Donald Trump watches television better than he reads.
Trump is part Chauncey Gardner of Being There and part Truman of The Truman Show.
Like Chauncey, he knows what he knows only from looking at television. Like Truman, he exists in a universe that spans a television stage and a television broadcast.
That unimpressive essence of the man stands bared both to those left utterly aghast and those choosing to overlook Trump's personal disgrace because they support wild disruption of the politics-as-usual they despise.
Nothing defines Trump more clearly than issues surrounding retired Gen. James Mattis' resignation as defense secretary.
Because of the president's unilateral recklessness in Syrian policy and unwillingness to change his position to reasonableness, and upon realizing he could no longer work for a president he saw as endangering vital international alliances and processes, Mattis gave Trump his letter of resignation. He made his departure effective at the end of February after a transition period he hoped to help make smooth.
Trump promptly went on Twitter, of course, to announce the resignation and offer a perfunctory complimentary phrase about Mattis.
Mattis released his letter, which reporters couched as an extraordinary rebuke to a president's style and philosophy on foreign policy and military matters. Mattis felt obliged to warn us that Trump's worldview and leadership style endangered all that he had learned from four decades of immersion in global military issues.
That was last Thursday. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Trump had grown steadily agitated over the period of those four days from watching cable television reports of Mattis' criticism. The Times reported that Trump, by Sunday in a time-lapsed huff, had decided to force Mattis out by the end of the year.
With that word out, Trump promptly went back to Twitter, of course, to announce the appointment effective Jan. 1 of an interim defense secretary, appointed from within.
An unidentified White House aide was quoted as saying that, yes, Trump had received the letter Thursday, but that the full depth of its rebuke did not instantly register with the president.
That's a nice way of saying the president lacked instant reading comprehension.
Two things about that, one necessarily speculative and the other crystal clear: The first, and speculative, is that, at the beginning, Trump either didn't read the letter, or scanned it impatiently and paid little attention to it, or read it and didn't grasp the significance. The second, and clear, is that Trump became offended only after the news media explained to him that he had been rebuked remarkably.
The episode also seems to confirm that Trump isn't tough man-to-man, but only from isolated safety.
The point, as has been demonstrated time and again, is that issues don't seem to matter to this president as much as the treatment he receives in the media in the context of the issues.
You can react with utter alarm that the United States is beset with a president so utterly superficial and egomaniacal as to react only when wounded from bad media reviews.
Or you can say ... so what? You can say it matters not whether Trump understood Thursday on his own what Fox News programmed into his brain by Sunday. You can say that no president is obligated to keep someone who says things about him such as those Mattis wrote about Trump.
You also can say--and this is a staple of Trumpian defense--that Barack Obama fired Mattis, too. And it's true. The Obama administration removed Mattis early from leadership of the Central Command.
But that doesn't change that Mattis found it advisable to take the extraordinary measure of calling out Trump, and that Trump was about 96 hours late on the uptake.
Now comes the matter of replacing Mattis on a more permanent basis for a job some say is bigger than secretary of state, secretary of the treasury and attorney general--at least under the impulsive Trump.
The name of our state's junior senator, Tom Cotton, has come up prominently, near the top of all lists, because of his military background and foreign policy bellicosity, and because it might help in getting a Trump nominee confirmed by the U.S. Senate if that nominee came from the courtesy club of the Senate itself.
I offer no insight into Cotton. But I've communicated with people familiar with his thinking. They've long said defense is the Cabinet job he would most want. But they speculate that now might not be the time, considering Cotton's presidential ambition and Trump's interest in reducing troops in places where Cotton--more ensconced in conventional majority thinking on current issues, such as Syria--is not agreeable.
Still, the domino effect on Arkansas politics of a Cotton ascension would be fascinating. French Hill to the Senate and Clarke Tucker over Jason Rapert for the House ... that's just one scenario off the top of my head.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
Editorial on 12/27/2018
Print Headline: A bit slow on the uptake