Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had allies who defended their approaches to the presidency against critics.
But defending what Trump says or does is often impossible. Americans can’t help but know that he didn’t win the popular vote; draw more people to his inauguration than Barack Obama; act wisely in appointing Michael Flynn; execute well in that first executive order on travel; or accomplish more in his first 100 days than any other president.
Americans can’t help but see that he is erratic, and that his domestic agenda has stalled bigly. He can claim that no politician has ever been treated more unfairly. But we can’t help but know that Ronald Reagan was shot and that John F. Kennedy was killed.
That’s why pro-Trump and anti-anti-Trump commentators have adapted.
As the weeks pass, they spend less time making positive arguments for the president and more time hiding behind the talking point that his critics are overwrought. Unhinged. Hysterical. Suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. Don’t look here, at the president who shared too much information with Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting. Look there at an excessive reaction to it.
The approach is inseparable from the web era. No matter how bad a Trump blunder, someone can be found overreacting to it or otherwise losing their cool on social media. In fact, social-media feeds disproportionately expose us to the most over-the-top takes, making it seem as if they reflect the median reaction even when that is far from true.
That illusion is exploited by commentators like Tucker Carlson. He recently declared:
Many journalists believe it’s literally impossible to be unfair to Donald Trump or the people who work for him. Extremism in the pursuit of Trump is no vice. That’s the view in newsrooms, and you hear it in conversations all around Washington, a city that voted 91 percent for Hillary Clinton last fall.
There are newspaper articles, TV segments, and tweets that are unfair to the Trump administration. But Carlson’s claim is much more sweeping than that—indeed, he indulges in just the sort of careless hyperbole that he is alleging. For there are not many journalists who believe that it’s “literally impossible” to be unfair to Trump or the people who work for him. Every major newsroom in America is awash in emailed allegations against Trump and his associates that are false and never see print for that reason, even as some of the harshest criticism of Trump that does find its way into print comes from the very people who work for him, albeit anonymously.
Worse than the inaccuracies in Carlson’s language are the inadequacies of his mode. “Media figures, adults, smart people who have been around, have perspective, or did have perspective,” he writes. “They’ve succumbed to Trump hatred that is so intense, it has destroyed their judgment and in some cases affected their character.” Again, there are outliers who resemble this description. But Carlson inflates their importance, treats them as representative of Trump critics, and operates as if attacks on Trump are so unusually unhinged and unfair as to be a matter of newsworthiness equal to or even greater than the substance of Trump’s presidency.
Here he is quoting a Fox News colleague:
.@brithume: We're in the most poisonous atmosphere towards a President in my life time. I have not seen anything like this #Tucker@FoxNews
Brit Hume is 73. He lived through JFK’s assassination. And the notion that he has not seen any atmosphere as poisonous as opposition to Trump isn’t just ahistorical. A skeptic out to disprove it needn’t even look farther back than the recent past. Eight years ago, Glenn Beck responded to Barack Obama’s election by spending years literally sketching conspiracy theories on chalk boards—all on Fox News, where Hume works. Try finding a CNN clip about Trump that is more unhinged than this:
Rush Limbaugh told his audience that it would be okay for black children to beat up white children in Barack Obama’s America. Donald Trump himself embarked on a quest to prove that Obama was a foreign usurper—a secret Kenyan in the White House. All of these figures were household names with platforms as big as any in broadcasting. Surveying Republicans at the local level revealed even more poisonous behavior.
Despite that, the responsible course, for commentators during the Obama administration, was to cover his strengths and weaknesses on the merits, not to effectively excuse his flaws by directing more attention to Birthers and racists than his agenda.
Some partisan hacks fell short on that score. Carlson and his ilk are their hack analogs, failing every week to offer their audiences civically responsible Trump coverage.
Of course, the media landscapes are not exactly equivalent.
During the Obama years, the most unhinged voices on the right were often the most popular. Today, the biggest beneficiary of “the resistance” largesse is the ACLU. The biggest drivers of Trump administration news coverage are TheNew York Times and TheWashington Post. Those organizations aren’t perfect. And there is nothing wrong with criticizing their statements or coverage in the fashion of an outlet like National Review, where there is an ongoing, honest effort to assess Trump’s strengths and flaws.
But what newspaper compares unfavorably in accuracy or poisonousness to the Fox News lineup circa 2009 or the Rush Limbaugh show any week during the Obama years?
And you’d never know from The Federalist articles that characterize all calls for impeachment as evidence of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” that the GOP coalition is full of people who called for President Obama to be impeached. Representative Darrell Issa floated the possibility in 2010. Representative Michael Burgess told a Tea Party group in 2011 that impeaching Obama “needs to happen.” Asked in 2013 why Republicans weren’t impeaching Obama, Senator Ted Cruz answered, “good question,” and said the main reason was they lacked the votes in the U.S. Senate. Representative Blake Farenthold cited Obama’s birth certificate as a reason to impeach. Senator James Inhofe and Representative Jason Chaffetz said Obama could be impeached over Benghazi.
“This is the biggest cover up since Watergate, a story no one wants to talk about,” Judge Jeanine Piro declared on Fox News in 2014. “We have impeached a president for lying about sex with an intern. A president resigned in the face of certain impeachment for covering up a burglary. Why wouldn't we impeach this president for not protecting and defending Americans in the bloodbath known as Benghazi?”
National Review’s Andrew McCarthy published Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. Interviewed about the book, he declared that “the failure to pursue impeachment is likely to be suicide for the country,” adding, “Obama’s presidency is a willful, systematic attack on the constitutional system of separation of powers, an enterprise that aims to bring about a new regime of government by executive decree. This is exactly the kind of subversion the Framers designed the impeachment power to address. The Nixon and Clinton episodes involved misconduct that did not aim to undermine our constitutional framework.”
As for hysteria, the United States recently concluded a presidential campaign in which the winning candidate argued that rapists are flooding across our Southern border, carnage dominates our streets, and safety requires banning Muslims from the country. Among the most prominent arguments offered on his behalf: an essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” that likened a Hillary Clinton victory to being passengers on an airplane hijacked by al-Qaeda so that it could be flown into the White House, killing all. Its author, Michael Anton, now serves in a senior position in the Trump administration. This is the context for Trump apologists calling the opposition to him hysterical.
The point isn’t that there is no Trump criticism that is overwrought, no worries about trajectories that are implausible, no rhetoric that would be better tamped down. We all see the excesses as they flow through our social-media feeds. Many of us are annoyed. But being subject to flak of that sort isn’t what distinguishes the Trump administration. The world will always have people with a conspiratorial mindset, like Alex Jones. But in the course of winning over the actual Alex Jones, Trump has alarmed people as temperamentally staid as George Will and Ross Douthat.
The fact that grave fears about Trump’s fitness for office are commonplace––for example, the fears about giving an erratic, easily baited bully with no foreign policy experience control over nukes—is not evidence that the anxious are deranged. As frightening as it is to ponder, their anxiety about long tail risk is rational. Trump stokes an unusual amount of worry from sober, grounded commentators mostly because he has glaring shortcomings that are unprecedented among modern presidents.
There are a lot of anti-anti-Trump pundits, and no one shared quality that motivates them all; some are basically mercenary in their approach to commentary—Carlson, a creature of The Swamp, is so shameless in his intellectually dishonest fear mongering that he ran a segment about what happens if the left succeeds in getting Trump impeached over video of radical leftists smashing bank windows, then argued that once Trump was gone, they’d use their newfound power to destroy every foundation of America, including the nuclear family. Back in reality, if the left succeeds in impeaching Trump, Mike Pence will become president.
More honest Never Trumpers are driven by any number of things; but I wonder if part of the posture that some have taken these last months is ultimately a defense mechanism. How depressing and unnerving to fully confront the unfitness of the president.