Politics as PR: How Do You Salvage a President?

It took Donald Trump forty-eight hours to condemn white supremacists, and less than half that time to backtrack. Whatever uncertainty we may have had about the president’s views regarding what went down in Charlottesville this past weekend ought to have been settled, as he continues to prove he doesn’t warrant the benefit of the doubt.

I need not remind you of “what went down in Charlottesville,” but for the sake of hammering home the wild inappropriateness of President Trump’s response, let’s refresh: the largest white supremacist rally in the United States literally in decades turned violent when a member of a white supremacist group decided to drive through a crowd of protestors at high speed in a deliberate act of terrorism, killing one and injuring thirty. Crowds chanting “Jews will not replace us” and highly charged slurs against LGBT people marched through the streets with tiki torches. Several counter-protestors suffered beatings.

And yet. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now,” Trump said, defending his initial statement, which had been met with praise and gratitude from literal card-carrying members of the KKK.

The president of the United States walked back his criticism of white supremacists, or at least the suggestion that both sides were not, somehow, equally at fault. His desperate desire to implicate all sides seems to be drawn from an instinctive understanding that the Nazis marching in the streets are on his side; his supposed “alt-left” boogeyman is nonexistent. In the same way he refused to disavow white supremacist support during the primary process, he has gone out of his way to avoid clearly condemning far-right extremism now. By all accounts, he didn’t have any interest in making the second statement at all, and re-upped on his initial statement at the earliest opportunity.

It’s very clear that the president, on looking at the outrageous events of Charlottesville, thought to himself “the real problem are those anti-fascists on the left,” even as the leaders of a local synagogue were hiding their Torah scrolls for fear of arson.

Trump has inflicted, perhaps, a fatal blow to himself. Even GOP leaders are distancing themselves from his remarks by name. Two-hundred and eight days into an infant presidency, and things are spinning wildly, unprecedentedly out of control. It seems as though, of all the scandals that have infested this rotten administration, this might be the one to stick: the president is in the midst of drawing moral equivalency between people who are literally Nazi-saluting and waving around swastikas and the people protesting them. Indeed, he said of the Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists in attendance that many were “very fine people” before accusing the “alt-left” (not a real thing by the way) of charging in with clubs at a group so heavily armed that the Charlottesville police were afraid to contain them.

All of which is prologue to my bigger point. Donald Trump is failing at the one thing he’s always done best: managing his public image.

Why else would millions believe him to be some sort of business genius amidst his many failed ventures? How else did a reality TV star manage to seize the highest office in the land despite scandals that would have taken down almost any other candidate? From “grab ‘em by the pussy” to “Mexicans are all rapists” to “rough up those protesters,” Trump managed to avoid having anything stick long enough to do lasting damage. The nickname “Teflon Don” seemed well-earned. He knew how to talk to his supporters. He knew how to build, and grow, his brand. And he knew how to deflect. It was enough to take him to the White House.

It doesn’t seem as though it will be quite enough to keep him there.

I’ve talked about this before. The same skillset and inclinations that propelled him into power seem to have slammed him into a wall. The drumbeat of scandal worked in his favor when he was able to deflect to an enemy – Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama – but now, there’s nobody else he can target. He tries; he tweets about Hillary Clinton often to this day, trying to use her to draw the public’s fire. But it hasn’t been working. It’s hard to credibly question why the media is more concerned with the conduct of the president than about that of a retired former secretary of state. This places Trump in a bad place; if he can’t deflect, then the weight of scandal upon scandal upon scandal has nowhere to land except squarely on his head.

This is the establishing shot, the bird’s-eye-view. Now let’s move closer – tighten the angle, focus on a scared, angry man ranting at a captive audience of reporters, insisting against every instinct toward basic decency that Nazis are morally equivalent to anti-fascist protesters. Perhaps in the throes of the election year, this would have been just another passing scandal, one in a long list compared to the perpetual rattle of Hillary’s emails, unable to gain a foothold in the public consciousness. But, sadly for Mr. Trump, 2016 ended eight months ago. He’s the president now, and it turns out there are things he can’t quite so easily expect us to forget.

This is the conundrum, the contradictory weakness of Donald Trump: saying whatever he wants made him the president, and saying whatever he wants is bringing him down. It’s almost like a classical drama; like Achilles before him, his hubris lays him low – and prevents him from taking effective steps to mitigate the catastrophe.

I saw someone tweet recently – before the president walked back his statement – that no matter what he said, the media would excoriate him for it. But trust has to be earned, and Trump has done nothing to earn it. That’s the heart of his ongoing PR nightmare; his famously undisciplined tongue undercuts every effort on the part of his team to contain the fallout of the nonsense that tumbles with clock-setting regularity from somewhere in the space between his heart and his bowels.

So. What is anyone to do? How do you salvage, not simply a presidency, but a presidentwho has gone entirely off the rails? The obvious solution – cutting him off from public appearances or public statements and hiding his smartphone – is essentially to treat him as a petulant child who can’t be admitted into polite company. It’s also to undercut his primary support base and the source of much of his Jacksonian power, which flows from his ability to communicate, such as it is. This is less between a rock and a hard place than between an irresistible force – the president’s bilious mouth – and the immovable object of his need for a political base. Stemming the flow necessarily requires losing his existing supporters, the people who value his off-the-cuff, unfiltered, ostentatious personality.

And there is very little to suggest he has the ability to win anyone else into his corner. Supporting the president, at this point, means signing onto the idea that white supremacism is, all told, only relatively bad. Trump has, in his short time in office, violated and put paid to countless pieties surrounding American political life. Failing to condemn Nazis – actual, admitted, flag-waving, heil-Hitlering, brownshirted Nazis – appears to be a bridge too far.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned since the Summer of Trump dragged on into the Winter of Trump, since the Winter of Trump turned into the nomination, and since the nomination turned into the presidency itself, it’s that this president has a remarkable ability to survive the unsurvivable, a cockroach magistrate who could make it through the nuclear wars he seems eager to start. So I am reluctant to stake the claim that this is the end, or the beginning of it.

It is difficult to see how he can survive, but he just keeps seeming to. The question, then, is this: at what point is there nothing left to gain by standing with him? With his popularity in the toilet and Nazi equivocation rolling off his tongue, I suspect that may come sooner than not.

Originally published at HuffPost.