It is easy to mock Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as president of the United States; I’ve even tried to do so myself. There were some undeniably cringeworthy moments (above all, his attitude towards the Jewish reporter who asked about anti-Semitism, and his response to the question on the Congressional Black Caucus); Trump offered his usual mix of exaggerations and evasions (and one outright falsehood in the forms of his claims about the size of his electoral college victory); and the president’s relentlessly belligerent attitude towards the press, with his repeated claims about their ‘dishonesty’ and ‘fake news’, was petulant and largely detached from reality. Unsurprisingly, most commentary, whether from journalists or satirists, has concluded that it was an ‘unhinged’ and embarrassing shambles. And yet—and I ask this question as someone who unequivocally regards Trump as an appalling individual who will almost certainly be a terrible president—are the commentators right? The more I reflect on the conference (and I have watched all of its 77 minutes), the more I think they are not. Indeed, in several respects it was a carefully constructed event that will probably prove to be hugely successful for Trump.
Early on in the conference the president explained that he was ‘here again, to take my message straight to the people’. This was Trump back in campaign mode, bypassing the media and presenting himself unfiltered to the public. As he noted, he had won the election despite the hostility of most of the press; his success could be attributed, at least in part, to his direct communication with the public. That he felt the need to return to this form of communication is likely to have been his recognition that the first four weeks of his administration have been widely perceived as chaotic (and not the ‘fine-tuned machine’ that had made ‘incredible progress’) and that it was time to short-circuit the media coverage with an alternative narrative. If so, then he surely fulfilled his aims with both the tone and content of the conference.
Apart from a few tetchy moments towards the end of the conference, Trump looked relaxed and in control throughout. He generally managed to soften his attacks on the media by making them look like good-natured banter; he even shared a few jokes with the assembled journalists. Above all, he achieved the perfect balance of looking like an underdog under attack by a room full of opponents, while also conveying toughness and strength in the face of the attack. That he was not being especially attacked is beside the point: Trump made it look as if he was being attacked. As he himself commented, he could not be said to have been ‘ranting and raving’; and he really did appear to be ‘having a good time doing it’.
When it comes to content, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has a genius for being rambling and barely coherent while simultaneously telling his intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. Consider what he covered in the first half hour of the conference (before he took reporters’ questions): he briefly announced some new appointments; he summarized how successful his first four weeks had been; he mentioned a high approval rating, a surging stock market and increased optimism in the business world; he gave an extensive list of jobs that were returning to America; he announced a huge increase in military spending, and his desire to achieve peace through strength; he reminded his audience that Isis is ‘a cancer’ that he would deal with, in addition to sorting out North Korea and Iran; he mentioned the many foreign leaders he had had ‘productive’ talks with; he emphasized his policy of strengthened borders and enhanced law enforcement; he referred to his orders to cut regulation, to repeal and replace the ‘disaster’ of Obamacare, to introduce tax reform, to pursue fair trade deals, to encourage investment in jobs and American industry (for example, his initiative to use American steel for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines); and he scattered numerous other references to policies and initiatives thoughout the speech (for example, his intention to tackle the drugs problem and his development of a council with Canada to promote women’s business leaders) as well as praise for the people he had appointed. Running through this part-meandering, part-scattergun account of his administration’s policies and achievements were his attacks on Democrats, the courts and the media for attempting to obstruct him, and his view that he had ‘inherited a mess’ from the previous administration.
What would the audience Trump intended to reach—the American public to whom he was speaking directly—take away from this rambling speech? It is likely many of them would have heard the following: the President is a dynamic man who is honouring his campaign promises (unlike many conventional politicians, but like the Donald Trump who presented himself in The Art of the Deal as the dynamic, energetic businessman who successfully achieves his goals); that he is focused on jobs, security and the defence of the American people; and that he is battling the attempts of traditional politicians and the media to frustrate him in these purposes. While it is possible to laugh at many of his claims and statements (‘drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars’; parts of Chicago are ‘worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East’ that are talked about; nuclear war is bad), his intended audience hears only confirmation of their concerns (drugs are a serious problem; crime in inner cities has got out of control; dealing with Russia reduces the risk of nuclear war).
While watching this I thought of the notorious remarks made by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in the first week of Trump’s presidency:
The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
Trump’s press conference helps illuminate what Bannon was driving at. The president was speaking about jobs, security and defence; he was appealing to popular fears and concerns, and promising to fix them in ways that traditional politicians had consistently failed to do. In one telling moment he said: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician, but I guess that’s what I am now.’ In other words: the America the media do not understand is the America whose primary concerns are jobs and security; and the media do not understand that Trump was elected because he is not a traditional politician. Trump’s slightly folksy and simple manner, his blunt and plain speaking, even his mistakes and exaggerations: all of this makes him look like the sort of non-politician that millions of Americans consciously wanted to occupy the White House.
After Trump’s speech the media had an extended opportunity to ask questions—and they would likely have confirmed to the president’s intended audience Bannon’s claim that the media are ‘the opposition party’. More than half the questions were about the continuing suspicions of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, and the related resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. These are vital questions because this is an issue of immense political, constitutional and security importance; if some of the links to Russia are proved, it is likely to prove a bigger scandal than Watergate (and will almost certainly lead to Trump’s downfall). But Trump’s calculation—and I suspect he is correct—is that, just as Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t bothered by Watergate in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, most of the American public do not care much the Russian rumours. Rather, his intended audience are far more bothered about employment, illegal immigration, crime and threats to America than they are about an issue that does not resonate beyond the political, intelligence and media circles of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.
So the spectacle that unfolded from the conference—just as Trump probably hoped it would, and which was probably why he was enjoying it so much—was of a president focused on issues that matter to most of the public, and a media ignoring those issues to fixate on things that matter little to the wider public. This was the media doing its job properly—and yet also confirming Bannon’s ‘opposition party’ label. This was why the president repeatedly insisted that the Russia stories were ‘fake news’, by which he meant not so much that they were untrue but that they were a deliberate attempt by the media to distract from the real story of his administration’s achievements with non-stories about things that may have been said in a phone conversation between Flynn and a Russian ambassador. And many Trump supporters will concur with their president that the media are dishonest, by reasoning that the media prefer to print rumours about Russian influence on the election than to write about job creation, drug problems and inner city crime. Whether they are right to reason in this way is not the point; the point is that millions of people (and not just in America) are more concerned about the immediate issues that appear to threaten them than they are about the comparatively remote issues of concern to political and media circles.
Most of the media, as well as those of us who are anti-Trump, will regard the press conference as confirmation of Trump’s unsuitability to be president and the shambolic nature of his administration. It is unlikely he won any converts among the media or his opponents. But Trump was not speaking to the media or to those who did not vote for him. He was speaking to those who had voted for him, and he was doing something that he has focused on for the first few weeks of his presidency: firming up his base. The press conference was almost certainly highly successful to that end: his supporters will have regarded his conference as vindication of their support, because Trump told them everything they wanted to hear. It’s a smart strategy, because for now Trump has time on his side to win converts; what he can’t afford to do is lose his base. Given that there is no realistic prospect of Trump winning over the mainstream media, sceptics and opponents any time soon, it would not be a surprise if these solo press conferences become a regular event.
Whether this strategy will work in the long run is open to question; Trump will need his policies to work, and there is surely only so much controversy and scandal any administration can withstand. But Trump has succeeded for nearly two years now with his unconventional approach of bypassing the mainstream media and communicating directly with the public, so he and Bannon probably reason that there is no need to change a winning formula. There is clearly a deliberate policy of dividing the media and political establishment from the public, and it’s a policy that poses more challenges to the media than it does to Trump: it is not obvious in the current climate how the mainstream media and political class can reach out to Trump’s support base.
In one of his final answers, Trump said:
Hey, just so you understand, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided—I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here… This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation. We went eight years with President Obama and we went many years before President Obama. We lived in a divided nation. And I am going to try—I will do everything within my power to fix that.
It’s a powerful point—which is why he keeps reiterating it—and goes to the heart of Trump’s narrative. The United States is clearly deeply divided, but it would be absurd to think that these divisions have opened up only in the past few months. As Trump says, the divisions are deep and long standing; they are a reality that has nothing to do with his being elected president. Of course, he claims to represent that side of the divide which has hitherto been unrepresented by politicians and the media. It matters little whether Trump’s analysis is right, nor whether he really does represent those people who elected him. What matters is that his press conference, like almost everything he has been doing since his inauguration, played perfectly to his supporters.