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The Teflon Con

A dead metaphor for presidential impunity

It was in August of 1983, the summer of Ronald Reagan’s third year in the White House, when Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado rose to address her House colleagues. She spoke with an apparent mix of frustration and puzzlement. Did the public and the press not see what a fool Reagan was? Did they not care that he had surrounded himself with corporate toadies and had pushed for tax and budget measures that benefited the rich and punished the poor?

Schroeder suggested that Reagan had made a “great breakthrough in political technology—he has been perfecting the Teflon-coated presidency. He sees to it that nothing sticks to him. He is responsible for nothing—civil rights, Central America, the Middle East, the economy, the environment. He is just the master of ceremonies at someone else’s dinner.”

By today’s standards, a tame critique! (Schroeder’s remarks came well before the corruption of the Reagan administration was fully known: the Iran-Contra scandal developed in Reagan’s second term.) But since that time, Schroeder’s metaphor of Teflon as a special kind of “political technology” has lodged in the American brain.

Early in Donald Trump’s campaign for president, almost a year before he won the GOP nomination, Politico marveled about the celebrity tycoon’s ability to handle the political heat. Under the title “Teflon Don,” reporter Dylan Byers wrote:

If Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton or any other presidential candidate said the things Donald Trump says, did the things Donald Trump does, or had led the controversial life Donald Trump has, his or her campaign would already have died in a pile of negative headlines and video clips.

But Donald Trump is alive. It is evident that the regular rules do not apply to him. 

As the campaign went on to set innumerable new lows in American politics, that observation became commonplace. People often looked back to simpler times, when a minor “gaffe” could inflict lasting damage on a candidate. Remember how Howard Dean had let out a cosmic shriek at a rally in Iowa on a January night in 2004, and then his campaign collapsed soon after? Or when John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee that year, was lampooned for admitting that he had indeed voted in favor of $87 billion in funding for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it? 

Schroeder’s metaphor of Teflon as a special kind of “political technology” has lodged in the American brain.

But Trump’s many ignorant, dishonest, or repulsive statements didn’t seem to take a toll. A month before the election, the comments Trump made on the Access Hollywood set were revealed. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” He was, of course, referring to sexual assault, but it stood as the perfect expression of his sense of invulnerability. And after the election: the revelations that he had ordered hush money payments to women who claimed they had affairs with him. The seeping out of the ways he’d cheated throughout his business career. The crimes committed by his dishonest hacks like Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. And all the rest.

Yet Politico kept returning to the “Teflon Don” headlines. When Trump fired FBI director James Comey early in 2017 the question was whether his protective covering would fail him. A report quoted Republican strategist Austin Barbour worrying: “I have always felt, since he won, that in many ways he was made a little bit of Teflon, with his base and maybe even outside his base. I think this is a different deal.” But later that year, another Politico report was titled “Teflon Don confounds Democrats.” Edward-Isaac Dovere reported that “No single attack on the president is sticking. . . . Voters are also generally unimpressed by claims that Trump exaggerates or lies, and they don’t see the ongoing Russia investigation adding up to much.”

Just as special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s inquiry into the Reagan-Bush Iran-Contra scandal did not hobble Reagan or Bush (it took almost seven years and wasn’t completed until 1994), and just as the infamous Kenneth Starr inquiry did not bring down Bill Clinton, the Mueller report will not end, or even likely discredit, Trump’s presidency. The charges of collusion and conspiracy with the Russians have failed to stick. Or so he and his apologists will say in the next round of propaganda wars that began with Trump’s Sunday afternoon tweet claiming “total exoneration.” Bring on a new round of “Teflon Don” headlines.

Investigations will continue, of course—in the Southern District of New York’s varied prosecutions, and in Congressional committees. And meanwhile the IMDB cast list of aspiring Democrats who want to replace Trump will be held up to the usual scrutiny, and eliminated from contention if they seem to wilt under pressure. Pundits will continue to think in terms of candidates who are Teflon-coated versus those who wear Velcro.

As much as these metaphors are used, though, they carry no explanatory power. What exactly is it that makes some leaders, and not others, seem invulnerable? We see the difference between those who repel all assaults and those who don’t—but what accounts for the difference?

Looking at Reagan and Trump, and even Bill Clinton, you might think the essential trick is to follow John Wayne’s movie-script advice: “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.” (Trump is incapable of heeding the maxim attributed to Disraeli: “Never complain, never explain.” He complains constantly.) In Trump’s case, there is the matter of pure brazenness. He seems capable of piling on so many outrages week by week that they become overwhelming.

When Politico in 2015 asked Roger Stone (noted expert in getting away with things) about Trump’s ability to withstand scandal, Stone explained: “He’s not a career politician, so voters aren’t holding him to the same standards.” Given “voters’ dislike of politics, political institutions, and the media,” Stone said, Trump wins by posing as the “outsider.” That’s how Reagan’s appeal was sometimes explained, as well. In a column in the Washington Post last year, Nathan Gardels wrote:

I asked [Reagan’s] top political adviser, Lyn Nofziger, what accounted for the president’s “Teflon” shield whereby all scandals, like Iran-Contra, just rolled off his back while he remained unruffled and popular. Nofziger replied that it was because Reagan remained true to his base and its view of America—and “never read the New York Times.”

It should be noted that Schroeder’s Teflon metaphor helped create the myth that Reagan was beloved by the public. In fact, Reagan was not consistently popular. His public approval ratings fell during the recession years of 1981–1982, just as you’d expect. At this very stage (almost 800 days in) of Reagan’s presidency about 41 percent approved of his job performance, slightly below Trump’s 42 percent rating, according to the polling averages compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

Nevertheless, Reagan won a lopsided re-election victory in 1984 against the hapless Walter Mondale, and the Iran-Contra scandal did more or less roll off his back in 1987 and 1988. An argument emerged on the left during those years that Reagan’s success showed how massively the American press had failed the public. Mark Hertsgaard’s 1988 study, On Bended Knee, made the case that the media had become “the willing mouthpiece of the government.” Press critic David Shaw noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1992 that critics such as UC Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin said Reagan’s Teflon was “sprayed on by the press.”  Gitlin’s analysis: “The press was struggling to overcome its own parricidal guilt over Vietnam and Watergate.” The media, he said, decided the “temper of the country had shifted radically as a result of the 1980 election and they didn’t want to be out of step.” 

What seems apparent today is that a great transformation was underway in the very nature of “the media” when it came to its power to make and break candidates and presidents. We know now that newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times can publish any number of deep investigations into presidential corruption and they fall like raindrops on a slate roof. In the Reagan years the television image began to drive events like never before. The power of symbolic politics—not detailed arguments about the law or about public policy—was the key to reaching the public.

And so, the perceived “Teflon effect” translates directly into how well a politician performs on television. Those who stand up to the heat are the ones who do well in the cool medium. Count the failed candidates since the Reagan era: Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain, and finally Hillary Clinton. All were established old-style politicians. They had deep government experience and knowledge of public policy, but none were skilled television performers. Reagan was a trained film actor. Trump has been playing one character all his life, and he was able to hone the act in his years on The Apprentice. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had natural talents for the image-driven presidency. Of course, it’s also a great benefit to Trump that he has in Fox an entire television network devoted to venerating his image—an advantage Reagan lacked.

Corrupt presidents who are willing to use the broad power they are given can set up an effective protection racket.

That’s part of it, anyway. But in every case where you see a politician survive scandal there are questions of power and intimidation on one side, versus how ruthless or relentless the opposition might or might not be. And when it comes to Trump and his presidency there is one factor that is impossible to miss—and that the Teflon metaphor, in fact, misses entirely. We have allowed the president of the United States to become the one political figure who is almost always, in crucial ways, allowed to function above the law. Nixon’s statement to Frost that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal” was shocking at the time, but it’s a rule that carries the day. Though it has not been tested in the Supreme Court, the U.S. Justice Department proceeds on the assumption a sitting president cannot be indicted.

The day the Mueller report landed in the hands of Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, the New York Times noted that “the swirl of scandal around Mr. Trump extends well beyond Mr. Mueller’s inquiry, which was largely limited to issues related to Russia’s election interference.” Federal prosecutors “have already implicated the president in a scheme to violate campaign finance laws” by making hush money payments during the 2016 election season. And then there was this neat summation:

Mr. Trump has also been accused of cheating on his taxes, violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause barring a president from taking money from foreign states, exaggerating his true wealth to obtain bank financing and other offenses.  The sheer volume of allegations lodged against Mr. Trump and his circle defies historical parallel, possibly eclipsing, if they were all proved true, even Watergate, the nonpareil scandal of scandals.

That conclusion elides the evidence amassed by independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation that implicated Reagan officials—Caspar Weinberger, John Poindexter, Oliver North, Elliott Abrams, et. al—as well as George H.W. Bush’s crimes and cover-ups. Walsh eventually charged fourteen officials with crimes, mostly related to obstructions of justice. “They skirted the law,” Walsh said, “some of them broke the law and almost all of them tried to cover up the President’s willful activities.” At the end of his term in 1992, George H.W. Bush issued pardons for several of them—including former defense secretary Weinberger, former assistant secretary of state Abrams, and some CIA operatives. 

There’s a better metaphor that comes to mind when it comes to presidential corruption. It doesn’t come from the kitchen but from the underworld. Corrupt presidents who are willing to use the broad power they are given can set up an effective protection racket. Imagine the list of pardons Trump will mull over when the time comes for him to again demonstrate that presidential power can override the rule of law.

The one thing to remember about Teflon, though—if we’re stuck with that unfortunate comparison—is that eventually it begins to flake and degrade. Even the original Teflon Don, the mobster John Gotti, eventually answered for his crimes.