Trump's Grudges Are His Agenda

The president’s personal attacks are not a distraction from his policy goals. They are his policy goals.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The least convincing Republican defense of Donald Trump’s attack on Mika Brzezinski surely belongs to White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who declared that Americans “knew what they were getting” when they elected him. The implication is that because Americans understood that Trump was a vulgar misogynist during the campaign, there’s nothing wrong with his vulgar misogyny today.

Put aside the fact that a majority of Americans voted against Trump. Put aside the fact that even those Americans who did vote for him largely did so in spite of, rather than because of, his crude, sexist outbursts: Exit polls showed that among Americans who prioritized “good judgment,” Clinton beat Trump by 40 points.

The true idiocy of Sanders’s statement is the implication that because a president said or did something during the campaign, he shouldn’t be criticized for saying or doing it while president. By that standard, Republicans had no right to criticize Obamacare. After all, Obama ran on health-care reform in 2008. Sanders seems unable to grasp the distinction between democracy and morality. The people can vote for something and it can still be wrong.

By contrast, the least convincing criticism of Trump’s attack on Brzezinski came from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. “The real tragedy of today’s tweets,” Carlson said, is that “they were a diversion.”

The real tragedy? The president of the United States has publicly boasted of sexual assault. Numerous women have accused him of sexual harassment. When female journalists and politicians challenge his power, he demeans them physically and sexually, thus modeling a behavior that undermines female professional advancement in workplaces across America. But that’s not a “real tragedy” because Carlson is more interested in Trump’s efforts to slash Medicaid and deport undocumented immigrants? I can just imagine Carlson’s commentary on the Bill Cosby trial. The “real tragedy” is that Cosby’s behavior distracts from his ability to make a sequel to Fat Albert.

Calling Trump’s tweets a “diversion” is also wrong. According to Merriam-Webster, diversion means “straying from a course.” Merriam-Webster offers the example of “an attack or feint that draws the attention and force of an enemy from the point of the principal operation.” But when Trump levels crude, personal, dishonest and often sexist attacks, he’s not straying off course. This is his course. The Republican Party has a clear policy agenda, which it is using the Trump administration to implement. But for Trump himself, policy has never been the “principal operation.” On issue after issue, he’s zigzagged wildly: He’s now pushing a health-care bill that does exactly what he pledged as a candidate he would not do. On issue after issue, he advertises his brazen ignorance: Republican senators admit that Trump doesn’t know what’s in the health-care bill he wants to sign.

On policy, Trump is inattentive and inconsistent. Where he’s attentive and consistent is in his personal attacks on his adversaries. Trump’s presidency will have vast and frightening policy implications, most which he doesn’t understand. But Trump’s primary goal as president does not appear to be enacting a set of policies; his behavior suggests that his real goal is feeding his ego and vanquishing his enemies. He’s only truly interested in his presidency’s impact on himself. Calling Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky a diversion made sense because Clinton was genuinely committed to certain policy goals, which he undermined by his personal recklessness. With Trump, personal recklessness is all there is.

That’s why Trump will launch attacks like the one he launched against Mika Brzezinski for as long as he’s president, and likely after that. Saying he attacks people viciously because he lacks impulse control is like saying a professional boxer lacks impulse control because he punches people in the ring. For Trump, this is the true purpose of politics, if not life itself.