It’s All About the Shtick!

Shtick” — Yiddish slang meaning “gimmick.” Often refers to someone’s signature act. 

President Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Elkhart, Indiana, May 10, 2018

Call me naive, but I do not get it. I do not understand how crowds at speeches — such as the one in Elkhart, Indiana, last week — by President Donald Trump continue to chant “drain the swamp” while Scott Pruitt remains as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Far from draining the swamp, under President Trump, the alligators have just gotten bigger, greedier, and even more numerous.

Among Pruitt’s alleged ethical lapses: Flying first-class instead of economy, unauthorized purchase of a secure, soundproof phone booth costing $43,000, spending $3 million on round-the-clock security since he began his tenure at the EPA, a condominium rental from the wife or an energy lobbyist (with whom Pruitt met) at an absurdly low rate, and accusations that EPA employees who criticized him were demoted or sidelined. He even requested the use of lights and sirens by his motorcade while en route to dinner. Pruitt is not the only member of Trump’s Cabinet enveloped in scandals: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke also has misused public funds for travel, including a $12,000 chartered flight aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, and Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, purchased a $31,000 dining room set for his office, about which he lied and then blamed his wife. 

Michael Cohen

And, let us not forget the truly spectacular news of last week: The president’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, received a combined $4.4 million from various companies, including an investment firm that does business with a Russian oligarch. The payments were made to a consulting firm Cohen set up to pay hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The entities hired Cohen because he knew Trump and presumably something about the president’s thinking (a curious assumption, at best). While Cohen appears to have done little to advance the interests of his clients, and Trump’s knowledge of Cohen’s offer of wheeling-and-dealing remains unknown, Cohen’s pay-for-play scheme typifies the swamp’s reptiles.

Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency

Trump may be running the most corrupt administration in history (do not forget for a moment the president’s conflicts of interest stemming from his failure to fully divest himself of his business interests). Yet, the Trumpian crowds still chant “drain the swamp!” Are Trump’s followers so unaware that they fail to appreciate the disconnect between a man who promises to clean up Washington and, yet, tolerates Scott Pruitt at EPA? The argument is often made that Pruitt is valuable because he is admired by evangelical supporters of the president and is doing the president’s bidding in rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations. Surely, someone else could be found to do the same work, someone without Pruitt’s baggage. But, Trump does not seem to care.

And, neither do the crowds. “Drain the swamp” proved a winning chant at rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign, and Trump is not about to give up an effective slogan at a time when he is besieged by numerous investigations. For Trump, the rallying cry of “drain the swamp” works as a diversion from the scandals plaguing his administration. For his loyal base, the chant is catharsis. It is a way to show disdain for what is believed to be the elitism of Washington insiders who have, Trumpistas believe, ignored the aspirations and wishes of millions of Americans left behind by technological and cultural change.

Part of the crowd at the pro-Trump rally in Elkhart, Indiana

Draining the swamp is a Trumpian shtick, a gimmick, uniting the purported billionaire president with his working-class base.  No one — neither friends nor foes — actually believes Trump will throw the alligators out. Similarly, no one really believes Trump will build “a beautiful wall” on the Southern border, and, surely, no one believes Mexico will pay for it. But, Trump repeatedly tells his followers that the wall will be built, and they continue to chant “build the wall” to demonstrate their discomfort with the changing demographics of America.

Not only does no one expect the swamp to be drained or the wall built, but doing either would not serve Trump’s purpose. Success would rob him of his signature issues. And, it would rob him of his shtick, his gimmick, to fire up his base. Success also would rob his followers of a cathartic means to express their discontent. The primal scream is more rewarding in this instance than actually draining the swamp or building the wall. 

Trump has done next to nothing to make the lives of his followers better. Trump promised repeal of Obamacare. Luckily for him, repeal failed in Congress, since success would have meant the loss of health insurance for many of his most loyal followers. A long-promised and highly touted infrastructure plan is dead, at least for now. Trump has signed one piece of significant legislation: The huge tax cut passed late last year by Congress that mostly benefits multi-millionaires and big corporations. Trump, who campaigned as a populist hero of the working class, governs as a typical Republican favoring pro-business tax cuts and large-scale deregulation. Any of the myriad candidates Trump defeated in the Republican primaries and caucuses in 2016 would have done the same.

Trump is the quintessential showman; he knows the act, the shtick, is what matters. He cannot and will not deliver on his populist issues. (It is hard to imagine that the New York real estate developer ever really believed his own populist message.) But, chants of “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” are effective tools for masking the failure to enact promised programs. Trumpistas may not get a bridge over the nearby river or a better job, but they can leave a rally satisfied they expressed their disdain for the Washington elite and immigrants.

It’s all about the shtick!

Posted May 15, 2018

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