The mood in the White House is dire and chaotic, everyone is reporting, as Donald Trump stews over the resignation of trusted aide Hope Hicks, son-in-law Jared Kushner’s financial and security clearance problems, and the ongoing Russia investigation that he blames his own attorney general for failing to stop. The picture portrayed in the press is grim:
• “We have never seen top officials this concerned” about Trump’s behavior, Axios reporters Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen wrote last week.
• The president is “unglued,” NBC said.
• The Washington Post reported that White House aides are concerned about their “increasingly isolated” boss’s “plunge into unrest and malaise.” Malaise!
• He’s “spiraling, lashing out,” and “out of control,” CNN reports, and his allies are “worried” about him—”really worried.”
The implication of these stories—made explicit in CNN’s piece, which compares Trump’s current behavior to Nixon’s just before he resigned—is that the administration is on the verge of collapse. Just what that collapse would look like, however, is never stated. Will the president go AWOL? Are his approval ratings going to fall into the teens, rendering him effectively powerless? Is his entire staff going to resign?
I suggest that there’s a good reason this press coverage doesn’t make clear what the actual consequences of Trump’s erratic behavior might be: because he is always acting erratically and always ends up being, by his standards, fine.
Consider the following:
• In February 2017, Politico reported that Trump was “increasingly frustrated” by the presidency, that he was “infuriated” by unflattering leaks, and that the White House was “a powder-keg of a workplace where job duties are unclear, morale among some is low, factionalism is rampant and exhaustion is running high.”
• In March 2017, Politico reported that “a culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration,” with staffers becoming “increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies.” The paranoia had created an “unsustainable” level of “toxicity,” the publication wrote.
• In May, the New York Times reported that Trump’s demeanor had “become sour and dark” and that he was lashing out “in a fury” against staffers, creating a “maelstrom” that left them “fatigue[d], “confused,” “besieged,” and “rattled.” It was a “downward spiral,” a Republican senator said.
• In October, the Washington Post reported a senior Republican’s assertion that “the walls [were] closing in” on White House staffers—whose mood, the paper said, had become characterized by “weariness and fear of the unknown” because of the “distracting and damaging” Mueller investigation and their “increasingly agitated” boss.
• In December, the Times wrote that Trump has had “a difficult adjustment to the presidency,” spends “at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television,” and has exhausted White House aides with his “tenuous grasp of facts, jack-rabbit attention span and propensity for conspiracy theories.”
The most prominent motif in these pieces is language that suggests movement toward a climax or dissolution—downward spiral, closing in, unsustainable. Trump is always becoming increasingly frustrated or unstable; he never decompresses or cools down. And yet: On April 2, 2017, in the wake of the first round of CHAOS coverage, Trump’s aggregate approval rating was 40.4 percent. His aggregate approval rating today is 40.4 percent. In his time in office he’s passed a tax cut, launched the punitive ICE raids he promised during the campaign, avoided inducing a significant military or economic disaster, and retained control over the votes of almost every congressional Republican.
To be sure, Trump’s approval is low by historic standards, everyone in the White House could get indicted at any time, and you never know which racist presidential outburst might be the one that goes too far even for Middle American conservatives. But these are events that might happen, not outcomes that are inevitable. Trump’s political position today is not much different than it was a year ago; his presidency is indeed chaotic, but the chaos has yet to ever culminate in anything other than more chaos.
Writer Steve Hely sums it up well:
One reason he and the rest of us probably have this feeling is that D.C. reporters keep telling us to have it. And we keep rewarding them for it—clicking, reading, and sharing repeated iterations of the same narrative, stories whose intimations of impending White House disaster may not be entirely supportable but which resonate perfectly with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of seeing a singularly infuriating figure receive his comeuppance.
To its credit, the Times’ December piece about Trump’s erratic behavior and poor work ethic admitted that he had “arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw,” acknowledging that the administration has achieved a number of its goals despite the president’s personal unreliability. Last week, though, the Times was back at it again, reporting breathlessly that White House chaos has “tak[en] its toll” on staffers who are said to have become “demoralized” amid “dysfunction” and “disarray.” They are “consumed,” the paper said, by “an ambient sense that the White House is spinning out of control.” When will the spinning stop?