The Participation Trophy President

Donald Trump flew around the world, gave speeches, shook hands, pushed his way to the front of the photo line, and rode in a golf cart, just like a real president! For that, we are told, his trip was a “great success.” If ever there was a president for the era of participation trophies, it is President Trump.

Why, he was “clear, concise, and disciplined,” the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin wrote. He used forceful words — like calling terrorists “evil losers” — which makes his trip a “historic turning point,” former Speaker of the House and consultant-but-definitely-not-lobbyist Newt Gingrich told Sean Hannity, while Hannity praised Trump’s “leadership.” Hell, Ann Coulter even called Trump an “alpha male” because he witnessed a sword dance and saw his tweets broadcast on billboards in Saudi Arabia.

The emphasis on pomp over substance and the low standards by which many media elites graded him is in keeping with trends during Trump’s candidacy and presidency. Trump himself and his backers are particularly interested in grandiosity, in the ceremonial aspects and power games of the presidency. Thus Trump’s attention to hand shakes, showmanship and gold-plated privilege — he wanted to arrive at Masada in a helicopter instead of taking the cable car and canceled the trip when he found out he couldn’t. Thus Trump criticizes his political enemies for their appearance — Carly Fiorina is ugly, Jeb Bush low-energy, Marco Rubio likes drinking water — rather than anything substantive. The fact that Obama wasn’t greeted on the runway in Cuba proves Raul Castro “disrespected” him, Trump said.

So Trump’s White House got to work on photo stops and the ceremonial aspects of his trip. It was, as the Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner wrote, “well managed by the White House.”

Meanwhile, the fact that he could finish a speech without blurting out any stray comments about “Mexican judges” or secret tapes of James Comey means he was “presidential.” It brings to mind previous instances when he was lauded by cable news tastemakers for nothing more than doing his job — twice CNN hosts said “Trump became president” when he authorized strikes on Syria and when he gave a State of the Union address to Congress. By the low standards on which much of the Beltway press judges him, it’s a success if he just doesn’t do anything incredibly stupid for thirty minutes.

Yet even by those low standards, Trump is a constant failure. For most of the time when Trump doesn’t have a speech to give or a leader to shake hands with, he is on his own to make unforced errors. Trump’s favorite story — the Russia investigation — is a perfect example. The political damage wouldn’t be anything near what it is if Trump had not overreacted at every instance. His hysterical attacks on his own country’s intelligence organizations, which he compared to Nazis,  make it seem like he is unfit for the office, or that he has something to hide. His lies about the status of the investigation, tweeted during a hearing, caused him to be corrected by Comey in real time. By constantly talking about the story, he keeps it in the news, and by having had himself and his communications team lie since day one about matters as trivial and easily disproved as his inauguration’s crowd size, he has limited his administration’s credibility to hit back.

The way he handled the firing of James Comey from his post as FBI director has created an all new scandal, whatever the results of the initial investigation. Now even if Trump were to be fully cleared of any and all potential improprieties relating to Russia, he still has to deal with special council Robert Mueller looking into obstruction of justice.

It was Trump’s own stupid comments on an NBC News interview  that resulted in obstruction of justice becoming an issue. When he admitted that he had already made the decision to fire Comey without the recommendation of his Justice Department and that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he made that decision,  he undermined his administration’s own carefully crafted story and made it sound like he fired Comey because he didn’t like the Russia investigation.

Also in that interview, he went out of his way to claim that Comey himself told him he wasn’t being investigated. Only after that implausible claim, which Trump also made in his firing letter, did sources come forward describing Trump asking for loyalty at the dinner and describing a meeting where Trump suggested Comey end his investigation into Michael Flynn.

Even Trump, in his own description of events (“In one case I called him and one case he called me. … I actually asked him, yes. I said if it’s possible, would you let me know am I under investigation.”), admitted that he called Comey and talked about the investigations, in and of itself a breach of protocol to discuss an on-going investigation.

He can’t blame any of this on the media or on unscrupulous bureaucrats or anyone else but himself. He made the decision to fire Comey, and he was the one who was completely unable to stick to a simple story. Rather than try to pin the blame on someone else, his unbridled narcissism demanded he be the “alpha male,” the one who makes every decision. Lester Holt didn’t put a gun to Trump’s head. Trump hardly even let him finish his questions.

So it’s hardly a surprise that a study purports to find 80 percent of media coverage of Trump in the “first 100 days” was “negative.” The conservative and pro-Trump media grabbed onto this story to complain once again about Trump being treated unfairly. Victimization politics sells, but even Trump’s pity party is pathetic. Fox News’s chyron called it “media bias against Trump” and its “Fox News Specialist” called the media “disgusting.”  Better than Trump, who has called the media “the enemy of the American people.”

But is it really “bias” to report facts that portray the president in a negative light? Let’s dig deeper.

It is true that the Harvard Shorenstein Center’s study found that coverage of Trump was more negative thus far than it was of Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, or Clinton. Coverage of Obama was the most favorable in his first 3 months — with 59 percent of stories classified as “positive.” But coverage of Bush was slightly more favorable than that of Clinton — 43 percent to 40 percent in the Republican Bush’s favor — so it can’t be chalked up simply to liberal media bias.

Looking at the study’s criteria, it becomes clear what is happening. The introduction explains, “Negative stories also consist of stories where an event, trend, or development reflects unfavorably on the actor. Examples are the stories that appeared under the headlines ‘President Trump’s approval rating hits a new low’ and ‘GOP withdraws embattled health care bill, handing major setback to Trump, Ryan.’” In short, Trump has had a terrible first 100 days.

It’s not a made-up story that Trump’s approval ratings are at the lowest level of any president in history this early on. It isn’t disputed that the Republicans pulled their health care bill from the floor the first time they tried to vote on it — and that the Congressional Budget Office estimated both versions of the bill would result in over 20 million fewer people with health insurance. Those things all happened in the public and are easily verifiable.

Not surprisingly, the amount of negative coverage Trump and the Republicans received tracks closely with what was actually happening in the world at the time. The most negative weeks for Trump in the press were the weeks his healthcare bill originally failed to pass and weeks 3 and 4 when his travel ban was first struck down by federal judges — and when Trump lashed out at the very judges, saying one of them “put our country in such peril,”

and calling another a “so-called judge.” That kind of behavior of attacking the judicial system in hysterical terms is not viewed favorably by people who support the rule of law, so it not surprisingly generated headlines like, “Schumer slams Trump for attacking federal judge,” a headline that, according to the Shorenstein Center’s criteria, would have been labeled “negative.”

(“Negative stories include stories where the actor is criticized directly. An example is a headline story where Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump when the Labor Department’s April economic report showed that fewer jobs were created than had been predicted,” the introduction stated.)

The idea that the report proves media bias is based entirely on the fact that the amount of negative stories about Trump is different than that of other presidents. It doesn’t say anything about whether the amount of negative stories is disproportionate to the amount of incompetent, unhinged, or otherwise unfavorable actions Trump has taken.

In order for one to think the media is biased against Trump, one would have to think that every president should be covered just as positively as every other president, no matter the differences between their actions. That is an amazingly Marxist way of thinking that discounts individualism. It proclaims a belief in equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. The fact that one person earns more money than another person or wins acceptance to a more prestigious university or gets higher grades — or better press —doesn’t prove the loser is being treated unfairly.

Perhaps, in order to illustrate unfair treatment by the press, Trump’s defenders could cite analogous situations in which President Clinton, Bush, or Obama, or others, did the same thing as Trump and were covered more positively. Let’s try:

– When Obama claimed credit for having invented the phrase “priming the pump,” as Trump did in an interview with The Economist, did he endure negative stories about his ignorance and narcissism? Should he have had if he did?

– When Bush appointed his daughter and his son-in-law as White House aides and used government apparatus to promote her book — and jewelry line —  did Bush face criticism for using public office for personal gain?

– When candidate Clinton, while serving as Secretary of State, used a private server to communicate, did she face constant media scrutiny for it, the way President Trump might have been scrutinized if he looked at national security documents with a cell phone flash light in the midst of a private club or if he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister while meeting in the White House? According to the very same Shorenstein Center, Clinton received more negative coverage than Trump during the entirety of the campaign and more coverage about “controversies” (mostly the email server) than Trump received, including more than a third of her coverage focusing on controversies in the final week before the vote.  Does such a discrepancy prove bias?

Could it be that the reasons Trump and Clinton did and are receiving negative coverage isn’t because they are being mistreated, but rather because they are terrible politicians?

Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and travel writer who has been published in National Review, Acculturated,
Roads & Kingdoms, The World of Chinese, The Federalist, and The Hill.com. He has written two guidebooks, including Panda Guides Hong Kong.
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Mitchell Blatt

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and travel writer who has been published in National Review, Acculturated,
Roads & Kingdoms, The World of Chinese, The Federalist, and The Hill.com. He has written two guidebooks, including Panda Guides Hong Kong.

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