Doing "Kremlinology" on Trump's flag-burning tweet

“Kremlinology” in this case has nothing to do with any Russian influence on Trump (although…) but rather the practice of trying to tease out an otherwise inscrutable subject’s true intentions based on small bits of information. The most arresting thing about reaction to Trump’s flag-burning tweet this morning on social media was how many people refused to take it at face value, instead substituting their own theories for what he was “really” up to by floating it. And it occurred to me that we’re going to spend the next four years doing this, breathing as deeply as we can every time he farts on Twitter to try to discern all the different meaningful notes in each odor. Trump Kremlinology will quickly be standard practice in political media.

Ed’s already written about it this morning but here’s the tweet again for reference:

What the hell prompted that? There are at least six different possibilities. Maybe more.

1. He’s a troll. The guy loves to provoke people, especially people in the media, and musing aloud about banning flag-burning is one of the most reliable means of provocation there is. He was bored this morning and decided to have some fun by freaking people out about the First Amendment. Not a great quality in a president, but the people get what they want.

2. He reacted to something impulsively. He saw someone burning a flag on TV or in a newspaper, maybe at a protest aimed at him, and decided spur-of-the-moment to share his thought with the world. Also not a great quality in a president. Maybe Gen. Mattis could pull him aside and say something nice about the value of free speech. Apparently Trump’s an easy convert to new positions when the right salesman makes the pitch.

3. Someone told him that banning flag-burning is popular. No need to overthink this: Trump’s looking for cheap populist cred wherever he can get it, and it don’t come cheaper than wanting to lock up hippies for burning Old Glory. He’s grandstanding for his fans, first and foremost, but also thinks he can earn some goodwill with Americans who are otherwise leery of him. If you want to get skeptics to take a second look at populist nationalism, ranting about flag-burning is a good place to start. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who was happy to support criminal penalties for flag-burning in 2005 when she was eyeing her first presidential run and thinking Bill’s blue-collar centrist Democratic coalition would deliver for her in 2008.

Those three theories can be lumped together under the header “two-dimensional chess.” There are more complicated ones, of the “eight-dimensional chess” variety:

4. He’s laying the groundwork for something. He wants to normalize the idea of revoking American citizenship as punishment for criminal acts (or merely unpatriotic acts?) but he can’t just float that idea broadly. He needs to find a specific peg on which much of the public will agree with him. The public hates flag-burning, so there you go. Even if he can’t convince a majority (or the Supreme Court) that canceling someone’s citizenship is proper sanction for wrongdoing, he can at least move the Overton window towards broader support for the idea. Anything he can do to mainstream the belief that critics aren’t “real Americans” or “true patriots” who deserve the same rights as others is helpful to him politically. And once again he has some support from an unlikely quarter: Hillary Clinton supported rescinding the American citizenship of terror suspects years ago.

5. He wants this issue front and center when he makes his Supreme Court pick. Now that he’s tossed it out there, it’s bound to come up in February during the confirmation hearing for his nominee to replace Scalia. (That’d be the same Antonin Scalia who twice voted to protect Americans’ right to burn the flag under the First Amendment.) Democratic senators in particular will drill down on it to play to their own base. Is this Trump baiting those Democrats, knowing that they’ll end up on the less popular side of the issue in a high-profile venue? Presumably Trump’s own nominee will duck the questions on grounds that he can’t pre-judge how he might rule on an issue that comes back before the Court, but Trump himself can grandstand to his heart’s content in his public appearances while the hearing’s going on.

6. He’s floating this as a distraction from something more important. This is by far the most popular theory on Twitter, fueled by the fact that Trump took to touting the “Hamilton” incident involving Mike Pence last week coincidentally on the same day that he agreed to pay a $25 million settlement in the Trump University case. The politerati are convinced that all of his “shiny object” tweets are actually carefully timed to bury unrelated bad news that he doesn’t want the public to focus on. It’s a simple matter of figuring which bad news he’s trying to bury. Maybe he’s trying to distract people from stories about his business conflicts of interest? Okay, but … that’s going to be an ongoing story, not something that can be buried in a single day. Maybe he’s throwing his base a bone by railing against flag-burning knowing he’ll annoy them tomorrow by naming Mitt Romney Secretary of State? Okay, but … shouldn’t the flag-burning tweet have been saved for the day of the actual announcement? It’ll be old news by the time he makes his decision on State. As Nate Silver says:

The problem with the “shiny object” theory is that there’s always a “big story” somewhere that can be bootstrapped into it to justify it. Maybe Trump’s trying to distract people from the recount in Wisconsin? Or maybe he’s trying to draw our focus away from the fact that Assad’s about to win the Syrian civil war and create an entirely new headache for U.S. foreign policy? It’s too clever by half.

So what’s the right answer? Occam’s Razor will serve you well:

I’d go with theory number two. He saw something on TV and decided to share his knee-jerk reaction, even though he’s, um, going to be the president soon and will have a bully pulpit in which the entire world hangs on his every word. This guy seemingly casually floated the idea of revoking people’s citizenship for Crimes Against Patriotism while sitting in front of the television in his pajamas, feeling annoyed about the news segment he was watching. That’s how a king might behave. And now his spokesmen — and the GOP — are stuck squirming their way through interviews about it. Two clips here, one of Trump spokesman Jason Miller and the other of House majority leader Kevin McCarthy wading through the fallout.

Update: A belated seventh theory from Jim Geraghty: Trump is baiting the activist left, not congressional Democrats, by mentioning flag-burning knowing that protesters are more likely to burn flags now in order to antagonize him. But Trump also knows that that’ll backfire, since news footage of the burnings will alienate average Americans and drive them into his camp.