The Lost Narrative
For the purposes of this article, I assume that Donald Trump is a highly intelligent, tremendously successful businessman, surrounded by equally talented people, who wakes up every morning thinking not of himself, but of how he can use his personal attributes and life experience to make America great again; according to a generally accepted understanding of what makes America great in the first place.
I offer no criticism, only advice based on observation of current trends. My recommendations should appeal ultimately to the president’s instinct for self preservation.
On August 16, 1988, Indiana Senator Dan Quayle was selected by then Vice-President George H.W. Bush to be his running mate in the fall presidential election. Quayle was revealed to the public as Bush’s choice in a surprise announcement on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans on the next to the last day of the Republican National Convention.
Almost immediately, the choice was criticized. Quayle was characterized as too young and inexperienced for the job. Bush chose Quayle in part because of his youthful good looks. Some compared him to the actor Robert Redford. Bush believed Quayle would help him bridge the gap between his generation and those that followed World War II. But Quayle’s introduction failed and the national political press spent the rest of the campaign and the entire Bush administration searching for even the slightest clue to prove Quayle was not up to the job.
Quayle never successfully ran for office again. He is best known in the world of politics for the humiliation he suffered during his debate with Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bensten and for mis-spelling the word “potatoe” during a photo opportunity at a New Jersey school.
From that first day in August of 1988, Quayle lost control of his own narrative and the news media would not give it back and never will. The two preceding paragraphs could quite possibly be the nut graphs in Quayle’s obituary in the New York Times. The only solace Quayle can take is the knowledge he won’t be there to read it.
When the news media adopts a narrative as fact, competitive pressures lead reporters to search for any evidence that supports the prevailing storyline. This is where the Trump administration is right now. The president has lost control of his narrative.
For a variety of reasons, that include Trump’s own decision to engage in constant warfare with the media, the reporters who cover him begin every day searching for examples of the president’s ineptitude. The search includes those who surround the president as well. In contrast to Vice President Quayle however, President Trump is still in a position to regain control of his story by keeping his campaign promise to “be presidential.” Not by the definition of his latest claim that he is “modern day presidential.” Trump needs to be traditional presidential.
In the past week, while the president has been traveling in Europe, the news media effort to build on the current Trump narrative has led reporters to focus on small details that might normally go ignored. The examples include; the president’s first handshake with Vladimir Putin, the body language surrounding his interactions with Angela Merkel and the decision by the First Lady of Poland to shake hands with Melania Trump, before President Trump. Each example was hyper-analyzed by the press to find signs of Trump’s inadequacy as a leader.
Ivanka Trump was criticized for taking her father’s seat during a sub-committee meeting at the G-20. Although her decision shows the Trump family’s lack of knowledge of protocol, the unusual move might have been over-looked if the news media had a professional relationship with the Trump White House. Under different circumstances, the press might even praise the use of Ivanka as a stand-in for the president as a progressive gesture. Back at home, Vice President Pence was lampooned on social media for touching a piece of space hardware during a visit to NASA that was clearly marked “do not touch.”
Standing on their own, each of these moments show us almost nothing about the Trump administration, but each one adds to the narrative that strongly suggests the president and his team are incompetent. In public relations, perception becomes reality.
The danger for President Trump is significant and should be concerning, because unfavorable perceptions can influence the jury pool. In politics, unlike New York real estate, it is not true that all publicity is good publicity. In politics, negative news coverage drives down approval ratings and when a president’s approval ratings are low, members of his own party protect their own political interests.
If special counsel Robert Mueller finds evidence of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, obstruction of justice by the president, or any other high crimes or misdemeanors, low approval ratings will make it more difficult for Republicans in Congress to back the president. There will be no political incentive to do so.
In all the gloom there is some good news for Trump. He has set expectations so low when it comes to his behavior and character that he can turn perception in his favor simply by playing the part of a traditional American president.
The news media is eager to be proven wrong about Trump if he would only recognize it. During his visit to Poland and the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, we saw examples of Trump un-plugged and Trump wired into a presidential script. When he was criticizing the news media and the U.S. intelligence community the news media covered him with a critical eye. When the president gave a cogent speech on foreign policy, the speech was analyzed not for its gaffes, but for the message it sent to the world. There was a feeling of relief in the coverage.
The president and his White House team constantly complain about unfair news coverage, but reporters are only working with the material the president provides. If Trump wants to be taken seriously, he has to behave like a serious person rather than a character out of the world of professional wrestling.
For a president under investigation by a special prosecutor, and facing an opposition looking for avenues toward impeachment, this is much more than a question of style. Public perception creates the context in which the president will be judged. If Trump is ever accused of wrong doing, it will be very important for his jury — the American people and their representatives in Congress — to be on his side.