Trump Fatigue Leaves Politicos Too Weak to Go on TV

The drumbeat of White House woes exhausts Republicans trying to make sense of the chaos, but news junkies can’t get enough of Washington’s soap opera.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters on April 4.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
May 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

Signs of the out­break were easy to miss at first as mem­bers of Con­gress cast their eyes down­ward and altered their routes when they spot­ted wait­ing re­port­ers. But this was no one-day flu, as was evid­ent when the evas­ive ac­tions be­came more pro­nounced and Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­ers sud­denly were too ill-dis­posed to ac­cept tele­vi­sion in­vit­a­tions Tues­day even­ing.

By Wed­nes­day, there was no doubt: Trump Fa­tigue had struck Wash­ing­ton, at­tack­ing both staffers and mem­bers of Con­gress.

Sen. Susan Collins was an early vic­tim, giv­ing first voice to it Monday when she lamen­ted, “Can we have a crisis-free day? That’s all I’m ask­ing.” On Tues­day, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell—who spent eight years be­dev­il­ing a pres­id­ent whose nick­name was “No Drama Obama”—pleaded for a cure, stat­ing, “I think it would be help­ful to have less drama em­an­at­ing from the White House.”

Neither sen­at­or needed a re­port from the World Health Or­gan­iz­a­tion to know that there is no in­ocu­la­tion for this af­flic­tion, though. In­stead of the crisis-free day Collins craved, she suffered through an­oth­er day of fresh re­ports of Trumpi­an mis­steps and de­mands from re­port­ers for her de­fense of the fel­low Re­pub­lic­an in the White House.

One reas­on for the Re­pub­lic­an mal­aise is that Trump Fa­tigue is a new dis­ease. Vet­er­an politi­cians eas­ily lived through out­breaks of Re­agan Fa­tigue, Clin­ton Fa­tigue, Bush Fa­tigue, and Obama Fa­tigue. But those did not strike the body polit­ic un­til the fi­nal year of two-term pres­id­en­cies. Nev­er has fa­tigue with an in­cum­bent broken out in the first year of a term, much less in the first quarter of the first year.

“People nor­mally get tired of a second-term pres­id­ent be­cause we are all wait­ing for him to go,” said Thomas Nich­ols, a former Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate aide who is pro­fess­or of na­tion­al se­cur­ity at the U.S. Nav­al War Col­lege and au­thor of a new book, The Death of Ex­pert­ise. “This is dif­fer­ent. People are open­ing their morn­ing news­pa­per or their Twit­ter ac­counts with one eye squint­ing and ask­ing ‘What now?’”

He blames the fa­tigue on the fact that Trump’s woes are not the norm for a new pres­id­ent. “People can take a lot of early-pres­id­en­tial-term bad news with­in nor­mal para­met­ers,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “You ex­pect cer­tain things. Polit­ic­al junkies like me al­ways take bets on which Cab­in­et nom­in­ee will flame out first. That is nor­mal. But from Day One, right from the Flynn fiasco and the im­plo­sion of the ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders. this has been dif­fer­ent.”

For Nich­ols, the tell­tale sign of polit­ic­al fa­tigue “is that even Demo­crats aren’t happy—and they are mostly win­ning. That’s a clas­sic sign of fa­tigue, that even people get­ting what they want aren’t happy about it.”

Vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Frank Luntz ar­gues that the dis­ease af­flicts of­fice­hold­ers in Wash­ing­ton more than av­er­age Amer­ic­ans. Politi­cians “want pre­dict­ab­il­ity. They want no sur­prises,” he said. “They’ve now come to ac­cept that every day is go­ing to bring a new set of is­sues that they hadn’t an­ti­cip­ated be­fore.”

Their un­hap­pi­ness is deepened by the real­iz­a­tion that the daily sur­prises from the White House un­der­mine their abil­ity to ad­dress the is­sues on their agenda. “They have be­come ob­serv­ers. They are not par­ti­cip­at­ing in this chaos. They are ob­serving it and then they are ex­pec­ted to com­ment on it,” he said. “They are ac­cus­tomed to lead­ing. You be­come a par­ti­cipant when you have a strong White House. You be­come an ob­serv­er when you have chaos. And we are in chaos right now.”

Luntz doubts that the coun­try shares the Wash­ing­ton fa­tigue, cit­ing soar­ing rat­ings for the daily White House brief­ing, for cable news chan­nels, and net­work news­casts. “It doesn’t mat­ter what part of the coun­try. It doesn’t mat­ter your in­come or edu­ca­tion. You are still ad­dicted to what’s hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton,” he said, call­ing it “un­like any en­vir­on­ment” he has seen in his dec­ades in Re­pub­lic­an polit­ics.

“It shows no signs of dis­sip­at­ing,” he said. “People used to binge-watch their fa­vor­ite drama. Now, they binge-watch cable news or they are check­ing the web five or six times a day.”

Nich­ols ac­know­ledges the big audi­ences but sees them as an­oth­er sign of fa­tigue. “The rat­ings for wars and nat­ur­al dis­asters are high, too. But we don’t want to sched­ule more of them,” he said. “Say­ing that the rat­ings are high simply means that people are freak­ing out and they can’t help them­selves from watch­ing even if it is up­set­ting them and wear­ing them down.”

A big con­trast with earli­er ad­min­is­tra­tions that stumbled out of the gate is that so many of the con­tro­ver­sies have centered on the pres­id­ent him­self. “Everything is hap­pen­ing right at the very top. It is in­stantly na­tion­al news. It is in­stantly in the pub­lic eye. And then the pres­id­ent amp­li­fies it on Twit­ter,” said Nich­ols.

“The whole polit­ic­al class is wait­ing for the first tweet of the day from the pres­id­ent of the United States and it’s off we go. It is ex­haust­ing.” He ad­ded, “Most of us didn’t have to live on the same daily sched­ule as the pres­id­ent. But we do now.”

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