Perhaps you, like me, are slowly returning to following the news closely after a break from your standard media diet over the holidays. That meant, among other things, mostly tuning out the president’s social-media feed. Perhaps you heard about the lowlights, such as when Donald Trump retweeted a message naming the presumptive whistle-blower in the Ukraine case. You weren’t looking at the feed regularly, though.
Then you checked out Twitter today to see what the president had to say on the first working day of the new year (Trump himself may or may not be working; he headed to his golf club this morning), and saw this:
A lot of very good people were taken down by a small group of Dirty (Filthy) Cops, politicians, government officials, and an investigation that was illegally started & that SPIED on my campaign. The Witch Hunt is sputtering badly, but still going on (Ukraine Hoax!). If this....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2020
....had happened to a Presidential candidate, or President, who was a Democrat, everybody involved would long ago be in jail for treason (and more), and it would be considered the CRIME OF THE CENTURY, far bigger and more sinister than Watergate!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2020
There’s a lot going on here. None of it is very good, and almost none of it makes any sense.
Trump doesn’t name who the “very good people” are, but we can guess from who’s been “taken down”: Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone have all been convicted of or pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Trump probably doesn’t mean his former attorney Michael Cohen, whom he has come to hate; George Papadopoulos, a peripheral character; or Rick Gates, who flipped. These people have all, once again, been found guilty of federal crimes.
The “small group of Dirty (Filthy) Cops, politicians, government officials” refers to the Justice Department and in particular the FBI, both of which Trump leads. A recent inspector-general report found serious flaws in how the FBI handled surveillance warrants—a problem that ought to concern any American—but it did not find that the probe was begun illegally, nor did it find that political bias against the president was a motivator. The witch hunt is no such thing and continues to reap new, disturbing information; the Ukraine scandal is no hoax; Trump continues to misconstrue (or misunderstand) treason; and the present scandal is, I have argued, worse than Watergate.
So there you have it. The president of the United States making apologies for criminals, attacking his own FBI, and telling several consequential lies. This could, in other words, be practically any day of the week, especially in this particular phase of the Trump presidency. (Last night he was inappropriately meddling in press issues, etc., etc.)
Yet with a little distance from the daily deluge afforded by the holidays, it’s possible to see with fresher eyes how outlandish and worrisome Trump’s tweets are. I know, I know! Recommitting to the gym isn’t fun, either, but it is useful.
The nation’s collective numbness about Trump’s remarks continues to cut in two ways. The president tweets the things he does in order to get attention and command the news cycle. In 2017, messages like the ones Trump sent this morning would have set off a huge scramble in newsrooms around the country. Today, they elicit barely a shrug. In some ways, that’s for the better. There’s little use in amplifying falsehoods offered in bad faith, especially when they’re not even new falsehoods. Just like his rallies, Trump’s Twitter feed has always been boorish, but it’s gotten boring.
One unfortunate by-product is that Trump can sense this indifference. It drives him to try even harder to get a reaction, like a toddler juicing up his tantrum when his parents start ignoring him. “In the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday's historic vote in the House to impeach the president, Trump tweeted more than ever before, and his messages became more negative,” USA Today reported last month. If his tweets were bad to begin with, where does he go?
The long-term damage is potentially worse. The only thing more dangerous than frenzied, knee-jerk hysteria about Trump’s pernicious remarks might be acceptance of them as an unfortunate and inherent part of living in the United States. Indifference breeds acceptance—not just of the rhetoric but of the policies it drives, and of the dissolution of an expectation of any semblance of honesty from political leaders. There’s no elegant solution here, and no uplifting moral, but it’s valuable to use the perspective afforded by a break from the news to remember how unhinged and untruthful the president is.