Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Charlie Cook, November 22, 2016
This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on November 18, 2016

At least half of Washington and plenty of people beyond the Beltway are taking a crash course in Donald Trump, trying to better understand the most unconventional President-elect this country has ever seen. One of the more interesting insights I’ve come across was in a Sept. 23 article for The Atlantic by Salena Zito, who observed that “the press takes him [Trump] literally, but not seriously, his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post made a similar point on June 17, 2015, just after Trump announced his candidacy. When he delved into Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Lozada was struck by something that Trump described as “truthful hyperbole.” Then 41, the real estate developer wrote, “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”

We all know the technique of making a point by overstating it, exaggerating it for maximum effect. That’s what Trump does. His critics and the press—yes, I know that’s redundant—make fun of him for it, but his supporters love it and it works. Trump seems to be a person who is inherently instinctive, his thoughts not so much the product of experience, research, or reflection, but rather his reaction to what he hears, sees, and reads.

When Donald Trump says he wants to build a huge wall, the media and his critics seem to think he is imagining something like the Great Wall of China stretching from Tijuana to Brownsville. But Trump’s supporters interpret his words differently. They hear him saying that he’s going to take a hard-line approach to border security and illegal immigration. He’s not going to mess around. So when his supporters hear him walking it back a bit—for instance, saying it could be a fence not a wall at places—they knew what he meant all along. They understood he was speaking figuratively about the wall.

When he talks about ripping up trade deals, he’s not saying that he is going to shred the 741-page North American Free Trade Agreement and 348 pages of annexes. His supporters take him to mean that he is going to take a much tougher approach to NAFTA and other trade deals, that he is going to enforce trade agreements much more rigorously, and that the U.S. wasn’t going to be a chump any longer.

Maybe the lesson here is that he will do what he says unless and until he is talked out of it, but he tries to stay in the spirit of the original statement. In the latter stages of the campaign he certainly was taking some sensible advice about toning down his rhetoric and focusing more on change. He probably noticed that it worked.

Over the last day or so, much has been made about the jockeying and infighting taking place within his transition. While it does seem to be more rowdy than most, should this be a surprise? One highly respected Washington consulting firm privately advised its clients this week, “Transitions—especially from one party to the other—are often ragged and unpredictable,” adding that “the Trump campaign wasn’t run like a conventional political process, so it is not surprising that its transition process is not following the model used in previous transitions dating back to the time of President Nixon.” Nothing has been normal with the Trump operation, so why start now?

What Trump’s timetable will end up being is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth recalling President-elect Obama’s 2008 transition. His first Cabinet appoinment, secretary of Treasury, was announced on Nov. 24. It was the only pick disclosed that month. Seven posts were announced the week of Dec. 15, with the last two, Labor and Transportation, coming on Friday the 19th.

All of us in the news media need to get used to the idea that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were not the only losers this year. The Nov. 8 election was a repudiation of journalists as well, a group that is widely viewed as smug, often snarky, and always self-indulgent. As outraged as journalists are about Trump ditching his press pool to go out to dinner at the 21 Club with his family, the average American’s reaction was “get over yourselves.” Yes, there are important reasons for press pools, but if journalists think that Americans give a rip about this, they are even more out of touch than their critics thought.

On so many levels, various parts of the media establishment should look back at the entirety of their coverage with regret and in some cases shame, whether it was cable networks handing over their airwaves to Trump early in the race, or august newspapers trampling on journalistic standards in the final weeks in a desperate bid to stop him. It was not a pretty sight. Just as it’s hard to get toothpaste back in the tube, it will be hard for the press to restore the bright line between reporting and opinion.

For those of us in the prognosticating end of political journalism, the 2016 cam­paign re­minds us of the need for a bit of humility and an appreciation of the uncertainties surrounding any human behavior. The past offers clues to the future, but people and voters often veer off in unanticipated directions. We in the media need to keep reminding ourselves of that. When Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight models reflected greater uncertainty in the closing weeks than his competitors, he was widely criticized for being overly cautious. That hesitancy looks considerably more rational in retrospect, even though he, like all of us, was wrong as well.

People are going to have to get used to the idea that a Trump presidency will be full of improvisations and hyperbole. What we can’t forget is that he promised change, and that his voters embraced that pledge and plan to hold him to it, allowing for a little wiggle room. He will pay a heavy political price if he’s not faithful to the spirit of what he promised.