An audience of one

"An audience of one."

First, it was Melissa McCarthy's, I mean Sean Spicer's, unscheduled press briefing the day after the inauguration. (Forevermore, when you hear the name of the one, you will soon think of the other.) Spicer told the hastily gathered reporters that they had vastly underestimated the size of the crowds at President Donald Trump's inauguration, offered a skewed analysis of how many people fit on the National Mall, gave false numbers of ridership on Metro both for Trump's inauguration and for President Barack Obama's. There was no news communicated, which one normally expects at a press conference. Spicer instructed the press corps on what they "should" be covering.

In trying to make heads or tails of the bizarre event, analysts commented that Spicer had "an audience of one" for the event, Trump himself.

Then it was Kellyanne Conway's turn. In an appearance on "Meet the Press," she explained to a dumbstruck Chuck Todd that the administration was not going to waste its time confronting the facts Todd presented. No, they were going to raise "alternative facts." The Orwellian phrase seemed to come forth naturally and, way back then, three weeks ago, Conway was still pugnacious. Lately, her media appearances are less confident. She looks like Napoleon might have looked in the late afternoon at Waterloo, wondering, "How did I get myself into this?"

When asked why Conway was so willing to peddle a ridiculous narrative defending the White House, the response was that she, too, had "an audience of one."

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Last weekend, the administration sent out senior advisor Stephen Miller to do the Sunday morning talk shows. Amongst other outrageous claims, Miller repeated the allegation that New Hampshire was beset by voter fraud, not just in the last election but in previous ones. He noted that "millions" of people were registered who were dead or who were also registered in another state. Silly dead people: Didn't they think to call the registrar of voters from their deathbed? George Stephanopoulos spanked Miller, but the young man seemed to be inhabiting an alternate universe of facts and kept repeating his assertions each time Stephanopoulos asked for evidence.

When considering why Miller was so willing to give such a propagandistic performance, the answer was? You guessed it: He had "an audience of one."

In part, the White House staff is mimicking the corporate environment with which their boss is familiar. The boss is the center of attention at all time. His is the only voice that really counts. His whims must be treated as commands. The atmosphere is like that of a court, Versailles in the 17th century perhaps. And just as Versailles is decked out in paintings and statues of the man who ordered it expanded and embellished, Trump has a demonstrable penchant for putting his name on everything. Of course, Versailles really did exist for the pleasure of one man. Spicer, Conway and Miller, if they are to be effective, need to remember the other audience, the people watching. 

There is a more sinister aspect to all this, too. In fascist ideology, it is the leader who alone can give voice to the will of the nation. The leader is the one who alone can remedy the problems that to others seem intractable. The leader alone embodies virtue and truth; indeed, his will is virtue and truth, and virtue and truth are his will, no distinctions between them permitted. They are interchangeable. "I alone can fix it," Mr. Trump told the Republican convention in July. His staff thinks that was true.

Yesterday, the master himself gave a riveting performance. The rough start of his tenure was an illusion, he said. His administration is a "fine-tuned machine," which is why, of course, one of its first executive orders was squashed by a court and his national security advisor set a record for brevity of tenure. Any news story that denied the greatness of the leader and his achievements was "fake news." Indeed, in one of the more telling moments of the press conference, the president asserted that "the news is fake because so much of the news is fake." Q.E.D. Can't argue with that.

I would have given any limb to have watched yesterday's press conference with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. What is he thinking? Here is a president, the leader of his party, willing to do some of the things Ryan and the congressional Republican caucus most want to accomplish. No more worrying about a veto. And, yet, one can't watch a performance like the one President Trump gave yesterday without worrying more about the psychology of the man than about his policies.

Actually, that's not right. Trump's core supporters got everything they needed from yesterday's news conference. The president offered them an alternative narrative to the one they are probably seeing on the news or reading in the newspaper, and he named the media as the problem. He told them he had accomplished a lot, although most of the executive orders were little more than declarations of intent, with no real substance. Nonetheless, he has created the image of a man who is keeping his campaign promises. He sounded tough, if rambling: The Trump base does not mind his stream-of-consciousness rants.

But the core of Trump's support is pretty slim. Only so many people can fit down one rabbit hole at any given time. He needs to maintain the support of those Republicans who did not like him but voted for him anyway, hoping against hope that he would become "presidential" once elected. He hasn't. Look for his poll numbers to dip below 40 percent in the days ahead, at which time congressional Republicans begin worrying about how far they should go out on a limb for him. To actually accomplish all he promised, he needs to get past the self-denial and the self-reference and the self-absorption. I am not holding my breath. But we have all underestimated this man before, and today he is in the Oval Office.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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July 14-27, 2017

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