Donald Trump says he has revived the American economy, destroyed ISIS, and inspired respect for the United States around the world. He says these things in the hope that you’ll believe them. But what a president conveys is often different from what he says. The more Trump talks, the more the public learns to decode the real message behind the fake one.
Trump’s talking points—“The stock market is soaring,” “We’re getting tough on trade”—are overshadowed, and their meaning is transformed, by his demeanor and his extended monologue. In his Dec. 28 interview with the New York Times, for example, he was asked about infrastructure. Somehow, he segued from this to a speech about his intelligence.
“I know more about the big bills,” he declared, “than any president that’s ever been in office. … I was a great student. … I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest CPA. I know the details of health care better than most.”
Trump continued this theme on Twitter, declaring himself “a very stable genius.” At a press conference on Saturday with Republican lawmakers at Camp David, he added: “I went to the best colleges … I was a very excellent student. … Became one of the top businesspeople. Went to television and for 10 years was a tremendous success, as you probably have heard.”
What Trump doesn’t understand is you don’t convey intelligence by asserting it. You convey it by demonstrating it. The more you talk about it, the more suspicious people become. They wonder why you’re vouching for yourself instead of doing your job and letting others vouch for you. And they wonder why you feel the need to keep talking about it. The real message of your constant boasting isn’t that you’re smart. It’s that you’re insecure.
Trump is incensed by Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, and its tales about aides and friends who privately despise the president. On Twitter, Trump dismisses Wolff as a longtime fabricator, and he blames “Sloppy Steve Bannon” for letting Wolff into the White House. At Saturday’s press conference, Trump again excoriated “Sloppy Steve” (apparently a double jab at Bannon for being unkempt and reckless) and said Wolff couldn’t be trusted because he had written a hatchet-job book on Rupert Murdoch. But if Wolff had such a bad record, why did Trump speak to him and let him hang around for months? The real message of Trump’s tirades isn’t Sloppy Steve. It’s Sloppy Donald.
One of Trump’s accusations is that other journalists don’t trust Wolff. At his press conference, the president asserted: “So many of the people that I talk about, in terms of fake news, actually came to the defense of this great administration, and even myself, because they know the author, and they know he’s a fraud.” Even as Trump invoked the judgment of the media, he couldn’t resist calling it fake. By doing so, the president conveys not that Wolff is a fraud, but that his own mockery of “fake news” is just a game.
At Camp David, Trump accused his predecessors, including George W. Bush, of coddling North Korea. He took credit for that country’s talks with South Korea about the Winter Olympics. “A lot of people have said, a lot of people have written, that without my rhetoric and without my tough stance … they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics,” said Trump. He went on: “If I weren’t involved, they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics right now. They’d be doing no talking, or it would be much more serious.” All politicians boast, but Trump does it so incessantly and hyperbolically that his boasting becomes the story. The message isn’t that Trump deserves credit. It’s that he takes credit.
In the Times interview, Trump tried to dispel the Russia investigation by uttering the phrase “no collusion” 16 times. He repeated it four more times at Saturday’s press conference, even though none of the reporters asked about collusion. “The collusion now is dead because everyone found that, after a year of study, there’s been absolutely no collusion,” Trump told a reporter who asked about the attorney general’s recusal. “There has been no collusion between us and the Russians.” Later, the president added: “Just so you understand, there’s been no collusion. There’s been no crime. … There’s been no collusion. There’s been no crime.” Everybody got the message: Trump is anxious about collusion.
Some people do take Trump’s talking points at face value. Nearly half the electorate voted for him, and a third of the country still approves of his performance as president. When Trump says that the press is fake, that he’s a genius, and that he’s forcing North Korea to the bargaining table, many of these folks believe him. But one reason for Trump’s slide in the polls is that people who used to hear his intended message now hear his unintended message instead. And that’s because they’ve learned, over time, that the unintended message is the real one.