Four days ago, David Brooks broke the news in the New York Times that President Trump is actually a sober-minded and competent public servant. “People who go into the White House to have a meeting with President Trump usually leave pleasantly surprised,” he reported. “They find that Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage. They generally say that he is affable, if repetitive. He runs a normal, good meeting and seems well-informed enough to get by.”
It is safe to say that this column has not aged well in the short time since its publication.
Take, for instance, yesterday. The morning began with Trump watching Fox News and impulsively tweeting out his confused opposition to a surveillance reauthorization bill that, unbeknownst to the president, his administration was furiously lobbying Congress to approve. At that point, all hell broke loose. Trump’s sycophants descended. “House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) spent 30 minutes on the phone with the president explaining the differences between domestic and foreign surveillance, as many fellow Republicans reacted in disbelief and befuddlement,” reported the Washington Post. Trump finally tweeted a message professing support for the bill and pretending the previous tweet had not said what it did.
Was Paul Ryan “pleasantly surprised”? Was Trump “well-informed enough to get by”? Not if the definition of these terms requires the president understanding his own administration’s position on a bill that was coming to a vote that very day.
Later in the day, of course, Trump ranted to senators about immigrants being allowed to enter the United States from ““shithole countries.” News reports do not make this sound at all like a “normal, good meeting.”
Also yesterday, Trump gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he made a number of claims that, had a non-Trump president uttered them, would have consumed the national media with astonishment. For instance, he claimed that former FBI agent Peter Strzok — who sent texts to a fellow agent disparaging politicians in both parties — had committed treason. “A man is tweeting to his lover that if [Democrat Hillary Clinton] loses, we’ll essentially do the insurance policy. We’ll go to phase two and we’ll get this guy out of office,” Trump said. “This is the FBI we’re talking about — that is treason. That is a treasonous act. What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act.”
In fact, Strzok was describing an FBI policy of going easy on the Trump investigation during the campaign, on the premise that Trump was going to lose anyway. (Strzok likened the necessity of investigating Trump regardless as “insurance” against the possibility he might win anyway, which proved correct.) Strzok’s political views in the texts were idiosyncratic and somewhat right of center. In any case, FBI agents are allowed to hold political views. It is not treason for an FBI agent to criticize a presidential candidate. Nor is it treason for the agency to launch a counterintelligence investigation against the president. Trump’s belief that agents investigating his allies are necessarily traitors is fundamentally authoritarian. Not normal! Not good!
In that same interview, Trump gave his reasons for why the news media allegedly lies about him more than anybody in history:
TRUMP: They dislike me, the liberal media dislikes me. I mean I watch people — I was always the best at what I did, I was the — I was, you know, I went to the — I went to the Wharton School of Finance, did well. I went out, I — I started in Brooklyn, in a Brooklyn office with my father, I became one of the most successful real estate developers, one of the most successful business people. I created maybe the greatest brand.
I then go into, in addition to that, part time, like five percent a week, I open up a television show. As you know, the Apprentice on many evenings was the number one show on all of television, a tremendous success. It went on for 12 years, a tremendous success. They wanted to sign me for another three years and I said, no, I can’t do that.
That’s one of the reasons NBC hates me so much. NBC hates me so much they wanted — they were desperate to sign me for — for three more years.
Trump’s explanation of the media’s unfairness is a narcissistic rant about his intelligence and tremendous success that utterly fails to account for the media’s hostility, except to suppose, bizarrely, that NBC News is carrying out a vendetta against Trump based on his refusal to extend his reality-television series on their network. Trump’s response is so discursive that the Journal attempts to change the subject. But then Trump decides to stick with the subject and note that he is also “the best athlete,” which also somehow explains why the media opposes him, or should not oppose him, or something:
WSJ: Mr. President, you made reference to the book. Steve Bannon …
TRUMP: Just — and so — so I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did and then I run for president, first time — first time, not three times, not six times. I ran for President first time and lo and behold, I win. And then people say oh, is he a smart person? I’m smarter than all of them put together, but they can’t admit it. They had a bad year.
Just a normal, good meeting where the president can’t stop talking about why the media hates him because he was “successful, successful, successful” and “the best athlete.”
Brooks’s column used his observations about Trump’s surprisingly impressive focus and mental acuity to conclude that Trump’s critics had been overreacting and losing their dignity. Anti-Trumpers, he argued, were “getting dumber” and reducing themselves to “monotonous daily hysteria.”
This is essentially the position Brooks has taken about every step in the Republican Party’s long march into extremism and madness. After having depicted Trump as a final break, Brooks was returning to his natural condition.
It is obviously true that, in a large country, a broad spectrum of opinion will inevitably produce excesses on every side. Even a president as deranged and racist as Trump will be talked about, by somebody, in excessively harsh terms. Yet Brooks’s conclusion that Trump critics have on the whole exaggerated his flaws, that Trump is in fact reasonably well informed, affable, and sane, does not seem to be a reasonable conclusion at all. Instead it is an expression of Brooks’s unavoidable tendency to impose a sheen of normality on a political party that is anything but.