It’s not been a stellar week for President Trump. Still reeling from his party’s shellacking in the midterm elections, Trump tried to replace his long-suffering chief of staff in reality show fashion, only to find that none of the apprentices want the job.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors accused the president of directing an illegal payment scheme, and the New York Times laid bare how the Saudi regime has been playing his clueless son-in-law like a backgammon board.
And all this while Trump’s approval ratings hover just north of 40 percent.
So when Trump held an Oval Office photo op with the two top Democrats in Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and then proceeded to blow a gasket over his beloved border wall, his critics rejoiced.
Pretty much all the tweeting heads immediately agreed that Trump had managed to make things that much worse for himself. He had turned the Oval Office, where all any lawmaker ever does is smile emptily and pretend to be dignified, into something more like Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, and he had publicly “mansplained” politics to Pelosi.
Worst of all, in his rage, Trump said he would be “proud to shut down the government” over funding for the wall, if it came to that. “I’m not going to blame you for it,” he told Schumer.
I’m not going to blame you for it! Did he really just say that? Political suicide!
In Washington, you have to understand, this question of who’s responsible for the now semi-perennial government shutdown is considered a crucial political indicator, even though I’m pretty sure no one outside Washington even notices when the government shuts down for a couple of days, and they sure as hell don’t care who started it.
(Also, they don’t really expect Trump to keep his word about anything, so there’s that.)
This whole business about how stupid Trump is for saying out loud that he’ll shut down the government reminds me of one of my favorite exchanges from “The Simpsons,” when Lisa decides to be a vegetarian and the other kids taunt her.
Are you going to marry a carrot, Lisa?
Yes, I’m going to marry a carrot.
Ooh, she admitted it! She’s going to marry a carrot!
Look, I won’t defend Trump’s behavior, which is rarely defensible. And let’s not even get into his love affair with the wall. But if Democrats and my colleagues in the media really think he did himself grave harm by bellowing like a baby over border security in the Oval, then they’re still not getting it.
What that televised confrontation really showed is that Trump understands exactly what keeps his listing presidency afloat, even if you don’t.
First of all, Trump knows that immigration — legal, illegal, extraterrestrial, whatever — is the single resonant issue of his political life, and has been since he rode down that escalator and straight into our nightmares. He may run afoul of Republicans and independents when it comes to Russia or Saudi Arabia or trade, but he can always come home again to the issue that got him here in the first place.
Trump could have had the Secret Service handcuff Pelosi and Schumer right there and force-fed them his remaining inventory of Trump steaks, and as long as he said he was doing it to keep undocumented, nonwhite people out of the country, his core voters would applaud.
And Trump the entertainer understands, in a way his critics still don’t, that most Americans are bone-tired of all the phony stagecraft. What we in Washington consider dignified behavior worthy of the office strikes an awful lot of voters as something else — namely, a condescending put-on.
There was a fascinating moment in Tuesday’s fracas when Pelosi protested, not for the only time, that the two sides shouldn’t have been arguing on national TV. “It’s not bad, Nancy,” Trump told her. “It’s called transparency.”
Trump knows that every time he flouts the staid convention of the office, every time he does the thing that seems inappropriate among the political set, he’s winning with the chunk of the electorate he still has. It doesn’t matter what he’s saying — what matters is that he’s making the rest of us howl in indignation.
He knows, too, that lies get lost in the maelstrom of a great television brawl; body language beats a million fact checks. And every minute of the cable zombies crowing over Trump’s boorish behavior is a minute they aren’t talking about criminal charges or a rudderless White House no one wants to run.
Win, and win.
Well, all right, you say, but all that gets you only so far. Trump may be firing up his base, but that’s barely four in 10 voters, which is why a lot of Republican lawmakers are packing up their picture walls this week. How do you call that winning?
But, you see, this is the thing Trump sees about our politics that the Washington crowd really doesn’t, even now. Everything in the culture has fragmented. No one gets 50 percent of anything. It’s all about pluralities.
It’s not incidental that Trump spent years mastering primetime TV, where there used to be three giant networks slicing up the ratings, and now there are hundreds of them. You can make a show with a modest share of the market in any given time slot and still be killing it compared with everybody else.
So Trump knows that the game isn’t about two behemoth parties going for a unified majority of the country anymore. It’s about locking down a slice of the electorate that’s bigger — or at least louder — than the next guy’s. That’s how he dominated the crowded primary field in 2016, and that’s how he keeps his own party’s restive leaders in line, even as his presidency crumbles.
Is 40 percent enough to get Trump reelected? Probably not. Will it get him his wall? Not a chance.
But right now, it’s what he has, and it’s just enough for Trump to remain a feared figure in his party and at least a viable candidate for reelection. Which is why he’s more than happy to use Democratic leaders as props while he blusters about closing down the government on national TV, even as the critics mock his ineptitude.
OK, sure, he’s marrying a carrot. But if you don’t see what he’s doing, the joke’s on you.
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