The start of phase one of our national recovery brings attention back to the presidential campaign.
As we gear up for what will be a brutal contest, now may be the appropriate time to digest the significant ways Donald J. Trump has changed our political and presidential landscape — and why our politics will never be the same.
In other words, how the old rules have changed:
1. Old Rule: Be Guarded in Your Public Pronouncements
This may be the most dramatic (and intriguing) aspect of this president and his rhetorical style.
Granted, Mr. Trump has at times shown a willingness to play it conventional — directly off the teleprompter — especially when on foreign soil or addressing the issue of potential military engagements or the scientific components of coronavirus news.
But his daily virus-related media availabilities speak far more to the unvarnished Trump the American people have come to either love, or hate: optimistic (sometimes prematurely so), cheerleading and transparent — especially when angry or frustrated.
For context, recall last week’s “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” tweets aimed squarely at Democratic governors exhibiting draconian shutdown orders, or his admission that the U.S. could win in Afghanistan if only he were willing to “kill ten million people,” or his harsh criticism of the GOP Senate for an Obamacare replacement bill that could “hurt people,” or his rejection of a retaliatory missile attack against the Iranians because it would cause “needless casualties,” or his recent criticism of General Motors’ alleged change of heart on respirator production or even his early campaign threats to Boeing and Lockheed regarding unreasonable price tags on the new Air Force One and F-35 fighter.
I could go on, but the pattern is clear. The praise, criticism and opinions are always upfront, always personal, always in the moment. What you see is what you get.
2. Old Rule: Respect the Media
Presidential biographies typically speak to the goal of winning over the fourth estate.
If this item were ever on Mr. Trump’s agenda, it was jettisoned early on as it became clear that the populist celebrity was striking a dangerous chord in Deplorables land.
Some would say the president’s relentless campaign to degrade, bypass or even ignore the press (even friendly media when not so approving) is somewhat Reaganesque. This notion harkens back to the mainstream media’s frustration with the Great Communicator’s “aw shucks” habit of going around them and directly to the American people.
But upon further review, the analogy fails. Reagan’s warm, friendly demeanor with the media is wholly distinguished from Mr. Trump’s in-your-face, call-’em-out approach.
Further, the advent of social media has provided this president with something President Reagan never had — a direct means of eliminating the (often hostile) intermediary press: his Twitter account.
3. Old Rule: Respect Your Opponent
What was once viewed as comical by Trump supporters and undignified (at best) by Trump detractors is now a familiar Trump campaign tactic.
Not to say that all Trump supporters appreciate the derogatory labels (“Sleepy Joe,” “Pocahontas,” “Mini Mike”), but one takeaway is impossible to rebut: There has been no GOP or Democratic party challenger who has hit upon an effective response to this favored Trump line of attack.
“Mini Mike” Bloomberg’s attempt to slap back — dismissing the president as a “clown” and the object of behind-the-back scorn by fellow New Yorkers — was about as effective as the former New York mayor’s presidential campaign.
4. Old Rule: Engage in Diplomatic Hypocrisy
I am not the first to make this observation, but I wish that I had been. It concerns the president’s propensity to not only be unguarded at times, but also to ignore the expected (and widely accepted) diplomatic hypocrisies that accompany public life at the highest level.
Numerous examples come to mind. The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? The president’s response focused on Saudi Arabia as a valued strategic partner — not the possible complicity of the Saudi government.
George Stephanopoulos asking whether he would listen to a foreign government with “dirt” on a political opponent? The president answered that he would listen — not the safe or expected response for the average politician.
How to respond to the taunts and insults of an unstable North Korean dictator? Mr. Trump answers with taunts and insults of his own — not exactly the expected, kick-the-can-down-the-road diplomatic route followed by every other U.S. president.
5. Old Rule: Avoid Overexposure
Another old rule meant to protect a politician from too much public familiarity. A sensible rationale accompanies the admonition that “even popular politicians can wear out their welcome.”
Although some may see this guideline as particularly useful in the age of television and social media, it does not appear that anyone associated with the Trump administration is remotely familiar with it.
In other words, like it or not, the original presumption of the first Trump campaign, that Donald J. Trump himself would conduct relentless media messaging on a daily basis, has not changed. In Trump World there is simply no such thing as overexposure.
Reality check for media haters: There will be no change to this approach in the second term, either.
6. Old Rule: Stay on Message
What has been gospel for generations of political campaign managers is oxymoronic during the Trump era.
Whether the storyline of the day emanates from early morning tweets or an off-the-cuff response to a reporter’s question, there is no doubt that one man has daily set the day’s media narrative for the better part of four years.
Still, important messages can get trampled by less important ones, and then there is the occasional inconsistency that opposing media types never ignore.
But such obstacles are temporary, and, after all, tomorrow is another day — and another opportunity to reset the narrative. A nimble press operation, to say the least, is a necessity in this environment.
My last book was about the 2016 Trump campaign. It was entitled “Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming” — as true today as it was four years ago.
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