Only a week or so in, and one of the main themes of this Trump Presidency (feel free to substitute "Trump Nightmare"... but remember, you're not dreaming) has surely revealed itself: the tortured role of the press and mass media in the age of a raging narcissist.
In addition to two painful meetings with various media outlets - an interview with the Times where he basically admitted his campaign was a big lie, and a name calling session with TV network hosts and executives - Trump spent the weekend berating the cast and audience at Friday's performance of Hamilton on Broadway, when the audience booed Mike Pence and the cast begged him to treat everyone decently. Oh, the humanity!
In the rush to sort out Just Whose Fault We Got Trump, "The Media" has been a popular choice. It's certainly true that the refusal to take on Trump in a serious way, to often broadcast him uninterrupted at rallies laying out falsehood after falsehood, surely didn't help. Still, no one culprit really can take all the blame. I think - and this is a longer discussion - that one thing we all need to face is that in some ways, Trump was more inevitable than anyone would like to admit.
The question is, though, now that we've got him (at least, temporarily), will the media know what to do with him?
There are some railing about the press "normalizing" Trump. There are others already building up conspiracy theories that every Trump move - like the Hamilton tweetstorm - is a brilliant trifecta of savvy mental manipulation by Trump against a gullible public. And through it all, there's Trump himself, just blathering away, looking endlessly foolish.
I think one thing that's not quite clear yet is what the media array of a Trump led USA really looks like. We forget that a lot of who and what dominates media now - from Lester Holt to Anderson Cooper to Megyn Kelly to even Rachel Maddow - are developments of, and partly because of, the Obama years. It's very likely that we will see new stars, and new shows, that arise because a different kind of media will be needed in the Trump, um, era (that sounds awfully permanent - ed.).
That the media we have can't quite cut it seems quite clear - I wouldn't call it "normalizing," but I think traditional Washington hands are truly flummoxed by what you do with an outlier like Trump, so beyond their sense of political norms. It's the way Mitt Romney is being discussed for Secretary of State - it's such a relief to hear a familiar, even "Establishment" name, that people aren't paying attention to perfectly reasonable reasons why Romney is completely ill suited to the task. Panel discussions that seemed entertainingly contentious prior to the election - oh look, they're ganging up on Jeffrey Lord! - now have an uncomfortable air of fear from one side, and excessive self satisfaction on the other.
It's also the case that the new opposition hasn't quite figured out how to effectively challenge Trump's obvious impending ethical failures and corrupt intentions. "Ivanka Trump met with Shinzo Abe!" plays great at a Chevy Chase dinner party - it's a little obscure and secondhand for the case against a man who apparently plans to let out his hotel in DC to foreign dignitaries eager to curry his favor. Proportion, people; clarity and outrageousness. These items are key.
Still, I wouldn't discount the fact that Trump, in these things, is his own worst enemy and best taken at his word. The Hamilton brouhaha was silly and - despite claims to fire up his base - mostly pointless. Keening at Alec Baldwin merely invites what will surely be heaps of scorn and derision from pop culture icons in comedy, music, theater, television and film. Hating Trump won't just be popular... I guarantee Hollywood knows it's profitable, too.
And then there's those meetings with news outlets, which seemed to catch the people in them off guard at the depth - wrong word? - of his thin skin. There's a delicate dance between public figures and the press chasing them - the fawning that's required to get access, but the distance to look dispassionately and even critically is rarely in the right balance. But my guess is Trump did himself no favors mocking people like Martha Raddatz and Katy Tur, trying to manhandle his way to favorable coverage. Trump is apparently in no media to give the media much of anything; and in turn, I'm not sure the news outlets owe him anything at all.
In part, Trump is parroting a right wing line railing against the "MSM" as conservatives love to do, saying they never get a fair, or positive shake. When he claims The Times is at death's door, he's not so much concerned about ad revenue (a business I'm fairly sure he doesn't really get) as he is that people make choices about news sources based on reading only what confirms the views they like. There will be media sycophants chasing Trump because it's easier, and more fun, to be liked. But The Times will make money regardless. And the people they really represent - the Upper East Side world of the owners and their close associates - are the very people who have made Trump's social climb the struggle he hates. They will never let him in, and he knows it.
What Trump wants from the press isn't really important - "Stop calling me a thief" he says, as if that will stop them from reporting every time he steals. He wants the attention, he just doesn't want to people to see who he really is amidst the glare. And that, really, isn't in his control. In fact, it's not really in the control of mass media. Certainly not in America. And Trump's just not careful enough (as that "hot mike" moment on Access Hollywood really showed) to understand that for the image to be the reality, you kind of have to really be it. Trump is President. That doesn't make him presidential. And he's not really ever understood the difference. Trump's need to be liked - his need for mass love - is actually the thing that makes him weak: he chases the press for attention and they, in turn, should realize they're the ones with power in this situation.
Regardless of that power, we will just be setting up unreasonable expectations if we expect the press to solve our national Trump problem all on their own - that they will magically produce the perfect scandal that ruins him before he can do too much damage. There will, over time, I hope, be less trying to explain away his worst actions and words, and a better ability to call things out for what they actually are. But even so, all the reporting in the world will mean little to an audience that's in no mood to hear it. Trump doesn't need or want to stop the presses, but his real power, thus far, is like The Shadow of radio lore - he clouds men's minds. Even though there's some movement to buyer's remorse, Trump's loyalists are still defined most by hearing what they want to hear. That's not a media problem. That's all of our problem. And the solution is something more than black and white... and read all over.