How can it be Morning in America when the president keeps acting like it’s midnight in Hades?
The economic news is impressive: the lowest unemployment rate since 1969 and 3.2 percent economic growth in the first quarter. For President Trump, it raises the possibility of running an upbeat, Morning in America-style reelection campaign, like Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
Except for one thing: Trump is congenitally unable to keep it sunny, or to stay on any message. Attempts at accentuating the positive invariably devolve into his usual recitation of grievance and gloom.
Take Thursday’s announcement that he was rolling out new plans to cut health-care prices. With lawmakers assembled in the Roosevelt Room, he spoke of a “bold, new initiative,” “very special,” an “incredible success.” He boasted (falsely) that “drug prices saw their first decline in 46 years,” and said he was protecting patients, bringing transparency, holding insurance companies accountable, working on a “great health-care bill” and getting bipartisan support.
“Going to be fantastic,” he said.
Then he took questions. And, suddenly, chaos and complaint took over.
North Korean missile tests were bad news and meant they aren’t “ready to negotiate.” China tried to “renegotiate the deal. We can’t have that.” The Mueller report was produced by “17 or 18 very angry Democrats who hated Donald Trump.” Democrats committed crimes. Robert Mueller “is in love with James Comey.” Comey “is a liar, a leaker.”
On and on he went: Hoax. Witch hunt. Phony dossier. Fake news. Terrible. Iran is threatening. John Kerry is advising Iran and should be prosecuted. America is the piggy bank everybody steals from. The World Trade Organization is the worst trade deal ever. NATO and our allies take advantage of us and laugh at our stupidity. Democrats are conning the country.
“But our country is doing great,” he added.
Trump defines himself almost entirely as oppositional. That’s what made him an effective challenger. He governs from crisis to self-induced crisis. Though often upbeat, he nearly as frequently swings dramatically the other way. While it might be possible for him to run a Morning in America campaign, that would take a discipline he hasn’t shown.
Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told Politico this week that he wants Trump’s message to be “more proactive” and “less reactive.” Said Mulvaney: “We want to talk about the economy … so if we can try to drive the narrative a little bit more, we think that would be a valuable improvement.”
Good luck with that.
A week ago, when the jobs report came out, Trump justifiably crowed. “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!” he exulted. “We can all agree that AMERICA is now #1.”
Within hours, though, he was lost in the usual stew of controversy: Being targeted by the “deep state” and Trump Hating Angry Democrats. Complaining about social media and Hillary Clinton’s emails. Sharing an anti-Muslim video. Warning about criminals at the border, and even protesting the Kentucky Derby outcome. He paused mid-tweetstorm to share an observation that he’s not getting enough credit for the economy.
Now why would that be?
As Politico’s Jake Sherman and colleagues observed Friday: “It’s almost — almost — like he misses the ‘witch hunt’ he railed against for 22 months.”
Of course he does. Anger powers him.
At times he wrestles aloud with how to balance positive and negative. He has long said he would make his reelection slogan “Keep America Great,” reasoning, “as much as I love ‘Make America Great Again,’ I don’t know that we can carry it forward, because people will say, ‘Well, what did we do for the last four years?’”
Bill Frischling, founder of Factba.se, the indispensable online collection of all Trump’s rhetoric, analyzed the president’s language for me and found a highly unusual pattern.
Trump’s language is, overall, surprisingly positive. On a scale of -1 to +1, he said, the average politician’s language is about zero, or neutral. In contrast, Trump is +0.29 in his spoken language (+0.18 on Twitter).
But his language is extraordinarily polarized: Everything is either great or horrible. For most politicians (and people) it’s unusual for even a single remark to exceed +0.5 in positivity or -0.5 in negativity. Trump’s positive remarks average 0.66 and his negative remarks average 0.61 on Twitter, where he communicates with people most directly. Such extreme language is necessarily unsettling.
Can he tone it down? Does he even want to? They say it’s always darkest before dawn, but for Trump, Morning in America never seems to break.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.