The Pivot to Presidential

Much coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to Congress–which I didn’t watch, I was working–revolved around whether or not he “pivoted” to “presidential,” as the AP’s analysis put it. Just as much coverage made the more reasonable argument that he wasn’t actually “pivoting,” he was only “pirouetting” as the New Yorker‘s John Cassidy wrote. Much of the pre-game punditry focused on disproving in advance the anticipated “pivot” praise.

And in case you were wondering what an average boob in Miami thought about the speech, here’s Rolando Valdes, who’s in sales, who praised Trump, saying “today he acted like a politician.”

Valdes seems to be saying that Trump pivoted from authentic outsider to compromising politician which, incredibly, he means as praise. And Valdes may be just a boob from Miami, but his comment echoes other pundits‘ praise for Trump’s “presidential” demeanor (equalled perhaps by the furious denunciations for the praise for his presidential demeanor) . In Trump’s case, where “presidential” more than ever before means a character one plays on TV, how can a “pivot” be anything other than a “pirouette”–that is, a circular, stationary dance, which goes nowhere, and ends up where it started? (Obviously, the short answer is, “because the capitalist media.” But read on for the longer answer.)

The “pivot” was a mainstay of Very Serious Analysis of the Obama administration (with its pivots to Asia, Cuba, “the economy,” and so on), which may explain its appeal to a class of political analysts who know no other way to discuss national politics except in the style of a never-ending sporting event with clear rules of which they style themselves the referees. Cassidy’s error is in treating “pivoting” and “pirouetting” as substantially different things, as if changing your public messaging or political branding amounts to something more substantial than a showy about-face. But at least he’s skeptical. What’s remarkable overall is that a political figure, like Trump, who people regard as either 1) a thoroughly fabricated TV character, incapable of authentic conviction or 2) a thoroughly authentic guy, who “says what he thinks” could ever be thought capable of a “pivot,” which is used to mean either 1) an authentic shift in one’s ideas and focus, worthy of a statesman or 2) an inauthentic dance, performed for the cameras. If he’s a phony, then all he does is pivot, and who cares; if he’s authentic, then any pivot is a betrayal, immediately exposing him.

While Trump takes the fiction of the public “pivot” to absurd new heights, the contradiction he highlights is inherent in this and many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and yet also 2) an acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market, a willingness to turn your zealous commitment on a dime as trends demand.

As I wrote in a longer entry on the topic, a person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary. In basketball, you can’t move your “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were mostly found in the sports section. Its recent explosion in political journalism is borrowed from business jargon, where it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wroteScreen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AM Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–a pioneer of pivotology–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. Bruni rightly regards it as insincere, a pirouette. But I suspect many political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists. And as Adam Serwer pointed out on Twitter, the journalistic praise for Trump’s “presidential” bearing last night came largely from the fact that he refrained from insulting journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for political processes. Observing pivots are also masturbatory exercises in professional self-regard. For a charismatic figure like Trump, all he ever does is “pivot.” And for a certain class of political journalist, who treats the “pivot” as a performance of serious statesmanship, Trump can never authentically “pivot,” and analysis of him amounts to little more than the futile exercise of pointing out his hypocrisy. The point isn’t that Trump’s public statements don’t matter, that they are “distractions” from the Real, etc. Rather, when Trump can be praised for embodying the empty-suit conventions of political seriousness that he is otherwise credited with rebelling against, then these conventions–always empty signifiers, even in more normal times–are plainly defunct as categories of analysis now.

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