Many political journalists have spent much of the last five years obsessing over President Donald Trump’s tone. It seems like every time he reads a speech from the teleprompter or makes it through a press conference without a particularly unhinged incident, some reporter is there to praise his new “presidential” attitude and question whether a “pivot” might be underway.
Tonight, as Trump officially accepts his party’s nomination for a second term from the South Lawn of the White House, journalists should leave such inane and meaningless commentary behind. Trump may again be able to play the role of a president for the length of a televised speech, but his ability to muster such a performance is meaningless.
Tell us what Trump said. Tell us if it was true. Put it in the context of the record of the administration he’s led for the last three-plus years and the state the country is in today. But spare us the commentary about his tone.
Members of the press who have clung to reporting on presidential optics in the Trump era are grasping desperately for normalcy in a deeply abnormal time. But Trump always returns to brutish form. He can’t help himself -- cruelty is both ingrained in his personality and part of his core appeal to his base.
Writing three years ago about this already-stale tendency of the press to foresee a Trump pivot, I noted that such a change was implausible given that his “administration’s throughline is chaos and hate, failure propagated by laziness and stupidity.”
Since then the country has seen an unending stream of presidential lies and racist outbursts; his impeachment over an abuse of power; several hundred often-unhinged live-tweets of Fox programming; his promotion of a raft of deranged conspiracy theories; an astonishing rate of turnover in the administration’s top ranks; numerous close Trump associates convicted of federal crimes; the president’s stoking of the rising peril of pro-Trump domestic terror; and his inept handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and triggered an historic economic collapse.
But throughout it all, the president has managed to garner bursts of positive coverage by briefly adopting a sober tone.
That commentary has aged poorly, as my colleague Parker Molloy pointed out in a detailed review of the phenomenon last month, even as Trump himself has literally laughed at how easy it is to game the press into producing such credulous reporting.
Some in the press are already paving the way to continue this framing for Trump’s RNC acceptance speech. On Monday, Trump kicked off the convention with a meandering, grievance-filled rant in which he baselessly accused Democrats of trying to “steal the election.” But MSNBC was already looking forward to the shift in tone that might come tonight.
“I think that may be more like a State of the Union speech,” correspondent Monica Alba reported. “It will be different tonally. It's something where we'll say, ‘Wow, on Monday he was really railing against universal mail-in voting. On Thursday, he may appear more presidential.’”
“We'll see if he can keep the discipline on remarks throughout the week,” Chuck Todd replied. “That will be certainly something to watch for there.”
It’s really not.