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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

Moncrieff 'We decided not to mention Trump during Lent to see how much real news we miss'

Is Trump’s behaviour the petulance of an egomaniac or a media strategy of continual campaigning, asks Sean Moncrieff.

THE TROUBLE IS that the media doesn’t know what Donald Trump wants. Never has an American president come in for such a level of faux-psychological analysis, little of it flattering: he’s singularly driven by his wounded feelings, by the towering unfairness of the mainstream media towards him.

Yet like a disobedient toddler, he can’t help dragging the media narrative back to his favourite subject: himself. Even bad attention is better than no attention.

At the recent press conference in the East Room of the White House, President Trump spent hardly any time on the ostensible reason for the gathering – his new choice for the Secretary of Labour, R Alexander Acosta– before lashing into the assembled hacks over fake news, refusing questions he didn’t deem “fair” and asking an African-American reporter whether the Congressional Black Caucus were friends of hers.

Mainstream media still can’t figure him

The display was more than enough to dominate the news cycle for the next twenty-four hours, and to drown out most of the reporting on why the man originally intended for the Labor secretary job, Andy Puzder, abruptly pulled out.

For any other President, for any other American politician, this might have been viewed as a cunning strategy to distract from a shambolic cabinet selection process. But not with Trump. The mainstream media still can’t figure him out.

And this is perhaps the problem: to an astonishing degree, the majority of the reportage on Donald Trump’s first two months in office has not been about what he has or has not done, but about the man himself: the essential mystery of the new American President.

An egomaniac or master strategist?

Nearly every day there’s a new pronouncement or tweet (Barack Obama bugged my phone was the latest from this weekend), which again throws up the question of why he acts the way he does.

Is it simply the petulance of an egomaniac or a media strategy of continual campaigning, where he pits himself (and the plain folk he represents) against the elites and the out-of-touch media?

If it is the latter, then it’s working. The mainstream media is, understandably, hostile towards him and at this stage unhealthily intrigued by how he acts: his address to Congress last week was short on detail, aspirational and rather dull – much like the speeches given by his predecessors – but the fact that Trump could act “normal” became the story.

Trying to understand and define Trumpism

Trump Andrew Harnik Andrew Harnik

No American president in living memory has received this level of media coverage in their first two months in office, yet he has managed to resist all attempts at analysis, psychological or political. No one really knows what he’s up to.

Even his most ardent supporters have been unable to coherently explain what Trump’s political vision is. Indeed, there is now an online cottage industry of right-wing academics attempting to define Trumpism while keeping it separate from everything Trump says or does. Good luck with that.

So on the Moncrieff Show we decided to embark on an experiment: to not mention Donald Trump during the period of Lent, the idea being to give the listeners some relief from Trump fatigue, but also to see how much real news we miss by not mentioning him.

And by real news, I mean actions or decisions that will have a real effect in the real world.

Signing executive orders

Apart from attempting to select a cabinet, the main thrust of President Trump’s governance so far has been through signing executive orders: he put his signature to eighteen orders and presidential memos in his first twelve days in office.

And while this may seem particularly dynamic, it is in fact tediously normal. Obama signed nineteen such orders in the same period in 2009: which Trump (via tweet) portrayed as a “major power grab”.

But in Washington, signing a piece of paper and getting something done are often quite different. Famously, Obama’s first executive order was to close Guantanamo Bay. It’s still open.

Similarly, a lot of Trump’s orders are procedural or instructions to come up with plans or initiate studies. He’s pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but Congress hadn’t enacted it anyway. He’s ordered building the wall with Mexico, but not specified how he’s going to pay for it.

Does Trump even know himself?

So apart from grabbing a lot of headlines and hurting a lot of feelings, Donald Trump hasn’t actually done that much yet: a fact he’s managed to distract us from by goading the media into constant assessments of who he really is; which in turn gives fire to his claim that the media is out to get him.

This isn’t to say that Donald Trump won’t bring about change – one of his executive orders effectively allows the coal industry to pollute rivers – it’s just that Trump’s capricious nature gives no indication of what that change might look like.

Because Donald Trump might not be anyone: less a rounded human being than a vessel, to contain the assorted aspirations of the disenfranchised working class, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, homophobes, anti-Semites, protectionists, Islamophobes, the fearful and the unaccountably angry.

The media may not know who Donald Trump is because Donald Trump doesn’t know himself.

Sean Moncrieff is a writer and broadcaster at Newstalk.

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