A friend called recently to complain that I am no longer complaining about Trump. It’s not that my views have changed, or that I’m becoming shy about my dislike for power without intellect, and the arbitrary denigration of people for attributes including nationality, ethnicity, and professional competence.
I hadn’t written much on Trump recently, as matters have unfolded pretty much as I expected. Without ideas or competence, Trump’s administration is without positive accomplishments, and has only succeeded when destruction has been its objective. The pace of legislative accomplishment has slowed to nearly zero – during the last congressional health care debate I had the strange sensation of opening the New York Times web page, and wondering if their new, slower site was actually showing me yesterday’s news. Nope – I was seeing today’s news – it simply looked like yesterday’s news.
But last week, without congressional inaction to distract the president, the administration’s chaotic trajectory through political hyperspace was re-energized. And, while simultaneously reading the paper and wincing, I had a weird but genuine sensation of déjà vu.
Of the feelings that the Trump administration brings to mind, I would not expect déjà vu to be high on anyone’s list, whether you are in the majority of US citizens who disapprove of the President, or the minority who approve. Depression? Sure. The feeling “this has happened before?” Hopefully not.
But there it was last week – a modest but non-zero feeling of recurrence – as Vice President Mike Pence executed a near-perfect imitation of Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler.
Those recalling the Nixon administration, or All The President’s Men, will remember the term “non-denial denial,” in which Ziegler responded to anti-Nixonian news developments with the then-novel technique of misdirection. Typically, Ziegler would respond to a negative news story by complaining about the source’s politics and biases, but not about the accuracy of the story itself.
That might seem self-defeating, but as a propaganda strategy it was true genius: it actually got some people feeling sorry for Nixon – a very non-trivial accomplishment. Imagine feeling sorry for Donald Trump after he threatens North Korea with nuclear oblivion, rather than feeling stupefied wonderment at yet another brazen act of incompetence, insolence, and insanity. Now that would be propaganda skill. However, the White House, lacking skill at nearly every skill position, has no one to cover for Trump as Ziegler covered for Nixon. (In fairness, the fact that compared with Trump, Nixon qualifies as a left-leaning moderate does not make the current press secretary’s job easier.)
Last week, Pence drew upon his inner Ziegler to complain about a New York Times story asserting that he, among others, was beginning his 2020 presidential campaign now, on the reasonable grounds that eight years of Trump would be geometrically more dangerous than four years of Trump. Hell, it’s reasonable to wonder if we can actually get to 2020 to watch these characters scramble reluctantly for the top of the political heap.
Caught in the probable act, the Vice President’s response was highly Ziegler-like, at once unctuous and pitiful. “Today’s article in the New York Times is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team,” he told his listening audience.
Well, maybe Pence, his family, and his entire team were offended by the story, but that, as students of presidential propaganda and analysts know, is not the same as claiming a story is false. I don’t suppose that Pence would be a good President, but it’s interesting to see someone in the Trump administration show some kind of skill, at something, at least some small portion of the time. Whether that is a good thing, is unclear.