At a campaign rally in Iowa last week, Donald Trump declared with great pride, “Do you hear the news? Bruce Orr is finally out of the Department of Justice.” The response was muted, probably because most people have no idea who Bruce Orr is, or why the president would be so excited about his change in career paths.
But for Trump, who lives in a conservative media bubble, there’s an assumption that everyone shares his fascination with the kind of assorted developments on which the far-right fixates.
This came to mind last night watching Jon Meacham’s reaction to the last presidential debate of the year, and his impression that the Republican was effectively auditioning to host a program on Fox News.
“That may sound like an attempt at glibness, but it was the innate reaction I had to watching the president who dwells in this wilderness of mirrors, to borrow a phrase from the Cold War. Where there are these code words and language that I’m sure makes sense to a certain segment of his base, but doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the realities of America during this pandemic.”
A New York Times analysis added that Trump “debated at times as if the tens of millions of Americans tuning in were as intimately familiar with the internet outrages that burn bright across the right-wing media ecosystem as he is.”
It was the first presidential debate I’ve ever seen in which I thought the audience would benefit from some kind of decoder ring. Trump made multiple references to “AOC plus three,” for example, as if voters would intuitively understand the reference. He twice mentioned “the laptop from hell,” without explaining what that might be, or why anyone should care. The president complained about deploying “pillows” to Ukraine, which probably went right over the heads of those who aren’t immersed in a far-right bubble.
At one point, the Republican said of his rival, “Joe got $3.5 million dollars from Russia and it came through Putin because he was friendly with the mayor of Moscow, and it was the mayor of Moscow’s wife.”
What did this mean? Trump didn’t really explain; Biden had no idea; and the rest of us were left to shrug our shoulders in befuddlement.
Eric Levitz added, “Trump is too immersed in the Fox News Cinematic Universe to communicate clearly with people who live outside of it.” Slate found it necessary to publish, “A Guide to All the Nutty Things Trump Said That You’d Need Fox News Brain to Understand.”
It’s as if there are two distinct languages — English and conservative media speak — and the president works from the assumption that everyone’s bilingual.
And I have no doubt that there was a small part of the population that nodded their heads in agreement last night, catching every weird far-right reference, and delighting in Trump’s obscure jabs.
But the trouble for the GOP ticket is that these voters were already loyal Trump supporters. A presidential debate offers candidates seeking national office an opportunity to speak to a national audience, not just a base.
Trump, however, seemed determined to communicate only to those who share a bubble with him.