I really should get out of the habit of watching “Morning Joe.” I’m an early riser and for a long time it seemed the perfect segue between my second cup of coffee (during “Way Too Early”) and sitting down to work. Joe’s bombastic ego and Mika’s giggly, faux feminism got me just riled up enough to throw the comforter and dogs off my lap and head to the computer. Over the past year, however, adrenalizing irritation has given way to indigestion to stroke-inducing fury. It’s not a healthy way to start my day.
I’m glad I watched this morning, though, because something that had been playing around the edges of my mind suddenly became clear to me. I’ve written several pieces on the media’s obsessive harping on the “Hillary the Liar” narrative, and how odd it is that the biggest liar of all—Donald Trump; who according to PolitiFact lies 74% of the time—never gets taken to task for his whoppers. Some have suggested it’s because there are just too many to keep track of; the poor commentators, flooded with material, don’t know where to start. There’s something to this, but after Trump’s latest “re-set”—a scripted “apology” to no one in particular and for nothing in particular except using the “wrong words” (and what would be the “right words” for his various insults?)—I’ve begun to think something more subtle is going on.
With Hillary, the media lives in the old-fashioned, binary world of truth and falsehood. Political commentators don’t want to hear complex explanations about ever-changing classification procedures or differences between “marked” and “unmarked” emails, they glaze over when faced with the subtleties of her policies, they would rather take questions on the polls at face-value than examine how they may lead (or mislead.) Perhaps understanding Hillary and her history taxes their brains too much, perhaps they are perennially miffed at a politician who is notoriously resistant to their scandal-seeking probings, perhaps the true/false binary allows them to “unearth” lies and “break” news, and therefore imagine that they are “hard-hitting” journalists. Some are guilty of barely disguised dislike of her style as a woman: she’s not cuddly or “likeable” enough for them. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons they can’t resist—no matter how irrelevant the context—returning, time and time again, to “lying, untrustworthy Hillary.”
With Trump, the media inhabits the postmodern world of performance and image, in which the relevant question is rarely “is what he’s saying true or false?” but “how is it playing?” In this world, there is no “real” Trump—or more precisely, few people seem to care to distinguish the “real” from the “image.” There are only a series of performances, “reboots,” “resets,” and “pivots” which will be sustainable or not, will do the trick or not, will win the election or not.
“Can they pitch this new look?” Katty Kay, British correspondent who has become a “Morning Joe” regular, summed this up as the “challenge” now facing the newly softened Trump, whose “new look” is thanks to the re-stylings of the crafty Republican operative turned campaign manager Kellynne Conway. “This is the kind of Trump,” said Michael Steele, who can challenge the Democrats and indeed, might win the election. The “kind of Trump”? And what “kind” have we been seeing thus far? Just how many Trumps are there? And which one will inhabit the Oval Office should he win? Of his “apology,” Joe Scarborough parsed his words carefully to remain within the universe of appearance: “He went as close to showing remorse” as we’ve ever seen. Only Donnie Deutsch, the ad man (who perhaps knows a bit more than Joe about pitching and selling) raised the issue of whether or not the latest “do-over” was to be trusted. The rest were enthused by what Joe described as a “complete reversal” of the Trump we’ve come to know.
For other politicians—Hillary most notably—“complete reversals” are called “flip-flops.” “Showing” is contrasted to “being transparent” or “authentic.” And a pledge such as the one Donald made in his restyled speech—“I promise you this: I will always tell you the truth”—would be met with laughter, derision, and disbelief. (He then went on to tell several lies—or what, in the criteria applied to Hillary, would be described as lies—including reference to her “illegal email server.”) Of course the biggest lie of all is that “rebooted” Donald is anything more than Kellyanne Conway’s ventriloquist dummy. It will be interesting to see how long she can manipulate the performance.