What has amazed so many of us in this last most amazing of American elections was how rapidly and effectively Donald Trump, billionaire businessman and reality tv star, managed to elbow his way into the Republican primaries and seize the party’s nomination from a line-up of more experienced and, at least in some cases, far more knowledgeable politicians. To near universal surprise (even Trump has admitted, albeit not very vocally, that he was as astonished at his win as most of the rest of us) he went on to win the general election, beating a well established Democratic darling. The result of the election has now proved just as astonishing: A mold-breaking presidency in which the new guy in the White House spends much of his time fiercely attacking his adversaries, picking fights with the media folks whose job it is to report on him and generally alienating large swaths of an American public he was elected to lead.
When not tweeting out his early morning bombshells, the new president is busy excoriating reporters at press conferences or running off to campaign-style rallies (although the campaign is over) to rail against his “enemies.” If we thought Nixon was paranoid and adversarial with the media, he ain’t got nothin’ on President Trump. The nation’s newest chief executive continues to step on his own narrative with his outrageous attacks on others and his incredibly thin-skinned approach to public communication. In the latest contretemps Trump has managed to aid and abet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s transparent efforts to undermine Americans’ confidence in their political process and government by lashing out at his predecessor, Barack Obama, alleging, without evidence, that the former president had his “wires tapped” at his home base of Trump Tower in New York City during the campaign.
Even allowing for hyperbole, this is an over-the-top allegation because it implies criminal action by the former president. As usual and true to form, President Trump refuses to take his tweet back or back down in the face of a complete absence of evidence for the claim, instead changing the subject — his usual modus operandi — to other unseemly activities with which he can tar the last president. The country is in a tizzy once again as allegations and innuendos fly back and forth between both sides. When Mr. Trump wades in, we have seen again and again, the waters become muddy, the issues unclear, and bad feeling prevails.
This is hardly a new development. It characterized the way he ran his campaign for the presidency and, apparently, it continues to characterize the way he is running his presidency. In fact, it’s the same manner in which he conducted himself for years in the public arenas of the New York business world and reality television before bulling his way into the political sphere. Blunt insults and bullying have always been Trump’s method and even now, in the White House, he shows an inability to change those spots. With four years to go, the country has begun to expect no more. People who oppose Trump oppose him with even more anger and rancor than before. People on the fence, who flirted with supporting, him recoil. Even many of those committed to supporting him are in a state of near shock — though most seem to be trying to put the best face on it.
One would expect the media and the public to tire of the spectacle of a man in the White House who thinks he is running a reality TV administration, a man who, like the one-time television personality Don Rickles, delights in his capacity to rankle others, to slam them rhetorically and stir the national pot with his every pronouncement. President Trump has always craved attention, as his career in the New York real estate market demonstrated, and now, in the White House, he can lap it up every day. From his catbird seat in the Oval Office he is supremely equipped, as never before, to dominate public discourse and roil the nation’s waters to his heart’s content.
In doing so he gives the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, precisely what he must have wanted: ongoing and increasing instability in the American political system as we lose confidence in our leadership and the institutions over which they preside. If Trump isn’t in collusion with Putin, he might as well be because he is playing right into the former KGB officer’s hands, introducing distrust and division into the very center of America’s government. Instead of reaching out and building bridges, he is throwing rhetorical grenades with near abandon.
President Trump attacks his predecessor, former President Obama (much as he did with his many false charges about Obama’s birthplace during the latter’s presidency), thereby raising the ire of Obama’s supporters. He attacks the intelligence community which ostensibly reports to him and undermines them by shaking our faith in their integrity and competence. Democrats respond with a rising crescendo of demands for impeachment. Instead of seeking conciliation and a consensus in the interests of the nation, Donald Trump doubles down and pulls other Republicans into the fray with him. Think of the disaster for this country if things do get to the point where the anger at and distrust of this president is so great impeachment does become possible.
Something, as they say, has got to give because we can’t keep tearing ourselves apart like this — even if doing so feeds the ego of the man our last election put in the White House. It doesn’t serve our national interests (if Americans even still think in such terms). Yet one thing the new president has taught us, even if it isn’t how national unity and smooth presidential successions work, is that words have uses that have nothing to do with their meanings. Donald Trump, a demonstrated master of innuendo and inflammatory hyperbole, has shown and continues to show us that people don’t really pay attention to the substance of what’s said, that what they care about most, what they react to and seek out, is the entertainment value of words, not their meanings.
President Trump showed us how it’s done in the last election, that voters will choose a pitchman over a statesman if he is skilled enough in selling himself and finding the rhetorical sweet spot that moves voters. Voters, in the end, prefer fun to substance and this president, whatever else you can say about him, is fun to follow as he trounces his adversaries with each new surprising morning tweet, each freshly minted outrageous charge. The meaning of Trump’s words lie not in what he says but in what his words do. Maybe that’s how it’s always really been and we were just fooling ourselves to think otherwise. Bread and circuses, anyone?