During the 2016 campaign Trump had one overarching message that he beat to death: Things are bad, and they’re getting worse. Violent criminals are flooding across the border. We’re bleeding jobs while the Chinese eat our lunch. The NFL is full of wusses now. Inaugural addresses are normally paeans to unity with soaring rhetoric; Trump’s was dubbed the “American Carnage” speech.
But when things have gone badly, Trump has embraced a different rhetorical mode. With criticism mounting about the administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Trump told reporters that, actually, things are going very well. “The loss of life, it’s always tragic. But it’s been incredible,” he told reporters. “The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.”
After the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday evening that left 58 dead and over 500 wounded, Trump sounded a familiar theme: The bad thing that happened could have been worse, and is being handled well. “What happened in Las Vegas is in many ways a miracle. The police department has done such an incredible job, and we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes by,” Trump told reporters. “But I do have to say how quickly the police department was able to get in was really very much of a miracle. They’ve done an amazing job.”
Taken broadly, this is familiar presidential territory. Trump is praising first-responders and making the case that everything is being handled properly. And yet, the rhetorical flourishes— “it’s incredible”; “very much a miracle”—are straight out of the Trump branding bible, the kind of thing he would say about a building or a beauty pageant. They’re also being deployed defensively, to shield the administration from blame.
This is ultimately what’s so disturbing. Trump is protecting first from possible blowback, and is concerned second with the situation on the ground. What matters is that things are incredible, that they’re being handled beautifully—any evidence to the contrary just comes from nasty people who have it out for Trump.