Ask a true-believing Trump partisan what makes the president good at his job, and they're likely to tell you how great his instincts are. "I think he's got some of the best political instincts in the world, and perhaps in history, if you think about it," said poor Anthony Scaramucci before he was shown the door. President Trump may not know a lot about the details, but he just feels something in his gut that points him toward victory.
It's not a crazy idea — after all, he did become president when no sane person thought it was possible. And one of the best examples was his intuitive grasp of how to tickle the darker nerve endings of America's id. He may not have been running careful studies to determine his message, but he sensed what would resonate with the kinds of voters he was after.
But now, as president, Trump is turning out to be a terrible propagandist.
The last person who would admit this is Trump himself, given his ample self-regard and the fact that over the course of his life he has given more thought to manipulating public opinion through the media than nearly any other topic, the possible exceptions being real estate and the looks of women (and girls — shudder) he encounters. This is a man who from early in his career worked assiduously to build a media image, even going so far as to call reporters claiming to be a publicist named "John Barron" or "John Miller," then extolling his own financial success and sexual desirability. To a great degree, he was successful; although he was always a target of ridicule, he also made his name synonymous with, if not class and luxury, at least shamelessly vulgar ostentation.
And you can't deny that when he ran for president, Trump displayed a kind of mad genius for propaganda. The belittling nicknames he chose for each of his opponents seemed childish and stupid, but they worked. His slogan "Make America Great Again" was extraordinarily powerful, telling voters in just four words what the problem with the country was, what the solution was, and why he was the one to make it happen.
By the time he took office, Trump was surely more convinced than ever that he was his own best strategist, that nobody understood the media better than him. That may partly explain why he has now gone through five communication directors in six months. Nobody can measure up, not even The Mooch, who never forgot to tell interviewers that his boss was a king among men, the apotheosis of manly virtues whom America was truly blessed to have leading it through these challenging times (you might have thought that would keep Scaramucci employed longer than 10 days, but apparently not).
Yet in office, Trump has turned out to be an absolutely terrible propagandist. He can't convince the public to get behind his policy agenda — his party's health-care bill scored as low as 12 percent approval in polls — while his personal popularity languishes in the 30s. Every time he's interviewed he blurts out something damaging, like the time he admitted on national television that he fired FBI Director James Comey because he wanted the Russia investigation to disappear. These days it seems that half the speeches he gives are followed by public apologies from the people who invited him, whether it's the Boy Scouts or the police.
And then there's the latest revelation from the Russia scandal, this one concerning the meeting Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had with a shady group of Russians whom the Trumpsters thought would be delivering dirt on Hillary Clinton, courtesy of the Russian government. According to The Washington Post, Trump's advisers and Junior's lawyers had decided that with The New York Times about to publish an account of the meeting it might be best to be at least somewhat forthright about it — until the president intervened. He personally dictated a false statement that would be issued, claiming the meeting "primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children," which was "not a campaign issue at the time."
The explanation of the meeting was so ludicrous that it only encouraged everyone to assume that something far more interesting must have occurred. And that was shown to be the case in short order, when emails revealed Donald Jr. excitedly assenting to the meeting upon being promised damaging information on Clinton. And now, not only did Trump make them all into liars, he is revealed as the one directing the scheme.
"Now someone can claim he's the one who attempted to mislead," lamented one of his aides. "Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn't want you to say the whole truth." Indeed, that is something somebody can argue.
Nor does it help that Trump apparently lied to his own lawyer about his authorship of the false statement, knowing that the lawyer would go out and repeat the lie on his behalf.
So despite his own bitter complaints on a near-daily basis about the torrent of leaks emanating from his White House, Trump didn't pause to consider that his own ham-handed attempt at deception might itself find its way into the light. Now it has, and once again, he is the author of the most damaging revelations about himself, which will put him in political and perhaps even legal jeopardy.
The guy certainly does rely on his instincts. But that doesn't seem to be working out too well these days.