It was Donald Trump Jr. who made the most newsworthy statement yesterday, in an ill-thought-out attempt to hold the line on behalf of his boorish dad, one day after the latter’s first address to the nation from the Oval Office, which was supposed to show something of the long-awaited presidential turn in the antics of the unpredictable president, if only for media purposes.
The efforts of both father and son turned into fiascos. Echoing his dad’s many shocking displays of dehumanization of immigrants, Don Jr. managed to sum up the whole “philosophy” behind Trump’s anti-immigrant wall at the border with Mexico: “Do you know why you can enjoy a day at the zoo? Because walls work.” Thus, he implicitly compared immigrants to animals which need to be kept in their cages. The previous evening, the ten-minute speech delivered from the White House during primetime only served to show everyone that the would-be emperor has no clothes, a fact that becomes most obvious when he tries to play his assigned role in a classic institutional format, such as an address to the nation. Before the Trump era, a presidential address was the setting that would most strongly cement the status of the president as the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, and which would confer gravitas upon the presidential office, and, therefore, upon the president’s policy message.
This was very favorable ground for the White House to fight on, in these moments of high-powered clashes with the opposition. Before the Internet and social media, this was how US presidents would talk directly to Americans, without mediation and without filters. Trump imagined he could channel the spirit of Reagan, who famously fired the striking air traffic controllers from the Oval Office—a spectacle that certainly delighted the fans of the former actor, who was good at playing the part of the tough sheriff (echoed in part by Trump’s TV role as a boardroom tough guy). However, Reagan, who had experience with film acting, although in smaller roles, knew how to stand in front of the camera and convincingly play out the part assigned to him. Trump, better at tweeting than at anything else, fell far short: he looked uncomfortable and embarrassed, with a body language that seemed even more ridiculous in this setting than on the innumerable occasions when he plays the fool with his tweets and impromptu outbursts in front of reporters.
His words could not make any coherent sense out of the supposed “national emergency” that he claimed justified such a presidential address to the nation, carried live by all major networks. The speech contained nothing new, and was simply yet another retread of what he has been rambling on about since he started his run as a presidential candidate: the need to build a wall along the southern border to stop illegal immigration, which he now tried to sell as the answer to “a humanitarian crisis,” a “crisis of the heart” and “of the soul.” Trump has never shown much interest in talking to Americans as a whole, concerned only with talking to “his” Americans and reinforcing their loyalty, as he remains convinced that in the coming major fights—including the 2020 presidential elections—it is essential for him to keep the hard core of his base riled up and motivated. Thus, the role of the president of all Americans is simply not for him. Strangely, he seems to have been persuaded that an address to the nation would be a smart move to get out of the corner into which he had painted himself by making the clash with the opposition regarding the financing of the border wall a wholly personal one. His inflexibility has led to an ongoing partial shutdown of the government for over two weeks now—something for which he proudly claimed responsibility at first, but which is now becoming more and more awkward for him, even in the eyes of some of his most loyal supporters.
Trump’s entirely unproductive speech on Tuesday will also be remembered as further confirmation of the fact that the style of this president has perhaps irreparably damaged the presidential institution and its credibility, even in its most venerated customs and rituals.
However, while Trump delivered a clumsy performance, his two foremost political opponents also managed to cut a silly figure: in a live response aired right after the presidential speech, the two top Democratic leaders in Congress, Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, were standing stiffly side by side, staring into the camera without looking at each other—an unconvincing performance that seemed to hail from a long-forgotten era. They too, like Trump, are more at ease in the informal medium of impromptu statements or social media posts.
This rapid and profound transformation of the nature of political and institutional communication is part of the more general transformation of politics and institutions. We are dealing with a set of converging factors, many caused by innovations in computing technology, that are changing politics right before our eyes, often turning it into (mediocre) theater. In this setting, a character like Trump seemed to be more at ease than his internal and external enemies, managing to always pick the ground that would be most favorable to him. All this until his failed performance on Tuesday, which showed him as nothing more than a bad Reagan imitator, unable to escape his self-made crisis.