Forgive the jaunty rake of my pussy-march hat. This past weekend, I was hysterically drunk on Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and one ridiculous moment at the CIA. For a while, there was so much to look forward to about this week: a belief that we’d sober up and find all manner of scathing things to say about a new American politics that combines demagoguery with a rich neurotic psychology.
Then Monday happened and Monday seemed to change everything. Monday was the day when Donald Trump suddenly began to act presidential.
It’s understandable if you missed it. By Tuesday evening, the maturity had again disappeared from the White House amid stories of tempers, infighting, as well as paranoid claims about illegal votes. Yet for a brief time, an unexpected transformation had occurred and, if one looked carefully enough, one might have glimpsed the potential of this new president.
The week began with the media distracted by what had possibly been the worst opening weekend of any presidency in living memory. On Saturday, Trump had visited the CIA and extemporised his own destruction. Oblivious to context, Trump stood before a monument to fallen warriors and paid tribute to his own genius. Meanwhile his press secretary appeared in the White House and magnified the President’s psychosis by accusing the press of misrepresenting the attendance figures for Friday’s inauguration. It was followed by Kellyanne Conway presenting their argument as simply a matter of ‘alternative facts’; already an era-defining phrase which the media were quick to point out meant ‘falsehoods’ or ‘lies’. By Wednesday, Orwell’s 1984 would be topping Amazon’s fiction charts.
But back on Monday, Trump’s presidency already needed a reset, which he got as the White House began the rollback towards sanity by restricting the President to a couple of photo opportunities surrounded by people with whom he could talk jobs and trade. First with the heads of the biggest American businesses and then with union leaders, Trump played a role that will no doubt become standard in the months and (perhaps) years ahead. This was Trump as the figurehead of a policy agenda, the guiding voice that delivered a message that was as unambiguous as any of the executive orders he went on to sign. It was a day devoted to fulfilling campaign commitments, such as signalling the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership. By Tuesday, he’d ordered that work would commence on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
Harbour no doubts: these were all controversial decisions meant to appeal to his base and certain to earn him few fans among Democrats. Yet they were also satisfying to anybody who follows American politics in that they were located in real world disagreements and delivered in that self-consciously serious manner that Trump is capable of adopting when trying to convey gravitas.
It also highlighted the enigma of Donald Trump and why the media will find it so hard to pin him down on any one falsehood. Trump can play sincere, frivolous, sombre, friendly, hateful, gregarious, and hostile, often without needing to take a second breath. From Saturday to Monday, the shift in tone was dizzying; a moment of high farce followed by a piece of hard regulation. This is how Trump’s White House will operate, with mistakes quickly eclipsed by other developing stories, reflecting the mercurial nature of a Commander in Chief who shameless adapts to whatever role he is expected to play.
This is Trump’s saving grace; the reason why even his poll ratings are beginning to climb. He has a shameless ability to adapt to his surroundings. Notice, for example, the small flourish that has thus far been overlooked, in the form of the handkerchief he has started to wear in his suit’s breast pocket. Such a detail would be unremarkable if Trump weren’t such a creature of habit. His style has been defined over decades. The clothes he wore for his cameo in 1992’s Home Alone 2 were no different to the uniform he wore throughout the long nomination, presidential races and Friday’s inauguration. It was the same long coat over dark blue suit, with his red tie worn long and loose in the unbuttoned gap.
Given that Trump’s habits rarely change, it seemed remarkable that he used his first day in the Oval Office to make a sartorial change in the form of a handkerchief worn in what’s known as a ‘Pesko Fold’, giving that classic thin edged style reminiscent of the early James Bond, ‘Mad Men’ and classic 1950s Americana. Yet in Trump’s case, it also evokes memories of Ronald Reagan, who was rarely photographed without a distinctive white flash on his breast.
From his campaign slogan to his inauguration speech, Trump has already borrowed heavily from Reagan, and, when Theresa May visits Washington on Friday, the White House hope that it will begin a transatlantic relationship similar to that between Reagan and Thatcher. The result is already something of a pastiche of presidential style, with Trump becoming our first postmodern president; the first mash-up leader whose sensibilities are borrowed from earlier times and re-appropriated for today.
This needn’t be as damning as it sounds. Call it pastiche or call it emulation, Trump has chosen a role model and for a period on Monday and Tuesday it allowed him to achieve a level of seriousness that had previously eluded him. Monday was the first good day of the Trump presidency and Tuesday began the same, with meetings with America’s car industry underlining the President’s commitment to industry. It was a reminder that there might be a creditable president in the vicinity of Donald Trump and we don’t mean Mike Pence.
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Amid all the ridiculous claims and Twitter wars, it’s hard to think of Trump as a strategic policy maker. Yet, like Reagan, he is quite capable of asking big questions that more seasoned politicians would wrap in nuance and detail. In very broad terms, his attitude towards China is not that different to Reagan’s attitude towards the old Soviet Union. Both won the Republican nominations and then their presidencies through the sheer force of their character. That same dynamism and personality are an asset in one-on-one interactions. It was notable on Friday that Trump was more affable once his doom-mongering inaugural speech was behind him. He relaxed around Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Just this week, in The Washington Post, David Ignatius reported that ‘CIA veterans said his private tour of CIA headquarters went better than his recorded public comments in front of the wall of stars commemorating fallen officers’.
With a template to follow, Trump might yet achieve a level of competence that few expected of such an inexperienced politician. Trump’s only problem is if he adopts the role without conviction. Mimicking Reagan is different to being Reagan and Trump would be foolish to believe that history will play out as neatly as it did before. Already there’s talk of the President meeting Putin in Reykjavik. There is no obvious need for the meeting beyond evoking memories of the famous 1986 meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. If so, it is a foolish fantasy to play out. There’s nothing to suggest that Ronald Reagan can provide answers to 21st century problems. At some point, pastiche, emulation, or idolatry are not enough. America will need a real president and not one who simply bought the handkerchief.