by David A. Lehrer
Tuesday night Donald Trump launched his 2020 campaign with a bombastic speech in Orlando---a reprise of his greatest hits of 2016 replete with attacks on Hillary Clinton, her emails, and repeated references to his victory in November of that year.
Even the Wall Street Journal noted the time warp witnessed by thousands, “how backward looking it was…. Mr. Trump won’t win by relitigating the 2016 election or by playing only to his political base. He needs more than he offered the voters Tuesday night.”
But it wasn’t just the absence of future oriented policy substance in Trump’s comments that was disturbing and off-putting, it was the incendiary and nasty comments he made that got little press attention and betrayed how out of sync he is with a public that he has exhausted (56%, 2.2 million more viewers watchedCelebrity Family Feud in the same time slot a week before).
It’s one thing to engage in the school yard bully boy tactics of demeaning your opposition with diminutive and dismissive terms---“crooked Hillary”, “crazy Bernie” et al. It’s childish and diminishes the stature of the office of the president but we’ve learned that that’s who Trump is---a nasty and childish bully.
But he went beyond the demeaning monikers that are his bread and butter, he entered a dangerous realm of hyperbolic fearmongering that we have not heard from high elected officials before.
Politics is a “contact sport” as Bill Clinton observed; but even “contact sports” have rules that are explicit and norms and values that transcend even the heat and high stakes of a political brawl.
But norms and values don’t constrain Donald Trump----his attacks seem unfettered by logic, good sense or decency; no holds are barred.
In Tuesday’s speech he attacked Democrats in the most dystopian and incendiary terms imaginable---it wasn’t about policy. He asserted that they are out to flood “the country with illegal immigrants” for they want the country “splintered” and “divided.”
They wanted to deny you the future that you demanded and the future that America deserves and now is getting…. They want to destroy you and …destroy our country as we know it. It’s not acceptable, and it’s not going to happen.
[He called Democrats] depraved, radical, extreme, and unhinged…. They would shut down your free speech and use the power of the law to punish their opponents.
This is not normal political rhetoric. It’s hard to imagine any president within memory speaking of their colleagues in leadership in a similar way.
It’s one thing to disagree on immigration policy, attitudes towards North Korea or Iran or a myriad of subjects; it’s quite something else to charge your political opponents with the malign intent to “splinter” the country, of harboring the aim to “destroy you and our country as we know it…and deny you the future that America deserves.”
His rhetoric crossed a line of decency and is dangerous.
He must have read too many disheartening polls over the past week because his rhetoric reached another realm of indecency over the weekend when he malignedThe New York Times. The Times is not just as “failing” or “fake”, but it is guilty of “treason” (a capital offence). The charge is so disturbing that the Times’ publisher, A. O. Sulzberger, wrote an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal (the Times’ most serious competitor), that the president had crossed a line—into dangerous territory,
But this new attack crosses a dangerous line in the president’s campaign against a free and independent press... There is no more serious charge a commander in chief can make against an independent news organization. Which presents a troubling question: What would it look like for Mr. Trump to escalate his attacks on the press further? Having already reached for the most incendiary language available, what is left but putting his threats into action?
Meanwhile, the president’s rhetorical attacks continue to foster a climate in which trust in journalists is eroding and violence against them is growing. More than a quarter of Americans—and a plurality of Republicans—now agreethat “the news media is the enemy of the American people” and “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
Trump is taking a tack that appears to reflect who he is but is out of touch with where America is. This week the Pew Research Center released a poll that reveals how uncomfortable Americans are with what Trump has done to our political discourse (the poll was conducted before the latest outrage
55% of Americans say that Trump has changed the tone of political debate for the worse. 77% of Americans report that they are “often” or “sometimes” concernedabout Trump’s comments, while 68% say they are “often” or “sometimes”exhausted by Trump and 69% are embarrassed by him.
Trump hopes to animate and scare his base by any means---guardrails be damned. But in doing so, he gives all thinking Americans good reason to be concerned, exhausted and embarrassed.