Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Move over, Howard Stern. Donald Trump is the new “king of all media.” His address to Congress was politically and theatrically brilliant, confounding his media critics–– even the virulently Trumpophobic ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and the other usual suspects gave it positive reviews––and exposing the sore-loser Democrats for the partisan hacks they are. You knew the Dems were in a panic when they scurried from the hall at the end of the speech so they could start spinning the journalists waiting outside.
We are witnessing a profound shift in presidential politics, but whether it will lead to significant reform of our soft-despotic state remains an open question.
After a campaign and first month in office filled with caustic tweets, petty squabbles, heated rhetoric, and seeming disarray, Trump spoke in the disciplined, lofty, aspirational, conciliatory tone we expect of presidents. But the Democrats mostly sat on their hands, even when Trump promised to create jobs and help curb the slaughter in blighted black neighborhoods, boons for the Democrats’ constituents. They did rouse themselves when, like Nero in the Colosseum, they gave the thumbs-down to Trump’s proposals to repeal and replace Obamacare, or destroy ISIS, or actually enforce federal immigration laws. Given how much Americans dislike the failing health-care entitlement behemoth, fear metastasizing jihadist terror outfits, and want illegal alien criminals deported and our borders secured, it was bad optics for Dems to churlishly remain seated, their scowls and silence implying to viewers that they value illegal alien murderers, an imploding Obamacare, and avoiding “Islamophobia” over the security and interests of American citizens.
The highlight, of course, came when Trump acknowledged the widow of slain Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed during a raid in Yemen. Questions about the raid have been raised by Owens’ father and the Dems, giving the hostile media another pretext for attacking Trump. But all the debate about the value or success of the raid has been eclipsed by the minute-and-a-half standing ovation given to Owens’ widow, who wept as she occasionally lifted her gaze upward and silently spoke to her lost husband. Critics are carping about “exploitation” and “political theater,” something they didn’t mind when Hillary exploited a grieving “Gold Star” couple at the Democrat convention. But their complaints won’t reach a fraction of the millions who witnessed that powerfully moving moment.
Whether Trump cynically planned this political event, or was expressing sincere emotions, or both, is a moot point. Modern politics has been theatrical since the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, the 1964 anti-Goldwater “daisy” ad, and the Time-Life manufactured Kennedy “Camelot” myth. In fact, starting in ancient Athens and the debates in the Assembly, democratic public debate was recognized as a form of theater, conducted by speakers trained in the arts of duplicitous rhetoric by professional Sophists. Thucydides makes this point brilliantly when he has Cleon, the innovator in demagogic speechifying, scold the Athenians for treating debate as they do theatrical productions, and thus becoming “slaves to the pleasures of the ear.”
Given the shameless collusion of the media in creating Obama’s persona by ignoring unpleasant facts and manufacturing non-existent talents and virtues––like the saps in the 1979 comedy Being There transforming the dimwitted Chance the Gardner into the statesman Chauncey Gardner––their criticisms of Trump’s manipulation of the media are hypocritical and self-serving. What really angers them is that Trump has skillfully exploit the new media to bypass the self-selected traditional media “gatekeepers” and “watchdogs” and address the people directly. Even better, he is a genius at manipulating the progressives’ press-agents by turning their hatred for him against themselves. His tweets and insulting soundbites are squirrels he lets loose for the media to chase while he pursues his policy aims. And then, of course, the progressive reporters and anchors, along with their Democrat handlers, react childishly with hyperbole and hysteria and fake news, once again proving to the American people how biased and untrustworthy they are.
To cap it all off, Trump befuddles them even further by giving a sober and judicious speech with 58 ovations, very few first-person pronouns (something the terminally narcissistic Obama could never pull off), and crowd-pleasing calls for bipartisanship, unity, and patriotism. Meanwhile, the reaction-shots of Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Keith Ellison, Elizabeth Warren, and Chuck Schumer recalled a group of peccant junior-high kids sulking and pouting in the principal’s office. We have to update the hoary political adage that Republicans are the daddy party and Democrats the mommy one. Now Republicans are the grown-up party and Dems the kiddies. As Daddy Trump scolded them, “The time for trivial things is over.”
But as much as we are enjoying the hyperventilating and sputtering tantrums of the progressives, as much as we love seeing their pretentions punctured and their hypocrisy exposed, as much as we are stirred by Trump’s rhetoric of American greatness and need for unity, as much as we are impressed by his brilliant manipulation of those degreed grandees who fancy themselves the party of “science” and reasoned argument and incontrovertible fact––all that is pointless if it is not followed up with action. Political theater is just a tool for rallying popular support and marshalling the Congressional troops. But audiences of all sorts are notoriously fickle and will turn on a dime when expectations are unmet and promises broken.
And Trump on Tuesday night made a lot of promises. Many of them will be difficult to keep, and the doable ones will eventually require help from Congress. Paring back on regulations, for example, is already being resisted by the functionaries of the deep state, the federal bureaucrats burrowed like ticks into agencies. Reforming tax law invariably runs into resistance from the myriad rent-seekers and loop-hole mongers who find the current Byzantine tax code serves their interests just fine. Destroying ISIS will require a lot more boots on the ground to get the job done and not surrender the region to the Russians and Iranians. But military action means dead and wounded warriors, and Americans right now don’t seem to be in the mood for watching flag-draped coffins returning from abroad.
Spending more on defense runs into difficulties with the notorious inefficiencies and waste in manufacturing and procuring new weapons. Ditto investing in “infrastructure,” where rules favoring unions, and the EPA regulatory hydra create expensive delays and cost overruns. It took less time to build the Empire State Building or the Pentagon than it takes today just to complete an environmental review. As for repealing and replacing Obamacare, doing so without angering the voting recipients of subsidies, the campaign-contributing medical industry, and the fiscally strapped state governments is a monumental task, as Republicans are now finding out.
Finally, many of these worthy goals are going to cost money we don’t have, which means borrowing even more money. Many taxpayers deserve a break, but that means even less money. So how are we going to pay for big-dollar infrastructure and military spending or tax cuts? And don’t forget the looming debt, deficit, and entitlement spending catastrophe. The publicly held national debt will soon reach $20 trillion, 75% of GDP. Deficits are projected to reach $1.4 trillion by 2027, further increasing the debt. By 2032, every dime of federal tax revenue will be needed to fund health care programs, Social Security, and interest on the debt. That means no discretionary spending on defense, the FBI, and Homeland Security.
Unleashing the economy, as Trump promises, is an important first step for solving this problem. But it can’t be done alone. Cutting and capping spending, eliminating wasteful programs, and reforming entitlements, especially Social Security and Medicare, are necessary to right our fiscal ship. As of right now, however, there is little or no stomach among the electorate for making these sacrifices, and powerful lobbies and political contributors defending the status quo.
So one-and-a-half cheer for Trump’s speech. Enjoying the richly deserved agony of the Democrats may make us feel better, but it won’t solve our problems. Hard choices and sacrifices will be the cost of true reform.