Trump badly needs a change in narrative. But he’s not going to get one.
With Russia scandals looming over his personal family, his policy agenda in tatters and his main defender Fox News cratering in viewership, Trump is blaming his communications apparatus and considering a major overhaul just a few months into his presidency. His approval rating sits at an average of 39%, a record low for this point in a presidency–and shockingly low given the state of polarization in the modern electorate.
Under normal circumstances, the media would be inclined to grant him that narrative change. There are few things Americans like better than a comeback kid, a story of trial and redemption. To the annoyance of media critics on both left and right, troubled and even disgraced politicians and celebrities are often granted new leases on public life. Presidents feeling the pinch of high unpopularity are given innumerable chances to better their standing: when the public soured on Bill Clinton and Democrats took a beating in 1994, Clinton stormed back to success on the back of a media eager for a counternarrative. At least until Katrina and even afterward, seemingly every week of the George W. Bush presidency was supposed to be the beginning of the cowboy president’s return to grace.
This is partly because the media and the public tire of boring narratives. By the same token, successful and popular individuals from Washington to Hollywood to the sports stadium are scandalized and laid low simply to create excitement and remove their shine. Every month the press seemed to uncover something that might have been “Obama’s Katrina.” It’s just how life the in 24-hour media cycle works. The troubled are lifted up, even as the mighty are dragged down.
But Trump won’t likely get the benefit of that dynamic. The one great exception to the redemptive narrative is the unrepentant bully. Mark Sanford and post-Lewinsky Bill Clinton were able to survive by virtue of public prostration and at least the appearance of shame and humility. Even Richard Nixon regained some respect and public acclaim as an elder statesman, but only after a long period in the wilderness.
But no such redemption lies in wait for the likes of former Illions governor Rod Blagojevich, former House Speaker Tom Delay or New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Those who show no contrition and who go down punching to the end receive no quarter. Strongmen and charmless tyrants are simply crushed underfoot and forgotten, left in the dust as a warning to others who may tread a similar path. Much to the frustration of liberal activists, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence have just as many horrific policy platforms (or more) as Trump himself, but their “aw shucks” demeanors and outwardly conciliatory tones mean that the media grant them far more leeway in public life than the likes of Trump. Bullying and braggadocious, Trump is precisely the sort of man that the press loves to foolishly lift up–and then mercilessly destroy.
It didn’t have to be this way. In another universe where Trump had a conscience or at least an instinct for political self-preservation, he could have reined himself in and either governed as a “normal” Republican or instituted a sort of left-right populism to keep his critics guessing and endear himself better to certain segments of the public outside of traditional partisan lines. Had he shown an ounce of humility, he could have been seen during the Russia investigation as the unwitting victim of one or two of his corrupted viziers, much as Ronald Reagan was during the Iran-Contra scandal.
But that’s not going to happen. By being such an over-the-top outrageous boor, Trump is ensuring that the media and ultimately the public won’t rest until he receives the comeuppance for his hubris. There is no redemption arc awaiting him, and no number of rallies or staff shakeups that will halt the oncoming narrative train.