How Donald Trump's amoral approach to the presidency is changing everything
Posted October 29, 2018 11:23 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — On the day that the man who killed 11 Jewish people in a synagogue -- inspired by the baseless claims that prominent Jews were funding a migrant caravan moving across Mexico -- is set to appear in court for the first time, and just days removed from the arrest of a man who sent more than a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats as well as a media organization, the President of the United States had this to say on Twitter:
"There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!"
So. The reason, according to Donald Trump, that we have "anger" and "Outrage" in this country, and that he is not able to "bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony," is because the media reports fake stories.
There are a lot of things wrong with this logic (and these tweets) -- both factually and morally. Here are a few:
1. The shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue was inspired to commit his heinous act by the false storyline that liberal billionaire George Soros was providing the financial backing for the caravan. It's not entirely clear where the shooter got this idea, but Fox Business Network anchor Lou Dobbs, for one, did a segment with Judicial Watch's Chris Farrell in which the notion is given credibility. The mainstream media repeatedly debunked this ridiculous claim and called it for what it is: anti-Semitism.
2. Trump's definition of "fake" news is this: News that is bad for him. How do I know? Because he tweeted about it! "The Fake News is working overtime," Trump tweeted in May. "Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?" "Negative" and "fake" are not, of course, synonyms. Trump's attacks on the media's "inaccurate and even fraudulent reporting of the news" have to be understood in that context. This isn't about actual fake news at all. This is about Trump believing the media is not being nice enough to him.
3. Trump's tweet condemning the media for fomenting divisiveness includes this line: "The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People." We have a President who is simultaneously insisting that the media is the prime driver of the divisions and hatreds on the rise in this country and that the entire free and independent media are an enemy of the American people. The irony is suffocating.
What makes all of this worse is that Trump, at heart, doesn't hate the media at all. He loves the media. His Twitter feed, his interviews, his back-and-forths with reporters all make clear how much of an avid consumer of the mainstream media he is. He spends hours a day watching TV and tweeting about it. He not only knows reporters who cover him by sight but he also knows stories they've written about him and whether those stories were, in his mind, good ("true") or bad ("fake") for him. We've never had a President before who is such a connoisseur of the media or who cares as much about what the media thinks of him as Trump.
And it's that fact that is the really awful thing here. Trump knows that the media didn't do any of this. But he also knows that his Republican base hates the media. And that, with just eight days before the midterm elections, attacking the media for the awful events -- including some that have directly targeted the media -- will work to rev up that base. And a revved-up base could lessen the blow from what looks to be a very difficult election.
That's his only calculation. A political one designed to wring advantage out of this situation. And that -- and this is VERY important to think about -- is the fundamental difference between Trump as President and every person who came before him as president: He has zero belief in the notion of the president as a moral leader in the country.
Trump is right that he didn't create the politically polarized world in which we live. (I'd argue the impeachment fight over Bill Clinton ushered it in.) But past presidents saw the growing partisan divide -- and tendency to label those with whom you disagree as morally bankrupt or evil -- as a problem that they, as president, could try to solve by dint of their own moral leadership. Trump, from the moment he became a candidate for president back on 2015, saw the polarization in the country as an opportunity to exploit.
While he promised to change his approach if/when he was elected president -- remember, "I will be so presidential, you will be so bored?" -- that was never a realistic possibility given who Trump always has been. He is someone who sees himself as a victim in nearly every circumstance, someone who is always being persecuted by outside forces who are out to get him because they hate his success. He is someone who views everything -- absolutely everything -- from the perspective of a) What does this mean for me? and b) How can I make this work in my favor?
Those twin realities virtually ensure that when moments like the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville happen, Trump reacts with his "both sides" do bad things response. Or that when a series of women come out alleging that Roy Moore pursued relationships with them as teenagers and, in some cases, assaulted them, Trump will first throw his hands up and insist no judgment is possible. Ditto the allegations of domestic abuse against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Or Trump's assertion that "evil" people were behind the questions raised about his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
In Trump's world, there is no morally right and morally wrong. There are only those who like and support him and those who don't. If you are a supporter of his (or someone who has said nice things) he will bend over backward to find ways to absolve you. If you oppose him politically, then everything you do will be cast as in service of a lie or a falsehood.
You can agree or disagree with the policies of Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter. And lots and lots of people did -- and do. But what all of those men had in common was a moral compass -- a sense of how the presidency of the United States isn't just a job where you do everything you can to help your friends and hurt your enemies, but a job in which you are seen as beacon of moral leadership in the country and the world.
Trump does not see the presidency that way. And that complete moral vacuum -- in which it's impossible to say what's right or wrong unless and until you know a person's political motivations -- is already producing awful consequences in the country.