Trump Reveals His Only Agenda: Making People Love Him

President Donald Trump arrives at the Celebrate Freedom Rally in Washington on July 1. Reuters

Donald Trump has always hated the press. And he has always loved it. The champion of “forgotten Americans” wants nothing as much as he craves the approval of Manhattan’s newsrooms. It is a paradox that has animated Trump for decades, long before he was tweeting tasteless GIFs about body-slamming CNN.

After the editors of satirical magazine Spy called him a “short-fingered vulgarian” in 1988, Trump “sent over a copy of his book, The Art of the Deal, with his hand outlined in bright gold on the cover, to prove that he wasn’t, in fact, short-fingered,” according to the recollections of one Spy editor. There was a note appended: “If you hit me, I will hit you back 100 times harder.”

Those are words nearly identical to the ones deputy White House press secretary Sarah Sanders Huckabee used last week to defend Trump’s pointlessly cruel attacks against Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski.

In 2011, New York Times columnist Gail Collins described a similar exchange with Trump. “During one down period, I referred to him in print as a ‘financially embattled thousandaire’ and he sent me a copy of the column with my picture circled and ‘The Face of a Dog!’ written over it,” she wrote.

Trump’s recent tweets—about fake news at CNN, plummeting ratings at MSNBC, the vanishing readership of the Times—are close relatives of those missives to Collins and Spy. Except for the minor detail that Trump is no longer a failing real estate developer but the president of the United States. And a nasty note doesn’t have the reach of a public tweet that has the imprimatur of the White House and is seen by millions around the world.

Yet the impulse is the same, a desire to be loved by the press, the yearning of an outer-borough kid to be embraced by the Manhattan elites. His anger is rooted in the painful knowledge that they won’t embrace him as one of their own, which is probably why he lives on 57th Street, away from the reserves of wealth and prestige on Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. They weren’t impressed by Trump Tower, and they haven’t been impressed by the towers that followed. So he won the presidency—and that has made him an even greater object of elite derision and scorn. He knows that too and rages against it, even as he adorns his golf clubs with fake Time magazine covers fawning over his achievements.

Trump’s most loyal surrogates—Kellyanne Conway, Sean Hannity, Corey Lewandowski—constantly point to his clout on social media as proof that he doesn’t need the mainstream media. That would be true enough if Trump were using Twitter to push for policies he knew were going to be unpopular with pundits and editorial boards. Social media would then be his means of political suasion, his version of the fireside chat.

Except that Trump isn’t using Twitter to promulgate policy; of the dozen or so tweets he has sent over the long Independence Day break, the vast majority show him obsessing over media coverage. Paul Singer, a media critic for USA Today, wrote over the weekend, “Since his election, Trump has published more than 60 tweets disparaging ‘fake news.’” Meanwhile, there have been “fewer than a dozen tweets about the border wall that was the hallmark of his presidential campaign,” Singer wrote.

Hannity, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the president’s right-wing lapdogs are doubtlessly aware that Trump would trade all the breathless coverage on Fox & Friends for a single kind word from Jake Tapper or Katy Tur. But he won’t get that, so he will have to take the ceaseless adulation of down-market lickspittles like Lewandowski and Jesse Watters. If their enthusiasm for all Trump says and does has a slightly nervous quality, it’s because they know that they’re performing only for him, and that if the performance isn’t effusive enough, he’ll find some other Republican attack dog to adopt as his own, all the while secretly hoping for a glowing Washington Post profile.

The truly troubling aspect of Trump’s obsession with the media is how self-destructively selfish it is. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never, ever let you down,” Trump said at his inauguration. Yet he seems barely involved in the Republican health care efforts. What happened to his secret plan to defeat the Islamic State? Where are the billions to repair our highways and bridges?

Perhaps the diatribes against the media delight some in his base, but it does nothing for them. Attacking the media won’t reopen steel factories or quell the opioid crisis. If anything, it will make the work of congressional Republicans more difficult, forcing them to answer questions about attacks, lashing their legislative agenda to a president increasingly untethered from reality.

Trump began his Independence Day weekend with a speech in Washington, D.C., to members of the religious right. “The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House. But I’m president and they’re not,” he said.

That’s absolutely correct. You’re the president now, not a celebrity marketer who needs to obsess over what Rachel Maddow says. Do your job.