The best way to handle the circus of Trump’s big speech Friday is to ignore it. Why? Even his spokesperson said he shouldn’t be judged by what comes out of his mouth.
If you’re anxious about what’s happening this Friday with the inauguration but you’re on the fence about how to react — to go to it, to protest it, to watch it at all — my thoughts on the matter can be summed up in one four-letter word.
Don’t do anything. Especially don’t watch Donald Trump’s speech on television or listen to it online or on the radio.
In fact, after misjudging Trump’s appeal for more than a year now, my overall sense about how to weather Trump’s impending presidency is: Don’t listen to him at all.
This is easier said than done, admittedly. What comes out of his mouth or his Twitter feed is so unusual, so not normal, that it’s almost impossible even for seasoned professionals not to rubberneck at the spectacle.
Example: The front-page headline in The Seattle Times on Tuesday was “World leaders rankled by Trump’s latest comments.” Silly world leaders! As we in America ruefully understand by now, some group of leaders or other are rankled by whatever Trump’s latest comments have been every single day.
Trump uses words as weapons of mass distraction. He wants a circus. So the only antidote I can think of is: Don’t go in the tent. Don’t even peek inside.
I’m not saying don’t be engaged. I’m also not saying one can’t pause to celebrate that Friday’s inauguration is yet another peaceful transfer of democratic power.
I’m saying only this: Don’t listen to what he says.
I realized this when his own spokesperson of all people recently advised that we shouldn’t judge Trump by “what comes out of his mouth.”
“Why is everything taken at face value?” Kellyanne Conway lamented.
At first this seemed Orwellian. But then I realized it’s the mistake I’ve been making from the beginning: I take him literally. I judge him by what comes out of his mouth. When you do this, unwittingly you get dragged into Trump’s carnival sideshow of salesmanship, bullying and manufactured outrage.
The entire election is an example. Hillary Clinton ran on the idea that her opponent was unstable and unfit to be president. At the time, she seemed masterful in repeatedly luring him into gaffes and petty squabbles that proved her point.
In retrospect, it was he who was masterfully goading her. Warring about personality, not policy, was exactly what he wanted.
There’s a professor at the University of Chicago, Luigi Zingales, who predicted Trump could win the presidency. What’s remarkable is that he predicted it six years ago, in 2011. As he says today, “most people laughed. They thought it inconceivable.”
But Zingales is Italian and so had decades watching the counterintuitive celebrity power of “the Italian Trump,” former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The more his opponents focused on Berlusconi’s personal behavior or protested his outrageous statements, the more traction he somehow got as a “hero of the people shackled by elites.”
“His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents,” Zingales wrote of Berlusconi in The New York Times. Sound familiar?
The only times Berlusconi lost was when opponents instead ran conventional campaigns focused on issues. By treating Berlusconi as a normal politician, they neutered his carnival power, Zingales reports.
The point is: Don’t take the bait. Don’t overreact to Trump’s bluster — from his promises (“insurance for everybody!”) to his feuds to his fabrications.
Instead, scrutinize only what he does.
That goes a thousand times over for the press. My people are continually getting suckered into refereeing Trump’s juvenile spats with everyone from Meryl Streep to the cast of Hamilton. Fine, it’s entertaining, but what the country desperately needs now is Trump pinned down on the minutiae of, say, health policy. Not whether he or Arnold was better on Celebrity Apprentice.
Trump has some good-sounding ideas — reining in avaricious drug companies, for instance. But it’s all Trumpian blarney until it’s backed by deeds.
So I’m going with the advice of his spokeswoman. I’ll try not to judge him anymore by what comes out of his mouth. I plan to get started by not watching his inaugural address. Join me?