Reading the Room

People come to Hollywood to make it big. Those of us who live in Hollywood watch them come and go, and most of those dreamers are gone soon enough. They didn’t have the one skill that’s necessary out here. Read the room. Know when the audience drifts away. Sense their unexpected hostility and work with it. When they’re with you, ride that wave. When they’re not, change on a dime. Know what’s working. Or better yet, anticipate all of this. Know what’s not working immediately, or sooner. Read the room, instinctively. If you have to think about any of this it’s too late.

That’s what stand-up comics know. The best of them develop a sixth sense for what works and what doesn’t – and they move on from the Laugh Factory down on the corner here, or the Comedy Store just down the street, to their own late night show. That’s where they read the country – what Johnny Carson and David Letterman and Jay Leno did for years. Know what works. Know what people want to hear and give it to them, and don’t give them anything else. They’ll love you.

None of this has anything to do with integrity, so this is a political skill too. Donald Trump, as the star of The Apprentice and then Celebrity Apprentice, gave America what it wanted to hear (and see) year after year. Kevin Drum’s 2015 explanation of the show still stands:

A bunch of C-list celebrities compete in teams each week at tasks given to them by Trump. At the end of the show, Trump grills the losing team in the “boardroom,” eventually picking a single scapegoat for their failure and firing them. As the show ends, the humiliated team member shuffles disconsolately down the elevator to a waiting car, where they are driven away, never to be seen again. This is the price of failure in Trumpworld.

Trump sensed that this made sense to people, as he read the room, the nation. This is what they wanted:

Picture in your mind how Trump looks. He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him “Mr. Trump” and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous people accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity.

Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people’s view of the presidency? The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it’s all for a good cause. That’s a president.

Obviously this is all a fake. The show is deliberately set up to make Trump look authoritative and decisive. But a lot of people just don’t see it that way. It’s a reality show! It’s showing us the real Donald Trump. And boy does he look presidential. Not in the real sense, of course, where you have to deal with Congress and the courts and recalcitrant foreign leaders and all that. But in the Hollywood sense? You bet.

That did work for Trump as he campaigned, and may have carried him through the first years of his presidency. He read the room masterfully, but Congress and the courts and recalcitrant foreign leaders were always going to be a problem. He hasn’t sensed their occasional unexpected hostility and worked with it. And now he’s “lost the room” and doesn’t seem to know it:

Republican senators sent the White House a sharp message on Tuesday, warning that they were almost uniformly opposed to President Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexican imports, just hours after the president said lawmakers would be “foolish” to try to stop him.

Mr. Trump’s latest threat to impose 5 percent tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico, rising to as high as 25 percent until the Mexican government stems the flow of migrants, has prompted some of the most serious defiance in the Republican ranks since the president took office.

Republican senators emerged from a closed-door lunch at the Capitol angered by the briefing they received from a deputy White House counsel and an assistant attorney general on the legal basis for Mr. Trump to impose new tariffs by declaring a national emergency at the southern border.

“I want you to take a message back” to the White House, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, told the lawyers, according to people familiar with the meeting. Mr. Cruz warned that “you didn’t hear a single yes” from the Republican conference.

The exchange, in Hollywood terms, went something like this. Your jokes aren’t funny, get off the damned stage! Hey, my jokes are funny – no one at all is laughing at them anymore, but they’re still funny, damn it!

That, however, wasn’t the exchange:

Senators were mindful of the long-term stakes for their home states. Texas would be hit the hardest by the proposed tariffs on Mexican products, followed by Michigan, California, Illinois and Ohio, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A 25 percent tariff would threaten $26.75 billion of Texas imports.

“We’re holding a gun to our own heads,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

This isn’t funny anymore:

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said he warned the lawyers that the Senate could muster an overwhelming majority to beat back the tariffs, even if Mr. Trump were to veto a resolution disapproving them. Republicans may be broadly supportive of Mr. Trump’s push to build a wall and secure the border, he said, but they oppose tying immigration policy to the imposition of tariffs on Mexico.

“The White House should be concerned about what that vote would result in, because Republicans really don’t like taxing American consumers and businesses,” Mr. Johnson said.

That was a warning. Republicans were sticking together on this. They’ll stop the tariffs. They’ll override any Trump veto. But that’s not how Trump reads the room:

Mr. Trump, just hours before at a news conference in London with the British prime minister, Theresa May, said he planned to move forward with imposing tariffs on Mexican imports next week as part of his effort to stem the flow of migrants crossing the southern border.

“I think it’s more likely that the tariffs go on, and we’ll probably be talking during the time that the tariffs are on, and they’re going to be paid,” Mr. Trump said. When asked about Senate Republicans discussing ways to block the tariffs, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t think they will do that.”

He said, “I think if they do, it’s foolish.”

He’s saying that he’s read the room. He’s read the country. Everyone agrees with him. Everyone loves him. But that may only be Lou Dobbs:

Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs tore into Senate Republicans Tuesday night for opposing President Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexico, calling the GOP lawmakers “traitors” to their country who are threatening to destroy it.

“The Republican Party in the Senate appears, to me, to be on the verge of committing absolute suicide,” the Trump-boosting conservative host exclaimed, just hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acknowledged that there’s “not much support” in the GOP caucus for the president’s tariffs, which many believe will only hurt U.S. businesses.

To Dobbs, however, disagreeing with the president is apparently nothing short of an existential crisis.

“The tragedy is they may well take this great Republic down with them,” he said.

Without these tariffs Mexico takes over the continental United States and Alaska and Hawaii too? Lou is an excitable fellow:

“This is, I think, one of the darkest moments that I have seen in our capital for a long time,” he declared. “This is an abject betrayal on the part of Mitch McConnell.”

Blasting the GOP Senate leadership, Dobbs insisted it was “an absolute shame” that Trump had to “put up with such Lilliputians.”

“They’re telling every American who voted for this president, ‘Go to hell!'”

He’s read the room. Everyone loves Trump. Everyone loves these tariffs. He knows. Trump knows. Trump teleconferences Dobbs into most cabinet meetings and smaller policy meetings. And if Lou says the people out there love Trump and tariffs then that must be so.

But it’s not that easy. The Washington Post looks at just who is reading the room right these days:

It was an uncomfortable spectacle for an American president – thousands of protesters greeting his arrival in London for a state visit with the queen.

For President George W. Bush, the moment called for a direct response.

“The last noted American to visit London stayed in a glass box dangling over the Thames,” Bush said at Whitehall Palace in November 2003, referring to a recent stunt by illusionist David Blaine. “A few might have been happy to provide similar arrangements for me.”

And that did the trick:

Bush’s stab at self-deprecation did not spare him – in Britain or elsewhere – from withering criticism over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that year. But his response to the public dissent – acknowledging that the war was unpopular and attempting to rebut his critics – stands in sharp contrast to President Trump’s reaction to thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets during his three-day state visit to London this week.

Trump went the other way:

“I heard there were protests,” Trump said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday. “I said, ‘Where are the protests?’ I don’t see any protests. I did see a small protest today when I came – very small. So a lot of it is fake news, I hate to say.”

It wasn’t fake news, but what Trump said sounded familiar:

Trump’s efforts to minimize opposition to his presidency on the first stop of a week-long tour of three European nations represented his latest attempt to misrepresent his public standing and rewrite perceptions about the popularity of his agenda – an effort that began on his first week in office, when a White House spokesman argued, against evidence, that the president had the largest inauguration crowd in history.

The president’s claims in London were just as easily proved false. After the news conference, CNN aired footage of the demonstrators, including a giant Trump robot sitting on a toilet and repeating two of his catchphrases: “Fake news” and “witch hunt.” On social media, photos circulated of protesters holding signs reading “Trump climate disaster,” “Don’t attack Iran” and “Trump, you are a mind-bending [expletive] human being.”

Organizers estimated that 75,000 people turned out for the demonstrations.

And that was entirely expected:

Although Trump has expressed support for Britain’s decision to exit the European Union, his stances on Iran, climate change and other matters have been met with widespread opposition.

In Britain, 19 percent had a favorable view of Trump, while 68 percent viewed him unfavorably, according to an Ipsos MORI poll last summer. Fifty-three percent of the public said Trump had weakened the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, while just 6 percent said he had made it stronger.

And yes, this is personal:

“The Bush protests were largely focused around Iraq, an ongoing war Britain was involved in,” said Thomas Wright, a Europe security expert at Brookings Institution. The opposition to Trump “is more generic. It’s not about a conflict or a particular policy. It’s a large array of policies and Trump himself.”

And he really doesn’t get it:

Trump delayed his first visit to Britain for months amid the threat of protests, and then held a working visit with May in July 2018 outside central London, far from the demonstrations of an estimated 100,000 Britons.

“Some of them are protesting in my favor,” Trump asserted in an interview with television host Piers Morgan on that trip.

Ah, no:

“It’s an open question of whether Trump actually understands the profound outrage that he engenders from foreign publics,” said Ned Price, who served as a White House national security spokesman under President Barack Obama.

Price noted reports that the White House asked the Pentagon to “minimize the visibility” of the USS John S. McCain during Trump’s visit two weeks ago to a naval base outside Tokyo.

“The staff goes to great lengths to pull the wool over his eyes,” Price said. “One can only imagine what other tactics they are using to provide him with sources of information that inflate his popularity overseas.”

There’s no need to imagine anything:

Since taking office, Trump has avoided visiting Mexico, where his approval ratings have remained in the single digits over his threats on immigration and trade. The White House canceled a visit to Ireland last year amid reports of potential protests, and then rescheduled it for this week in the tiny town of Doonbeg, where Trump owns a golf resort and enjoys more robust public support.

Trump also has expressed admiration for strict control on public expression in authoritarian countries, including China, where he marveled at a military honor guard performance during a visit to Beijing in 2017. Trump came away from his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in an ebullient mood, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross credited to how well he was treated in Riyadh.

“There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere,” Ross said on CNBC, prompting anchor Becky Quick to point out that public protests are against the law in Saudi Arabia.

In London this week, Trump traveled mostly by helicopter, traversing even relatively short distances in Marine One.

That didn’t help matters:

“We’ve had anti-Americanism in Europe before,” said Molly Montgomery, a former State Department official who now is a vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group. “But it’s another level that this president, in traveling to the country with which we have the special relationship, feels the need to travel by helicopter everywhere to not be exposed to protests.”

And then there was that goofball cowboy:

To Peter Wehner, a former Bush speechwriter, the difference in how Bush and Trump responded to the protests speaks volumes. During his speech at Whitehall Palace in 2003, Bush noted that Britain’s “tradition of free speech is alive and well here in London.”

“We have that at home, too,” Bush said, adding that “they now have that right in Baghdad, as well.”

“There was no effort to hide or keep him away or pretend it didn’t exist,” said Wehner, whose book “Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump” was published Tuesday. “The effort was to try to make the case in a way that was dignified and had a touch of humor and grace where necessary.”

Don’t expect that from Trump. Expect this instead:

On this visit, another family opportunity surfaced: The Kennedys have long occupied the American political culture as the unofficial royal family, but this week, the Trumps appeared to present themselves as the 2019 version.

“He’s surrounding himself with his family in this kind of certainly royal family, prince-and-princesses way,” Gwenda Blair, the author of “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire,” said in an interview. “Just as traditionally crowned heads surrounded themselves with their progeny, he has surrounded himself with his progeny.”

Privately, White House officials say that some of the Trump children, particularly those working in the White House, see themselves this way. One senior official, who did not want to speak publicly about internal planning, said that Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump in particular had grown more emboldened with their requests to be accommodated at official events.

Jared is next in line for the throne, then Ivanka – unless it’s Don Jr, and then Erik – and then Pence and then Pelosi, the Speaker of the House – or something. Visiting the royals seems to have given the whole Trump family some interesting ideas. But that’s what America wants, if Donald Trump is reading the room right.

He isn’t.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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