Trump keeps his focus on the sideshows – Politico
President Donald Trump was expected to spend the fall pushing his ambitious tax reform agenda and helping devastated regions in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico recover from hurricanes.
Instead, over a period of three weeks, Trump has hammered the NFL into submission over the national anthem protests, repeatedly attacked the “fake news” media and now reopened a fight over his – and his predecessor’s – handling of Gold Star families.
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But these seeming distractions are the president’s substance – and the legislative agenda his predecessors have approached with a singular focus is, for him, largely a diversion.
Since his inauguration in January, Trump’s sideshows have dominated the news coverage of his presidency, with his fellow Republicans often left struggling to understand why he insists on stoking major cultural battles rather than working to advance a traditional legislative agenda. It’s perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of the Trump presidency — and helps explain the yawning chasm between the president and official Washington.
“His ‘issues’ are a series of episodes where he has a fight with some person who doesn’t want America to be great, like the NFL or Colin Kaepernick, and he wins,” said Bill Kristol, editor-at-large for the Weekly Standard.
While Congressional Republicans have committed to repealing Obamacare, passing tax reform, and moving an infrastructure bill, Trump has staked his presidency on identity and culture – hence his Twitter rebukes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his failure to bring the GOP’s health care bill over the finish line. “I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest,” Trump said earlier this week in the Cabinet Room.
If Trump is an inconsistent warrior on health care – he has flip-flopped several times over the last few days on the administration’s position on the cost-sharing reduction the federal government has doled out to insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act, for example – he has been remarkably steady on the sort of cultural issues that animate his base. Indeed, the president has mounted the sort of disciplined public communications campaigns on issues many have labeled distractions — the sort that his predecessors have devoted to legislative initiatives.
His brute-force campaign against the NFL, whose players he has insisted for weeks should be forced to stand for the national anthem, ended in victory on Wednesday when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters, “Everyone should stand for the national anthem.” That was not enough for the president, who took to Twitter hours later, writing: “Too much talk, not enough action. Stand for the National Anthem.”
That helps to explain why polls suggest the Trump base is satisfied with his presidency – or, at least, that he is meeting their expectations. Fifty-five percent of voters told Quinnipac pollsters in August that he is performing as expected – including 63 percent of the non-college educated white voters who comprise the core of the president’s base.
From the beginning, Trump has staked his political career on “cultural competence, not on policy competence,” according to Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “I think what he does more than anyone is keeps coming back to the cultural issues as a way to keep reminding voters why they supported him in the first place.”
Like his dispute with the NFL, his dust-up with Gold Star families has now ignited a national conflagration – and is being widely condemned for drawing attention away from his party’s attempt to get a tax-reform bill through Congress and to stabilize Obamacare insurance markets. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the president promised the father of a fallen service member $25,000 and said his staff would establish an online fundraiser for the family, but that there was no follow through on either pledge – prompting a swift rebuttal from the White House press office, which claimed a check had been sent.
But Trump’s impromptu remark during a Monday press conference that he made more phone calls to the families of fallen soldiers than did President Obama – “I was told that he didn’t often,” Trump said – tapped into broader notion held by part of the Trump base that the former president was less than fully patriotic.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has told associates that Obama hadn’t done enough to honor the sacrifice of Gold Star families, and embarked on a road trip to pay his respects to Gold Star mothers after he retired from the Marine Corps in 2013. It’s unclear whether Mattis relayed his sentiments to the president, and a spokeswoman for the Department of the Defense declined to comment.
The historian Walter Russell Mead traced this impulse to the legacy of President Andrew Jackson. The Jacksonian legacy, Mead wrote in Foreign Affairs, is defined by identity, culture, and patriotism. “Many Jacksonians came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with ‘patriotism’ defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America. And they were not wholly wrong, by their lights. Many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general.” (Trump hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office in January, a move instigated by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon after he read Mead’s piece, according to sources familiar with Bannon’s thinking.)
Fights about the mainstream media, the national anthem, and the treatment of Gold Star families are cultural controversies, which sometimes, but not always, intersects with the Republican party’s policy priorities – say, on immigration or the decertification of the Iran deal.
But Trump is always likely to consider those goals a distraction from his larger cultural agenda.
“He thinks he was elected on this stuff, this is the stuff he knows how to talk about, and this is the stuff that would make the front page of the New York Post,” said Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review. “The problem is, is that the job is still the job.”
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