Trump interventions send symbolic message

Donald Trump has mesmerized the media not just with his Cabinet selections, but with personal interventions.
Donald Trump has mesmerized the media not just with his Cabinet selections, but with personal interventions. AP

The most amusing part of the Trump transition has been watching its effortless confounding of the media, often in fewer than 140 characters. After a Fox News report on a flag burning at a college that led a more-contemptible-than-usual campus administration to take down the school’s American flag, Donald Trump tweets flag burners should go to jail or lose their citizenship.

By the time the media have exhausted their outrage over the looming abolition of free speech, judicial supremacy and affordable kale, Trump has moved on.

Trump so thoroughly owns the political stage today, the word Clinton seems quaint and President Barack Obama is totally irrelevant. Obama gave a major national security address on Tuesday. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s son got more attention.

Trump has mesmerized the media not just with his elaborate Cabinet-selection production, but with equally theatrical personal interventions that by traditional standards seem unpresidential.

It’s a matter of size. Preventing the shutdown of an Indiana Carrier factory. Announcing a major Japanese investment in the U.S. Calling for cancellation of the new Air Force One to be built by Boeing. Pretty small stuff.

It feels like a Cabinet undersecretary haggling with a contractor. Or candidate Trump selling Trump steaks and Trump wine in that bizarre victory speech after Michigan’s primary.

Presidents don’t normally do such things. It shrinks them. But Trump is not yet president. And the point here is symbolic.

The Carrier coup was to demonstrate concern for the working man that gave Trump the presidency. The Japanese SoftBank announcement was a down payment on his promise to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” (A slightly dubious claim .) Boeing was an ostentatious declaration he would be the guardian of government spending you would expect from a crusading outsider.

What appears as impulsiveness is logical. It’s a continuation of the campaign. Trump is sensitive to his legitimacy problem, as he showed in his tweet claiming to have won the popular vote, despite trailing big in the official count. His best counter is approval ratings. In August, the Bloomberg poll had him at 33 percent. He’s now up to 50 percent. Nowhere near Obama’s 79 percent at this point in 2008, but a substantial improvement.

The mini-interventions are working but there’s a risk for Trump. He’s using a technique of Third World strongmen who specialize in showing their personal connection to ordinary citizens. In a democracy, however, the endurance of any political support depends on the country’s larger success. And that doesn’t come from Carrier-size fixes. It comes from policy that changes the structures and alters the nation’s trajectory.

“I alone can fix it,” Trump said in his convention speech. He can do Carrier, SoftBank and Boeing. But he must deliver on tax reform, health care, economic growth and nationwide job creation. That requires Congress.

The 115th is Republican and ready to push through legislation that gives life to the promises. But Trump needs to avoid needless conflict. Republican leadership has signaled strong opposition on some issues. Nonetheless, there is enough common ground between Trump and his congressional majority to have a very productive 2017. The challenge will be to stay within the bounds of the GOP consensus.

Trump will keep tweeting, and the media will keep taking the bait – highly entertaining but a sideshow. Congress is where the Trump presidency’s fate will be decided.