On Tuesday night, Donald Trump managed to speak for an entire hour without sounding like an unhinged demagogue. For that, he was hailed by TV pundits across the spectrum who acted as though he’d just singlehandedly defeated ISIS and restored the fortunes of the American middle class, instead of simply reading from a script that said he would do those things.
Why? Because it’s in their nature, and the nature of the form, to get caught up in the moment—and to elevate perception over reality.
“He became president of the United States in that moment—period,” CNN’s Van Jones raved, referring to the set piece in which Trump crassly turned an American sailor’s death in a botched military raid into an occasion for a thunderous, patriotic ovation. Never mind that just hours earlier, Trump had passed the buck for that same raid to his predecessor and laid the sailor’s death at the feet of his generals. The important thing, in the minds of the sort of people who make a living on cable news, was that Trump looked presidential. “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics,” Jones added, throwing in the word “period” again for good measure. And this was the liberal activist on CNN’s panel.
Jones’ lavish praise of the president set the tone for his colleagues’ commentary. Reaganite troll Jeffrey Lord said that Trump “walked in as the winner of a controversial election” and “walked out as the president.” Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum called it “a healing moment for everybody.” Even David Axelrod, the Democratic operative who orchestrated Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said “you’d have to be dead not to appreciate the moment, the change we just saw.” (CNN was not alone in this: NBC’s analysts were all aglow in the wake of Trump’s speech, and Fox News’ personalities were practically doing backflips around the studio.) Keep in mind this was all on a night in which Trump—fine, without raising his voice—detailed grotesque plans to create an office dedicated exclusively to “victims of immigration crime.”
If the Trump we saw Tuesday night was a different one than we’ve seen at any other moment in his surreal young presidency, CNN appeared suddenly changed, too. That is, the cable news network that Trump has cast as the “enemy of the American people” was back to its old self for one night: self-consciously nonpartisan, obsessed with optics, largely unconcerned with facts, in thrall to conventional wisdom, and keenly attuned to the way the political wind was blowing.
The wind was blowing Trump’s way Tuesday night, no doubt. A CNN instant poll of speech-watchers found that 78 percent had a positive response to his address. While it’s fair to note that Trump had set himself a low bar going in, it’s also true that he delivered a strong-sounding speech quite convincingly and that he successfully orchestrated a wickedly effective bit of political theater by hitching his wagon to a dead sailor whom he cast as a hero.
Still, it takes a nasty case of recency bias for a political analyst to toss aside everything Trump has said and and done in his career to date and declare him “presidential” on the basis of a single impressive speech. It takes thick blinders to watch him move a war widow to tears and not see the hypocrisy at work in Trump’s willingness to profit politically from her husband’s death—even as he evades responsibility for it. And it takes a combination of shallowness and smarm that is peculiar to the mainstream media’s pundit class to ignore the rank xenophobia and fearmongering that characterized Trump’s speech and focus almost exclusively on his oratorical virtuosity. Then again, there are few things cable pundits relish more than an opportunity to declare that a candidate has attained that mythical quality of being “presidential.”
What’s remarkable is that CNN’s panel reverted to this sort of empty-headed boosterism even in response to a president who has repeatedly and strategically branded them as “fake news” in order to cover for his own bare-faced lies. It shows how deeply ingrained the old frameworks of judging a commander in chief remain and how uncomfortable the network must be with its new, unasked-for role as a truth-telling counterweight to a president whose habitual buffoonery makes it impossible to accord him the dignity of the office. By acting like a president for a night, Trump gave CNN license to act like CNN.
The good news—or the bad news, if you somehow found yourself persuaded along with Jones that Trump became a fundamentally different person Tuesday night—is that none of this will last. What the talking heads failed to properly emphasize was that Trump was different Tuesday night largely because he was reading word-for-word from a carefully prepared script. That’s something he very rarely does and is not likely to do again anytime soon. The moment he’s back at his Twitter feed, the unfiltered Trump will re-emerge, his fountain of falsehoods will burble back to life, and Van Jones’ grand pronouncement will have marked him as only the latest of the many suckers to fall for one of Trump’s cons.