"People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again," President Donald Trump bragged, predictably, on December 24. "AP FACT CHECK: Trump on making Christmas great again," came the even more predictable reply from the Associated Press. This is no way to watchdog an administration, let alone celebrate a beloved holiday.
Trump, an outsider con man who hustled his way into the most prestigious insider job in America by mastering the art of the troll, has not to date found his social media equal among the hydra-headed opposition. The president pecks out impotent bluster designed to inflame the haters, and Democrats, journalists, and establishmentarian Republicans take the bait every time.
So instead of firing up the hyperbole machine after each fatuous tweet, perhaps we should work our way backward from the underlying power dynamic, asking ourselves whether the president has the means to convert his latest utterance into real policy change. One might even gently suggest that such a framework should be applied to all American politicians, not just the one who's been the most successful since July 2015.
Trump's illiberal ambitions were thwarted a number of times in 2017. A week into his presidency, the administration issued a hasty and draconian travel ban, barring entry into the United States—including, amazingly, by legal permanent residents who happened to be abroad at the moment—if they originated from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
This was the high-water mark to date for anti-Trump activism. Pop-up legal aid teams swarmed to scores of international airports to help bewildered travelers. Protesters, too, brought the TV cameras out.
Meanwhile, a series of courts issued injunctions against the order, forcing the administration to substantially revise and improve the ban at least twice. (The third version, which includes some non-Muslim countries, doesn't affect legal residents, and is based on considerably more concrete visa-processing information, is still facing a legal challenge, though the Supreme Court stayed a pair of injunctions against it in December.) Institutions, both governmental and not, still matter.
Trump has much more legal authority over who can and cannot come into the country than he does over whether shopkeepers say, "Happy holidays." That's why the first question to ask after any given Trump-blurt is What could the president do right away about this by using his executive authority? As annoying as they are in the moment, a president's comments about the cast of Hamilton being "very rude" to Mike Pence or how such-and-such journalist "should be fired" are neither sticks nor stones.
The presidency, alas, has been accruing tangible administrative power and intangible public mindshare for decades. On foreign policy in particular, we still don't know how Trump will exercise his authority in response to future crises.
But most of the big stuff can't get done without lawmakers. Which leads to a second question when evaluating a Trump statement: What relevant legislation might Congress pass?
The most unpopular president in modern polling history is down to a 51–49 Republican majority in the Senate—a body in which 11 Republicans did not endorse him in the first place. This math helped strangle Trump's awful "border adjustment tax" idea in the crib. Meanwhile, the polls do not augur well for House Republicans. A year from now our primary worry may be what the president has in common with Nancy Pelosi.
A third question that eludes too many breathless commentators is Are there any other constitutional or treaty-based limitations on Trump's stated goals? The president may fervently believe that flag-burners should be prosecuted, but that's been a non-starter on the Supreme Court for three decades now.
All of which leaves the hardest question for last: How might he be changing the political conversation in such a way to make what is currently unlikely possible? Republicans already have very different ideas on international trade and the virtues of Vladimir Putin than they did even two years ago. If Trump is indeed taking a blowtorch to our political culture, the damage to America could be long-lasting.
But as the baseball slugger Chili Davis once observed about then-invincible pitcher Dwight Gooden, "He ain't God, man." No one person, even in a position as inflated as the presidency, can totally reshape something as messy and resilient as America. It's critical to keep your head on straight during an admittedly weird presidency, and not go into full panic mode at every threatening utterance.
Don't want the troll to win? Don't become one yourself.