How To Pin Down Protean Donald Trump

Sebastien Slodtz, "Aristaeus and Proteus"

Sebastien Slodtz, “Aristaeus and Proteus”


The Democrats now must do what Donald Trump’s Republican opponents never managed: figure out how to hold him responsible for what he says and what he proposes.

A sea nymph (or Nereid) from Homer’s Odyssey reveals how to do it. Before looking at her instructions, however, let’s first survey the problem. 

 Blogger Paul Waldman of The Washington Post says he’s only starting to realize “how comprehensive Trump’s assault on the fundamentals of American politics truly is.”

This in turn poses special challenges for the press:

[T]hat has left the media — whose job it is to report what’s happening and describe it to the citizenry in a coherent way that enables them to make a reasonable decision — at loose ends. We simply don’t know how to cover a candidate like this. We need to figure it out, and quickly.

 Waldman elaborates:

The foundation of democratic debate is policy, issues, the choices we make about what we as a nation should do. That’s what the government we create does on our behalf: it confronts problems, decides between alternatives, and pursues them. That’s also the foundation of how we in the press report on politics. Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about the personalities involved, but underneath that are competing ideas about what should be done. Should we raise taxes or lower them? Spend more or spend less? Make abortions easier or harder to get? Give more people health coverage or fewer? How do we combat ISIS? How should we address climate change? How can we improve the economy? How can we reduce crime? What sort of transportation system do we want? Which areas should government involve itself in, and which should it stay out of?

Donald Trump, Waldman says,

has taken these presumptions and torn them to pieces, then spat on them and laughed. And so far we seem to have no idea what to do about it.

He provides the following example:

On the question of the minimum wage, Trump has previously said he would not raise it. Then Sunday he said he did want to raise it. Then in a separate interview on the very same day he said there should be no federal minimum wage at all, that instead we should “Let the states decide.” Then yesterday he said he does want to increase the federal minimum wage.

So when you ask the question, “Where does Donald Trump stand on the minimum wage?”, the answer is: everywhere and nowhere. He has nothing resembling a position, because what he said today has no relationship to what he said yesterday or what he’ll say tomorrow. And we’re seeing it again and again.

Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin agrees and says that Trump has “cracked the campaign reporters’ code”:

In those debates, and in interviews, Trump regularly runs circles around interviewers because they pare their follow-up questions down to a minimum, or none at all. After 30-plus years in the media spotlight, he knows how to wait out an interviewer, offering noncommittal sound bites and incoherent rejoinders until he hears the phrase, “let’s move on.” He takes advantage of the slipshod, shallow techniques journalism has made routine, particularly on TV — techniques that, in the past, were sufficient to trip up less-media-savvy candidates — but that Trump knows how to sidestep.

Trump is a master of darting from slogan to slogan.

In other words, he resembles Proteus. And to pin down Proteus, one needs guidance from one of Proteus’s daughters. (So we need inside information from Ivanka Trump?)

A Nereid helps Menelaus when contrary winds are preventing him from returning home and he doesn’t know why.  She informs him that her father knows the answer but that getting information out of him will be as difficult as getting Trump to reveal his income tax records. Step #1 involves getting down and dirty—Menelaus and his men will need to hide amongst some very smelly seals:

There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.

Feel free to draw comparisons with how reporters must wade through all the name-calling, fabrications, and conspiracy theories that comprise the Trump Show. Menelaus is lucky in that the Nereid comes to his olfactory rescue:

Meanwhile the Nereid swam from the lap of Ocean
laden with four sealskins, new flayed
for the hoax she thought of playing on her father.
In the sand she scooped out hollows for our bodies
and sat down, waiting. We came close to touch her,
and, bedding us, she threw the sealskins over us—
a strong disguise; oh, yes, terribly strong
as I recall the stench of those damned seals.
Would any man lie snug with a sea monster?
But here the nymph, again, came to our rescue,
dabbing ambrosia under each man’s nose—
a perfume drowning out the bestial odor.

The hard work has only begun, however. The Nereid has laid out what must be done next:

Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks the silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:

Compare this now with Gitlin’s advice to campaign reporters:

[I]nterviewers must do their homework and be prepared to go at least 2-3 questions deep on any issue.

When Trump makes a blunt, sweeping statement like saying he’d “get along very well” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, journalists have to follow up by asking how, specifically, he thinks Putin would respond to increased economic sanctions. If he won’t answer, they should do what conservative Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes did back in March. Interviewers should say, flatly, “You’re not answering my question.”

Reporters at major news outlets need to inquire more deeply into Trump’s alleged business relationships with mafia-controlled construction companies, and about the way he cut corners to get lavish taxpayer subsidies and government approvals for his hotels and casinos — questions that still lack complete answers since they were raised in Wayne Barrett’s 1992 book, Trump: The Deals and The Downfall, and further developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston.

Journalists need to remind Trump, and voters, of the many times he’s claimed as fact something demonstrated to be false — that on 9/11, for example, “thousands and thousands of people” in New Jersey Arab American communities cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers. If Trump says he can’t remember, remind him he claimed to have “the world’s greatest memory.”

Will it work? Perhaps we can draw some hope from the success of Menelaus’s efforts:

When at last he slept
we gave a battle cry and plunged for him,
locking our hands behind him. But the old one’s
tricks were not knocked out of him; far from it.
First he took on a whiskered lion’s shape,
a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;
then sousing water; then a tall green tree.
Still we hung on, by hook or crook, through everything,
until the Ancient saw defeat, and grimly
opened his lips to ask me:
‘Son of Atreus, who counseled you to this? A god:
what god? Set a trap for me, overpower me—why?’

Imagine Trump bellowing, “Sons and daughters of the Fourth Estate, who counseled you in setting this trap for me?”

We can always dream.

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