This originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph:
Dr. Brian Klaas is a fellow at the LSE, a former US campaign adviser, and author of The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.
When a Fox News anchor calls a Republican president “crazy,” you know something has really gone off the rails in American politics. And yet, it was fair, hard-earned criticism. For an hour and seventeen minutes yesterday, the President of the United States debased his office and demonstrated that he is the singularly most unfit person to ever hold its illustrious powers.
How did we get here?
In the span of a week, President Trump stewed in the White House as he saw all the wrong headlines flash across his West Wing television screen.
There were the embarrassing photos from the open-air missile launch situation room at Mar-a-Lago; the fastest resignation of a National Security Adviser in American history for lying to the Vice President about communications with Russia; intelligence leaks alleging that Trump's campaign was in regular contact with Russian intelligence operatives; a ruling that White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway had violated government ethics rules; his signature immigration ban struck down by a Federal court; more debunked voter fraud claims being debunked, and the withdrawal of Trump's nominee for Labor Secretary amidst allegations that he had beaten his wife and failed to pay taxes after hiring illegal immigrants.
Those were only some of the stories, and that was just one week. Approval ratings plummeted. Disapproval ratings soared. The narrative was quickly cementing: he was the incompetent chaos president who watched cable news for hours a day and then tweeted about it. Donald Trump wanted to make sure that the world knew the other side of the story – that these stories were actually indicative of a White House that was functioning like a “fine-tuned machine.”
In order to showcase that well-oiled machine and rescue his embattled early presidency, Donald Trump turned to the one man he admires most: himself.
Yesterday's press conference was a remarkable moment in American history. It showcased something new: the White House of One. Trump made a series of false claims, berated the press for doing their jobs, and returned to the boisterous and combative back-and-forth that delighted his base on the campaign trail. He amped up his labeling of legitimate media outlets from “fake news” to “very fake news.” He trumpeted his electoral victory. And all along, the only thing that seemed to matter to him was Donald Trump. There was no talk of policy solutions to help a single Mom raising three kids on two jobs. There was no talk of the downtrodden middle class, robbed of their American Dream by festering inequality. Instead, Trump’s overriding theme was that he was a winner, unfairly victimized by the losers in the press.
This arena -- jousting with the press -- is Trump’s comfort zone. Unfortunately, his return to his comfort zone pushed everyone else -- Republicans, Democrats, foreign leaders -- out of theirs. Republicans are panicking behind closed doors. World leaders are panicking in the open. President Trump looked way out of his league for the hardest job on Earth.
And the deep irony of it is that Trump’s outlandish and combative style is burying the good news while amplifying the bad. If a mainstream Republican like Marco Rubio had been in the Oval Office this week, his seasoned team would be touting a surging stock market, three high profile state visits with key allies Japan, Israel, and Canada, and the nomination of a Labor Secretary who actually “drained the swamp” by prosecuting the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Instead, Trump spent more time bashing CNN reporter Jim Acosta than praising his new Labor Secretary nominee, Alexander Acosta.
One exchange was particularly illuminating. Earlier in the week, Trump answered a question about rising anti-Semitism by, in part, boasting about his 306 electoral college votes. In the press conference, he repeated that boast, claiming that it was the largest electoral college victory since Reagan. Yet as an NBC News reporter pointed out, this was far from true: in five of the last seven presidential elections (including 2012 and 2008), the victor received a higher number of electoral votes than Trump. Trump backtracked, saying he had been given that information, but the damage was done as the reporter followed-up with an searing but appropriate question:
“Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they receive of being fake, when you provide information that’s not accurate?”
Of course, partisanship is a hell of a drug. Trump’s combative authoritarian approach to attacking the press will play exceedingly well in Rust Belt Ohio and Deep South Alabama. There is no question that his hardcore supporters will cheer the attacks on the mainstream media as long overdue. But the problem for Trump, and the world, is that economies don’t thrive, national security isn’t achieved, and justice is not served based on galvanizing a political base.
The campaign is over. He won. And yet yesterday’s press conference showed that Trump is not yet ready to govern. For anyone who understands the complexity of running the most powerful government on the planet, it was a 77 minute advertisement of Trump’s woeful unpreparedness. But as Trump sets off to Florida today for a campaign-style rally on Saturday, he will trade a tough crowd in the press room for an adoring one outside Washington. And the crowd noise he is sure to encounter, the chants, the noise – those are the lifeblood that sustains the White House of One.