The president of the United States pouting over his imaginary plan to buy Greenland — something that will never, ever happen, as Denmark's prime minister just made clear — is getting far more attention than how his policies are helping to melt the Danish territory’s ice at a worst-case-scenario rate scientists didn’t think would happen until 2070.
Donald Trump giving a thumbs-up as if congratulating a baby orphaned during the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, stirred some condemnation. But Trump spending the weeks after the slaughter enacting anti-immigration policies that could have been lifted directly from the murderer’s manifesto has barely yielded the wearied shrug many Americans have mastered since 2015.
Trump is also preparing to contest a possible loss in 2020 by resuscitating his aging voter fraud lies that even his own “Election Integrity” commission debunked as Republicans, led by “Moscow” Mitch McConnell, keep blocking any legislation that might prevent the sort of Russian interference in our elections that FBI Director Christopher Wray says is “absolutely” happening.
All of this nonsense just keeps flowing through our brains as it’s sucked into our collective memory wormhole. Why?
If only we could ignore the optics
Blame “the optics.”
Pundits have been worried about “the optics” of politics since the 1970s, when The Wall Street Journal warned President Jimmy Carter that “optics will not cure inflation.” More recently, NBC News’ Chuck Todd declared Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill a “disaster” because of the “optics.”
Pretty much the only person rushing to Todd’s defense was Frank Luntz — the Republican “wordsmith” who helped popularize the term “illegal immigrant” to help kill immigration reform during George W. Bush’s presidency. Luntz tweeted that because so few Americans had read the Mueller report, “optics matter more than substance in deciding public opinion.”
Forget that Mueller demolished Trump’s key claims that the report exonerated him of collusion and obstruction — the report didn’t even consider collusion and laid out multiple possible obstruction crimes. But the former special counsel didn’t sound as livid as Sean Hannity. So, disaster.
Ignore the optics and you’ll see that since Mueller’s testimony, three dozen House Democrats, including the assistant speaker of the House, have joined the 90 House Democrats and independent Justin Amash who already supported opening an impeachment inquiry.
You also have to look beyond the optics of Trump’s 12,000 false and misleading claims and more than 2,300 conflicts of interest to see a man who spends most of his presidency watching cable and the rest golfing and promoting his businesses at a cost of at least $105 million, or more than 262 times his presidential salary.
Melting into a pond of self-tanner
In optics world, amnesia must be feigned when Trump reads comforting words off a teleprompter that he’ll certainly contradict as soon as he finds the guy who carries his Twitter phone. We have to pretend there is some possibility he might pursue some gun safety legislation, though we’ve already been through the exact charade where he pretends to stand up to the National Rifle Association and then melts into a pond of self-tanner.
While Trump opposes universal background checks for guns, a position shared by barely double digits of the American public, many in the news media are following the lead of the questioners at all four of the Democratic debates — fixating on whether the opposition party is going "too far left," a practically verbatim echo of Republican talking points.
Meanwhile, stories about Trump trying to cut 500,000 kids off school lunches flare and disappear faster than a Trump retweet of a conspiracy theorist of exactly the sort the FBI recently warned about.
Then faint concerns about the “optics” of the president of the United States encouraging a domestic terror threat quickly fade away, even though ABC News found “at least 36 criminal cases where Trump was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault.” That’s 36 more than Barack Obama and George W. Bush combined.
Trump 'rivals' are always fake threats
Trump may understand the media's dependence on optics better than any person alive. "Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals,” The New York Times reported.
His “rivals” may include the “invaders” the El Paso killer ranted about, or the former employees he hired and now insists were never employable in the first place, or even Fox News, if his poll numbers are bad enough, or all of them. But they are never climate change, or whatever is causing life expectancy in America to decline, or the country that attacked our elections once and plans to do it again.
To be fair, the news media lack a basic literacy to cover the Trump presidency because there was never supposed to be a president this good at manipulating them.
Trump’s constant betrayals of decency and American values should be the only way to look at this deplorable presidency. But could you imagine the optics of that?
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of "The GOTMFV Show" podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump policy disasters unfold as absurd optics preoccupy weary America