. The media swooned over how familiar his rhetoric was, prompting one liberal pundit to absurdly declare Trump had “become president” that night (FAIR.org, 3/1/17).
At The Week (3/1/17), conservative Ed Morrissey gushed (emphasis in original) that Trump “was measured. He was a statesman. He was…normal.” “Before Tuesday’s address,” Morrissey continued,
some [Republicans] had to be wondering whether the new White House could get its act together on process as well as policy, and if Trump had a temperament that would allow them to work together. Tuesday’s speech shows that Trump can choose to modulate his approach when needed.
Of course, reality spoiled the plot. A mere two days after Morrissey’s sunny column ran, Trump tweeted (3/2/17) that the Democrats have “lost their grip on reality” and were conducting a “witch hunt” of his campaign’s possible ties to Russia. By the end of the month, the president (3/27/17) was insulting people he needed to pass one of his signature campaign promises—repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Later in March, the New York Times provided a Sunday two-fer from Frank Bruni and Tom Friedman. Bruni (3/22/17) focused on the president’s Twitter account and grandly threw down the gauntlet: “Donald Trump faces a stark choice. He can tweet, or he can govern,” he wrote. “He can vent his emotions or exercise his responsibilities.” That a lifetime of choosing the former and ducking the latter seems to have already answered this question doesn’t seem to register with Bruni.
In his second go-round with this genre, Friedman (3/22/17), in true globalist form, decided to outsource the job of remaking Trump to the “five adults” on the president’s staff. Sounding every bit like a world-weary Higgins lecturing the president from the confines of a posh, wood-paneled club, Friedman demands these “few good men” reverse the “moral rot” of Trump’s administration and “sit the president down” so he can “do the right thing.” The “world is watching,” he makes sure to add, after informing us of his travel itinerary: “I’m now in Paris, after almost a week in the United Arab Emirates.”
This anachronistic tone of serious men speaking seriously to other men also colored a David Ignatius column in the Washington Post (4/18/17). “Trump Needs a Dose of ‘Manly Virtues’” is chock full of brow-furrowed, “Trump would help himself” and “Trump should stop” remonstrations, but gives the game away in how out of touch it is with this precious line: “These boasts only diminish him.”
Still, one almost hear Ignatius sigh in relief as he writes: “On foreign policy, Trump has shown a flexibility and pragmatism that contradict some of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric” toward China and Russia. Ignatius quietly ignores that Trump is actually proving to be, as advertised, unrepentantly hawkish toward military intervention in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
But then, this is the Post, whose editorial page has seemingly never seen a cruise missile that didn’t need a good launching at the latest purported threat in the Middle East. Tellingly, the warming of the corporate media to Trump’s “pragmatism” became wholly evident after their near unanimous encomiums for his abrupt bombing of Syria three weeks ago (FAIR.org, 4/7/17).
This show of potential establishment thinking by Trump moved the Wall Street Journal‘s Gerald Seib (4/24/17) to write a cri de coeur of the Beltway centrist pundit earlier this week. In “How an Alternative Donald Trump Opening Act Might Have Unfolded,” Seib surreally tries to claim the president as one of his own, a “radical centrist” whose populist appeal “should transcend partisanship and ideology.”
Even for opinion-writing, this is journalistic malpractice. Trump has demonstrated his reactionary, right-wing nature on any number of issues—climate change, reproductive rights, government transparency, healthcare reform, immigration, etc.—in the first 100 days. Nevertheless, Seib concocts a naive caricature of a nonexistent moderate Trump, someone who he thinks could have immediately abandoned the inflammatory Islamophobia that fueled his base and balanced out his cabinet by appointing Democrats. It’s a Bizarro World portrait so divorced from political reality that even Aaron Sorkin would find it unbelievable.
he corporate media’s compulsion to legitimize power remains almost impossible to stop, however. Which is how, 97 days into perhaps the most radical presidency of modern times, we got a Washington Post headline (4/26/17): “On Foreign Policy, Trump Has Become — Gasp — a Normal President.” Written by Danielle Pletka of the right-wing AEI think tank, the op-ed reads like a bemused first report card. Writing off the very real concerns and hardships of millions of immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries, Pletka proclaims: “President Trump has been far more conventional than many dared hope.” Her conclusion sums up not just her column, but perhaps the whole enterprise of Pygmalion punditry—a desperate attempt at projecting onto a radical, reckless and dishonest Trump the favored policies and norms of the media establishment:
All we know now is what we see and don’t see. What we have seen from Trump in his early days as president is a man who is owning his burdens, one who wants to rebuild the deterrent power of the United States, one who is shocked by the horrors of war and one who is game to push back on enemies. All to the good.
This credulous bonhomie belies the much more shocking truth about Trump, of course. But, appropriately, it sounds a lot George Bernard Shaw’s final stage direction at the end of Pygmalion, where the well-off teacher, though thoroughly rejected by the student, indulges a naive self-delusion that she’ll eventually come around to his way of thinking: “Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner.”