Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
.

-       WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Is it too tired a cliché to open with an epigram from Yeats’ most famously apocalyptic poem? Very likely, yes. But let’s hold onto it for a little bit of stability in the hurricane-force winds of the Trump administration. And besides, clichés exist because they work, and if we’re witnessing anything, it is that the Trump administration is possessed by the very merest of anarchies.

It broke yesterday that Mike Dubke, Donald Trump’s communication’s manager, has resigned, although perhaps you missed that in the kerfuffle over a tweeted typo. This resignation is not surprising; the Trump administration has been beset by an almost daily barrage of scandals which his communications and PR people have been unable to contain. Even ignoring the administration’s early issues like the travel ban, we’re in the midst of almost a month of an endless ratta-tatta-ratta of scandalous disclosures punctuated, like the Battle of the Somme, by the bursting of periodic bombshells. Also much like the Battle of the Somme, every effort to bring it to a speedy conclusion with losses at a minimum has ended ingloriously.

This is essentially where we are right now: a presidential administration best discussed via metaphors to one of the largest, most protracted battles in human history.

The Trump administration is in a bloody war of attrition with breaking news, tending inexorably toward something ominous and undefined. Impeachment? Resignation? A thumping in 2018? It remains to be seen; things at this stage remain dauntingly unclear. But the smoke – the smoke is hard to miss, and we can almost make out a fire if we squint.

So understandably, the administration is in damage control. The resignation of Mike Dubke, whether voluntary and self-initiated or an outright termination, signals as much; the president cannot be thrilled with the almost entirely unobservable results of his team’s efforts to contain the news and change the story. The entire communications team – especially Dubke and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – have come under criticism from the notoriously blunt Trump; he believes he has been shortchanged by a staff of incompetents, famously musing that perhaps the daily press briefing should be done away with entirely.

If I may offer the president some entirely unsolicited but nonetheless sincere advice, this is about the worst decision he could make. Because the problem isn’t Spicer, or Dubke, or anyone else who has to mentally steel themselves to tackle the daily dump truck of manure that the news cycle has become on his behalf.

No, Donald Trump’s biggest problem is Donald Trump. His surrogates are supposed to be a firewall between the president and the press, bringing careful, disciplined messaging to the country. Trump – short-tempered, unconsidered, brash Trump – has been short-circuiting these efforts from day one. But eliminating them entirely leaves the administration with one public voice: the president’s stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed where he, invariably, makes messes even bigger.

The scandal hasn’t simply grown; as Douglas Blackmon put it, it has metastasized far more quickly than anyone had assumed possible, going from a black mark on the President’s record that only the most committed on the left considered grounds for impeachment into a Watergate-level existential threat in less time than it takes to binge-watch a multi-season sitcom – about three weeks. And it only gets worse. Just today, word came that James Comey intends to testify that the president did indeed pressure him to call off an investigation into Trump’s own campaign, while the investigation itself starts to center on Trump’s own son-in-law.

That sound you hear in the distance is the tell-tale whistle of an incoming mortar. It looks big.

And Trump’s response to this endless drumbeat of scandalous intriguing? Vilification of his opponents followed by derailing his administration’s best efforts to explain itself. Think back to the week after Comey was fired. Every time an administration surrogate would proffer an explanation, Trump would contradict it, and then grow enraged when the story refused to go away. “This is the greatest political witch hunt in history!” he tweeted. “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!”

Paranoid, defensive, lashing out – there are very few people who see in these words the behavior of someone with nothing to hide. Even in matters as simple as his PR team controlling minor scandals surrounding untoward comments he made about our German allies, his characteristic indiscipline undercuts his team’s every effort. They’re left with little recourse but to spout uncritical praise and hope it sticks.

This isn’t how a good communications team operates, but it is plainly evident that Trump is leaving them no choice. The old joke – and by “old” I mean “from January,” which feels like years ago at this point – is that Trump is standing just off-stage, making threatening gestures directed at Sean Spicer’s family. Day in and day out, Trump puts his people in an impossible position. Not just in asking to defend the indefensible; every president asks for that at some point or another. It’s in asking them to defend the whims of a president who cannot be bothered to stay on message, and who all signs indicate has no interest in starting.

To wit, last week, reports emerged suggesting that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, had worked during the transition to erect back-channel contacts with the Kremlin. Trump’s surrogates, in the immediate aftermath (as Trump himself was still overseas), focused on arguing that these channels are legal and appropriate. That’s a reasoned response to an accusation; even if this looks bad, it’s not actually illegal, and Kushner couldn’t be held liable.

And then the president happened.

Yesterday, Trump tweeted a link to a Fox & Friends story that maintained no such contact had occurred at all, a position which the White House had never taken. In short, Trump shot his administration’s entire effort to contain the fallout straight in the foot, and raised concerns that Trump is trying to cover up something. After all, the White House never before denied the event, while the president appears eager to. The shift did not go unnoticed.

So what then?

The forthcoming testimony of former Director Comey promises additional unhinged Twitter commentary from the man possessing an office we used to think wrought of equal portions dignity and wisdom, and his staff will struggle to pick up the pieces and turn them into a coherent narrative. But that process will only repeat itself so many times before he’s spent the last of bit their loyalty on yet another humiliating foray to the podium to face the press corps, armed with nothing but lies and the assurance he would both undercut and throw them under the bus for failing to predict the unpredictable.

And then he’s out of allies at all.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.