Trump Deserves Our Synchronized Shrug

It’s hard not to be outraged when children are being abused by bullies, but we should try. Outrage defies containment, distraction or division — and we may need all three in the days ahead.

The White House policy of separating children from their parents at the border has incited wall-to-wall coverage and commentary for the past two weeks. Our own Senator Jeff Merkley was denied access to a detention facility. News organizations have surreptitiously recorded children wailing for maternal care. News anchors have wept on camera.

For most of us, it’s been plainly too much to bear. Take a deep breath. Unless you are a member of the United States Congress, pull away from the immediate tragedy. The rest of us must consider the long-term strategies we might employ to put a stop to it. Hollering may in the end be less effective than a synchronized shrug.

Donald Trump entered the presidential campaign in 2015 with no experience in politics or government. As a Manhattan developer, he was a professional deal-maker. Negotiations typically are controlled by the party who cares less. They feel like they have less to lose, so they stand to gain more. The party more likely to walk away is usually the party that gets their way.

Trump spent the last decade as a television personality. He starred in a successful reality TV show and served as its executive producer. The show parlayed Trump’s precocious decision-making into weekly drama. Massive audiences followed every twist and turn.

Trump’s campaign used that television formula to command the nation’s constant attention. Rally violence, dubious claims, brewing scandals, staff shake-ups — Trump seized the center of our attention for more than a year.

The campaign’s story arc was perfectly suited to his reality television experience. The climax would come on election night. Until then, no one could risk averting their gaze.

After he won, he found it more difficult to command our attention. Regular people had regular lives to live. After binge-watching the campaign, people wanted to care about other things. Trump was not pleased.

He cloaked his first Supreme Court nomination in reality TV-style intrigue. He hired and fired with abandon. But eventually, only political junkies were hanging on every word. Ratings began to slide.

It took him 500 days, but Trump seems now to have figured out how the story arc of a presidency can be refashioned to his insatiable need for attention. His weapons of mass distraction are on full display. Photo ops with other world leaders are guaranteed Page One placement, especially when his tone contradicts expectations.

Presidential pardons are great. They are immediate and require no coordination. He can even pardon dead people!

But what does this incessant stagecraft have to do with you and me? Too much, I’m afraid. We pay attention, because we’d feel bad if we didn’t. But the truth is we have almost no direct power over the man or the office he inhabits. There is no recall petition to remove a sitting president.

The President of the United States can be removed prematurely by only four forces. Let’s not consider an assassin or an invading army, because either would only leave us worse. Two other options remain.

Congress can impeach a president, or the president can resign. The former seems increasingly unlikely, since it requires 67 senators to convict. Even if were possible, proceedings have been designed to be protracted — and protected from populist pressures.

If we want a president we elected to resign his office, our best chance is to deny him whatever it is that he wants from us. Most politicians crave support. If their popularity plummets, they will step away before they are pushed.

But Trump is not a politician. He’s an executive producer. He doesn’t want respect so much as ratings. Our approval doesn’t matter to him. Our attention does.

As long as we remain outraged, he will keep smiling. The surest way we have of influencing President Trump is to turn our backs and ignore him. If he’s afraid we might walk away, we’re increasing the likelihood that he will.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.