Normally, at the end of a new administration’s tumultuous first week, it’s the pundit’s job to sit back and chin-stroke and explain everything that the president and his aides are doing right or wrong.
In the Donald Trump era, though, there’s a distinctive problem: Before he can be defended or criticized, we have to figure out what’s actually happening. And for several reasons, that’s going to be harder in this presidency than ever before.
First: This is clearly going to be an administration with multiple centers of gravity, with more fractiousness and freelancing than in the relatively tight ships that Barack Obama and George W. Bush ran. The Trump White House has a weak chief of staff surrounded by rivalrous advisers. The Trump Cabinet is not necessarily on the same ideological page as the president’s inner circle. Trump himself is famous for agreeing with the last person who bent his ear. So there is no trustworthy voice providing public clarity – least of all poor Sean Spicer – in cases where multiple balls and trial balloons are airborne.
Second: The establishment press, as I warned last week, is being pressured to lead the resistance to Trumpism, which makes it more likely to run with the most shocking interpretations (muzzled bureaucrats! mass resignations!) of whatever the White House happens to be doing. At the same time, the Trump inner circle clearly intends to lean into this phenomenon, to encourage the press-as-opposition narrative, seeing mainstream-media mistakes as a way of shoring up its own base’s loyalty. And then the technological forces shaping media coverage also encourage errors and overreach – a dubious story or even a misleading live-tweet of a press conference can go around the online world long before the more prosaic truth has reached your Facebook feed. (A self-serving suggestion: In such a climate, the discerning citizen may come to appreciate anew the tortoise-like pace of print journalism.)
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Third: Trumpism is an ideological cocktail that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to in U.S. politics, and Trump has arrayed himself against bipartisan habits of mind on all sorts of issues. This means, as The Week columnist Damon Linker notes perceptively, that he’s guaranteed to do things that seem “abnormal” and that take both the press corps and D.C. mandarins aback – like, say, actually enforcing already on-the-books immigration laws. The trick for the public will be figuring where what’s “abnormal” is obviously “alarming” and where it makes more sense to wait and see. Which will be hard for reasons one and two, and also because …
… Trump himself is a loose cannon whose public interventions tend to make his own policies harder to interpret. Is his administration planning a trade war with Mexico, as his tweets suggest, or just pushing a wonky border-adjustment tax that’s been part of GOP proposals for a while? Are we actually considering reviving waterboarding, or is that just an empty executive order left over from the Romney transition that James Mattis and Mike Pompeo have no intention of operationalizing? Is the administration about to embark on a racially coded war against phantom voter fraud based on random anecdotes and conspiracy theories … or is this just a “Twitter promise,” not a real one?
Of course, time will bring a certain clarity. We'll find out whether Trump’s refugee and visa freezes from Muslim countries are actually temporary, a means to stricter screening, or whether they become permanent. We'll move from speculation to reality on Russia policy. We'll find out how far the president intends to run with the voter-fraud nonsense. We'll see how often his angry tweets and behind-the-scenes obsessions cash out, and how often they’re just a way of venting.
But if the fog lifts in some cases, it’s likely to chronically shroud the policymaking process on issues (health care, taxes, infrastructure, more) where Trump needs his congressional allies to have certainty about their shared objectives. And it threatens to descend more dramatically – with Stephen King-style monsters screaming in the mist – with every unexpected event, every unlooked-for crisis, in which what the White House says in real time will matter much more than it does right now.
I ended last week’s column with a warning for the press corps about their potential contribution to a climate of political hysteria. But this column’s warning is for the president and his advisers, some of whom clearly like the fog and seem to imagine that it will help them govern just as it probably helped them win.
They shouldn’t be so confident. For legislators, too much fog is paralyzing. For voters, it’s a recipe for nervous exhaustion. For allies, it’s confusing; for enemies, it looks like an opportunity.
Trump is not a popular president, he has not actually built an electoral majority, his team is not particularly experienced. If he can’t provide clarity and reassurance and a little light around his agenda, it will be very easy for a fog-bound presidency to simply run aground.