What do you do when you are in an argument with an impossible child who sees you as the enemy? Do you shout at them until you sound as unreasonable? Do you keep going back to them to hash out the key points? No, you do not engage. You walk away and leave them to stew in their own rage. All parents know this.
Donald Trump is often called childish; petulant; irascible — in his press conferences, he often is. His pride takes him over and he ends up ranting. He takes the bait and the media revels in it. But what the media can’t accept or understand is that, in the president vs media conference dynamic, it is the journalists who play the role of teenage brat. They goad Trump until he flips, then gloat about how mad he went. It’s President Trump who makes the mistake of sinking to their level. That’s why he should shut down his press conferences, now.
Look at yesterday’s White House briefing. The president said, rashly, that he has ‘total authority’, then got into a protracted war-of-words with Paula Reid of CBS News. Reid, a smarter cookie than, say, Jim Acosta of CNN, kept her cool. Trump called her ‘disgraceful’ and added ‘you know you’re a fake, you know that, your whole network, the way you cover it, is fake…the people are wise to you, that’s why you have a lower approval rating than you have ever had before, probably times three.’
Nasty stuff. Did Trump go too far? Possibly not — the media has spent almost four years saying Trump has blown it this time, lost it this time, revealed himself to be a bully etc etc. For almost four years, they have been wrong. People like that Trump is a counter-puncher. Public approval for the media is at an all-time low, especially now in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. When Trump attacks the Fake News networks, the hacks howl, but nobody really cares. Most people find it funny. Trump is better than his critics at communication in the digital age: his latest trick, the video explaining how he got the virus response right and the media got it wrong, strikes sophisticates as crude. But it will be played millions of times and that drives his message home.
The current crisis is upending everything all the time, however. Approval-rating polls suggest that, after an initial bump, Trump’s popularity is now suffering. With a tanking economy, and mass panic, Trump’s turbulent charisma is losing its appeal. His ‘unhinged’ press conferences are disturbing as much as they are entertaining. A couple of weeks ago, it made sense for Trump to host regular briefings: as Commander-in-Chief in a global war against a virus, he should be front and center. He should be seen to be in charge.
But now, with daily clashes between the president and the White House press pool, Trump is regularly falling into the journalistic traps: if he is too sanguine, he will be accused of not taking the threat seriously. If he is too passionate, he will be called demented.
Trump could therefore be well-advised to go back to leaving his briefings to his press team. He needs a Sarah Huckabee Sanders-type figure back, a human shield. Perhaps his current press team doesn’t have the ability to remain calm under pressure. It’s interesting that Stephanie Grisham was recently moved on. But he needs someone new to field questions from the hacks. A regular statement from him, accompanied by a briefing from a press secretary, would mean less theatrics and more clarity.
America needs ‘transparency’ from its government, of course, especially at this time. It doesn’t need the daily Punch-and-Judy shows that are the president vs the press corps, even if the firework exchanges and concomitant memes keep us all entertained as we are stuck at home. Ratings don’t really matter when people are afraid.