How Trump uses language to control the news cycle
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How Trump uses language to control the news cycle

The ‘stable genius’ is beyond parody, which is exactly where he wants to be.

Comedians have had a field day with President Donald Trump’s Oct. 9 letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Starting with a jaunty “Let’s work out a good deal!” and ending with a warning that the Turkish president not “be a tough guy” in Syria, the letter was so suspiciously Trumpian that the myth-busting site Snopes created an entry confirming its authenticity.

Critics have called Trump’s language “beyond parody,” although some of us can’t resist the temptation.

George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., 1790:

“Gentlemen, Great meeting with you @TouroSynagogue. No bigotry! No sanction! As President, religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been. As long as you behave, I am in total support. Like the Bible says, everyone should sit under a fig-tree. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you. Sincerely, George Washington”

The problem with parody, of course, is that it can reduce any serious issue to a punchline. Stephen Colbert’s ratings are soaring on the strength of his nightly takedowns of Trump, although I’m not convinced that treating Trump as a buffoon is effective as politics or social commentary. Colbert’s fans hear the jokes and comfort themselves that someone so clownish must be ineffectual. Meanwhile, Trump, like many of his supporters, feels validated by the liberal outrage.

Back in 1961, Philip Roth complained that satire couldn’t keep up with the implausibility of the times. “[T]he American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” he wrote in Commentary. “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.” (Just wait, Phil, just wait.)

By design or accident, Trump has made “beyond parody” his brand, banking on words and deeds that the haters say debase his office and undermine America’s standing, but that his base will embrace as courageous and no-nonsense. (Fox News called the Erdogan letter “casually worded.”)

The Balfour Declaration, 1917:

“Dear Lord Rothschild, The King asked me to drop you a line. If the great Jewish people want a home in Palestine, no problem. Looking forward to helping you. But get this done the right way. History will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be putzes! Yours sincerely, Arthur James Balfour”

Trump is also a genius at changing the subject, knowing that attention spans are short and that the media can only keep up with so many scandals and outrages at any one time. 

The Erdogan letter dropped in the midst of Trump’s impeachment crisis, and days after Trump’s decision, derided by both Democrats and Republicans, to unilaterally reverse U.S. policy in Northern Syria and allow allied Kurds to fend for themselves against the Turks. The letter demanded, to no avail, that Erdogan not do what the president had okayed some 48 hours earlier. 

As my colleague Jonathan Tobin noted in The New York Post, the “real problem wasn’t the letter itself — but the absence of a presidential strategy it revealed. Instead of playing a strong hand that would make Erdogan think twice before unleashing an offensive that would lead to atrocities against the Kurds, Trump was merely lashing out frantically, seeking to correct a mistake of his own making.”

Still, the story line shifted from “Trump Betrays the Kurds” to “Hillary Clinton Mocks Trump’s Letter to Erdogan.”

Albert Einstein thanks a philanthropist who helped Jews to escape from Nazi Germany, 1939: 

“Dear Mr. Brown, CONGRATS on a good job with refugees from Europe now pouring into our great country. Haters and losers say Jews would never help each other — I, a true Stable Genius, would never say that! We have to depend on ourselves — and not on one of the dumbest and worst presidents in the history of Democrat politics. Sad! Sincerely yours, Albert Einstein”

Trump also measures success as no other president has: not in electoral or legislative victories or big policy wins, but in mindshare. As James Poniewozik argues in his new book, “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America,” Trump treats his presidency as a 24-hour TV production to be judged on its ratings.

Last week, at a rally in Dallas, for example, Trump mocked the very idea of being “presidential.” “It’s much easier being presidential, it’s easy,” he said. “All you have to do is act like a stiff.” What’s wrong with that? “Everybody would be out of here so fast! You wouldn’t come in in the first place!” Or as he said at another rally in 2016, “I will be so presidential you will be so bored.”

As he did throughout his career as a developer and reality TV star, President Trump has turned the old PR adage into a lodestar: “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

President Truman recognizes Israel, 1948:

“Just found out that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine. Never give up. You are doing GREAT! You are WINNING! You can make a great deal. The Arabs are willing to negotiate with you and are willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. Will call you later. Harry Truman”

Trump may be mercurial, but he is not inconsistent. Like a flatly drawn TV character, he is always himself. He has succeeded in making this era about Trump above all else. 

What do we miss while we focus on Trump’s daily outrage, the turmoil in the White House, or the latest tweetstorm? Good journalists and principled activists are trying, bravely and desperately, to keep the focus on the things that matter: the judiciary, the environment, immigration, voting rights, trade. I know people on both sides of the aisle who long for a serious discussion of those issues.

But wait — I just got an alert. What did Trump do this time?

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He served as NJJN editor for 13 years.

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