Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

How President Trump’s dog-and-pony show obscures his real agenda.

This week, political observers were treated to an interesting messaging exercise when newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump hosted his first foreign leader at the White House, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. The main readout of that meeting by Saturday: Mrs. May extracted a “commitment to NATO” from President Trump, although according to The New York Times she couldn’t quite get Mr. Trump to repeat that commitment in front of reporters:

Addressing one area of disagreement, Mrs. May said that the president had privately expressed his support for NATO….“Mr. President,” she said, “I think you said, you confirmed that you’re 100 percent behind NATO.”

As a result, a stark contradiction emerges: the President, who on the campaign trail called the world’s most successful military alliance “obsolete” and speculated “it’s possible that we’re going to have to let NATO go,” now has the head of government of the closest ally of the United States publicly vouching that he privately holds a completely different view.

Which might understandably leave Americans wondering: What, if anything, is true?

While the answer is far from clear, the incident is a perfect example of how Americans can expect now-President Trump to govern: spread confusion, disarray and hysteria where possible, while implementing the real agenda behind the scenes throughout. Following his meeting with Mrs. May, conservatives who may harbor doubts about Trump’s commitment to NATO can now reassure themselves that his previous statements were only his public bluster; liberals seeking to criticize his position have been undermined; and his supporters can still comfort themselves with his previous contradictory statements. Importantly, we will not know the true extent of Mr. Trump’s “100 percent” support for NATO until some crisis forces his hand. Until then, we’re in the dark, in a way we have never been with previous Presidents.

Of course, this is hardly the best example of how President Trump has deliberately sown confusion to either bolster his political advantage or distract from more damaging matters. For example, it seems too neat a coincidence that Mr. Trump decided to rail against Rep. John Lewis, one of the most respected leaders in Congress, in the eleventh hour before his Administration took power.

While most politicians, including Vice President Pence, might blanche at the idea of purposefully inviting such scandal, for Donald Trump the effects are far more convenient: suddenly, the President’s shocking and outrageous behavior diverts attention and media coverage away from a slew of controversial confirmation hearings in the Senate, wild disarray over the Affordable Care Act in Congress, and his Administration’s preparations to assume power in spite of massively compromising ethical conflicts without precedent in modern U.S. politics.

For Trump, the deliberate maelstrom and contradictions that his antics create are benefits, not problems. Just like the smoke and mirrors in The Wizard of Oz, they distract from the real work going on just behind the curtain, which is far more disconcerting and disturbing than whatever vitriol and nonsense the President has decided to spew that day.

So far, both the media and Mr. Trump’s political opponents have not quite figured how to catch up or call the tune. They didn’t during the campaign, letting Trump steer coverage towards Hillary Clinton’s emails and foundation, away from his own policies and scandals. And in the early days of Trump’s Administration, which in the last week have been inordinately focused on counting crowd sizes rather than his executive actions, the same has been true.

If the media want to meaningfully cover the new Trump administration—and if Democrats want to win—they will have to play smart and call foul on Trump’s actions, rather than his largely meaningless words. If they don’t expect only more of the same.

After all, we’re not in Kansas anymore.