I don’t know why, but I’m still trying to view the Trump administration through rational eyes. Perhaps there are several versions of rational. There really shouldn’t be, but maybe what I think is rational isn’t actually rational. I am saddened by what I see as missed opportunities (see here and here), but I’m starting to accept the fact that it’s never going to happen. I’m starting to accept the fact that we all have things that motivate us, and I think what motivates Trump has more to do with celebrity than anything else. That’s not inconsistent with doing good things for the country, but I’m not convinced that it’s what drives him. I can imagine that he can convince himself that it’s driving him, but I think deep down the things that he embraces are things that feed his celebrity status. I should be clear that I’m not saying that there’s no concern for others in that. I think he enjoys entertaining people. I think he likes it when they’re excited to see him. I think he thrives on that. There’s a level of admirable selflessness in that. Like the comic who stands on stage making fun of himself to make you laugh. On the other hand, it leads to some pretty strange moments when the President of the United States acts that way.
The solidification of this realization came with a tweet yesterday morning.
The President of the United States literally tweeted a tip to the FBI from a FoxNews story. The internet went crazy (well, crazy by last year’s standards, kind of normal by today’s), and rightfully pointed out the absurdity of him talking with the FBI this way. Clearly the President has more direct ways to get information to the FBI. But this wasn’t for the FBI. Of course he can call the FBI director if he really wants to tell them something. This is for his fans. This is entertainment. Remember, he’s an entertainer. From the very beginning, Trump has been an entertainer. When he was making (or losing) money on Casinos and real estate development, he was first and foremost a celebrity. In New York City alone, there’s a list of real estate developers with Trump’s level of wealth, but not his level of celebrity. His natural instinct is to put on a show, and that’s what we’re seeing. That tweet, and pretty much all of his other tweets, can’t possibly be driven by a desire to do what they say (tell the FBI something, get an answer to a question about if Hillary apologized for something, advised people to get immunity). They are there to entertain his fans. To be as generous as possible, he’s never had constituents before, he’s only had fans. It’s reasonable to expect it to take some time to make the shift. I’m not sure he ever will, but even if he wanted to, I imagine it wouldn’t come overnight.
I feel the same way about some of his policy initiatives. Bringing back coal is the best example. Why not fight for lead paint? Why not fight for asbestos? The out-of-work coal miner has become the symbol of the hurting working man who can’t stay afloat in today’s economy. I think there’s some truth to that. Today’s economy is not ideal for unskilled manual labor. We have robots and machines that do most of the work and the jobs landscape has certainly changed. But this isn’t true just for coal miners, and the decline has been happening long before Obama. In West Virginia and Kentucky combined, only about 2,000 coal jobs were lost during Obama’s years in office. Compare that with manufacturing, a sector that lost more than half a million jobs during Obama’s time in office, and it seems puzzling why Trump is so focused on coal. Unless we stop seeing this as we’re inclined to see it, and start seeing it as entertainment. Trump is entertaining his fans. He’s got people in Texas who have never cared before, cheering for coal miners. And what if he gets the number to tick up by a couple thousand jobs in West Virginia? Will that impact his reelection there? He won West Virginia with 67.9% of the vote. He won by a 41.7 percentage-point margin (Romney won by 26.8 percentage points). Getting a couple thousand jobs isn’t going to get him any more votes, but it’s going to entertain the folks who are rooting for a team.
It’s in Trump’s nature to entertain, and he does it in a WWF style. Big and bold and in your face. Create controversy that people like to watch. Make people who should be working together to a goal, duke it out, like a season of the Apprentice. This is home for him. I don’t think there’s any reason to expect anything different from him as President. History will tell if it’s effective. As a scientist, I’m sorry that we don’t have the opportunity for a better controlled experiment. What would his policy initiatives look like and how would they affect Americans if they were done without the bluster? But doing it in a way that lets us see the impact of individual parts is not reality.
In the end (or the beginning…yes, there was some wishful thinking that it’s almost over), I think we’re all better off if we watch him as an entertainer, and hope that the real stuff is happening where we can’t see it. I don’t have much hope, but I’m reminded of the speech that got me in camp Obama in the first place. “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”