Last night I was in circumstances where I could hear only a few excerpts from Donald Trump’s inflammatory speech in Phoenix. The parts I heard were remarkable enough.
They included Trump’s wink-wink implied promise to pardon ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was first turned out of office by the voters of Maricopa County and then found guilty by a federal judge of criminal contempt-of-court. There was also Trump’s threat to “close down our government” if the Congress won’t provide funding for his border wall—the same one Mexico was going to pay for. Plus his flatly deceitful rendering of what he had said about the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, and why the press had criticized him for it. Plus his railing against Democratic obstructionism and the filibuster, when his biggest legislative failure, the repeal of Obamacare, was on a simple-majority vote.
Plus his explicit (without using their names) attacks on his host state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, and his implicit attacks on Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican Senate and House leadership on which his future legislative and political prospects so obviously depend. Plus his self-description as a member of the intellectual meritocracy he otherwise disdains: “I was a good student. I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite. They're elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.” (Trump does indeed live in a bigger apartment than any reporter or policy person I know. He was not a “better student” than the vast majority of them.)
Based just on the parts I’d heard, I did a multi-part Twitter-exegesis last night, trying to explain why Trump’s hour-plus, nearly 9,000-word resentful rant stood alone in the history of presidential rhetoric. A Twitter user named Brent Schlottman graciously converted that into one Storify installment, which you can see here and which began:
1) I have heard presidential speeches from JFK onward. Some good, some bad. Some memorable, some boring. Some too long, some elegantly short— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) August 23, 2017
The speech also included this surreal passage, from a president whose tally of significant bills passed stands at zero:
But I enjoy it [the job], because we've made so much—I don't believe that any president—I don't believe that any president has accomplished as much as this president in the first six or seven months. I really don't believe it.
Just for the record: by this stage in his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt had pushed through and signed more than a dozen pieces of major New Deal legislation. By this point, Ronald Reagan had signed his big tax-cut bill. By this point, Barack Obama had signed the post-crash economic-stimulus program. By this point, Donald Trump has enacted no legislation of consequence.
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But it was only when I read the full speech today that I saw the bad parts. They were Trump’s extended denunciation of the legitimacy and motives of the press.
All presidents end up with grudges against reporters, editors, and commentators. It goes with the territory, and has from the time of George Washington onward. All presidents are tempted to let their private grudges spill out in public. Richard Nixon is most famous for having given in to the temptation, both on his own and via his “nattering nabobs of negativism” mouthpiece and vice president, Spiro Agnew.
But Trump broke new ground last night in attacking not just the missteps of reporters, or their assumptions, or their selective focus, or their process-mindedness, or any of the multiple other failings we reporters actually have. Instead he attacked their—our—loyalty, patriotism, motivation, and honesty.
“You have some very good reporters,” he allowed in his speech last night, much as he stipulated back in 2015 that not all Mexicans were rapists. (“They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” This was, again, the way he kicked off his campaign.)
Some reporters, like some Mexicans, are good. Which leads to the but:
But for the most part, honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they're bad people. And I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that. And I don't believe they're going to change…
The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself, and the fake news.
For the most part, these are really, really dishonest people.
They’re bad people.
They really don’t like our country.
And not just that:
These are sick people.
You know the thing I don't understand? You would think—you would think they'd want to make our country great again, and I honestly believe they don't. I honestly believe it.
Sick people. Who don’t want the best for our country. Not critics. Enemies.
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Joe McCarthy said things like this, but he wasn’t president. George Wallace did as well, but while he won election as governor of Alabama, of course he didn’t reach the White House. The closest a previous president came to taking a similar tone in public was not even that close. The president was—surprise!—Richard Nixon, who made a famously bitter crack in a press conference after the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. First he complained about the imbalance of press coverage of the event. Then he said to the reporters, with an icy smile: “Don’t get the impression that you can arouse my anger. One can only be angry with those he respects.”
Again, at one of his angriest moments, as one of the darkest figures in our national life, even Nixon stopped short of publicly calling reporters disloyal and dishonest.
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This tone is destructive of democracy, which until now has been assumed to depend on independent scrutiny and criticism as one of many useful checks-and-balances. As part of pandering to a crowd, it can actually be dangerous. At last year’s Republican convention, the ugliest moments were when the audience chanted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” in lusty response to criticisms of Hillary Clinton from the podium. Try as he might, Donald Trump can’t run against Crooked Hillary forever. But the Lock her up! passions are being transferred to the Crooked Media:
The media can attack me. But where I draw the line is when they attack you, which is what they do. When they attack the decency of our supporters.
You are honest, hard-working, taxpaying—and by the way, you're overtaxed, but we're going to get your taxes down.
You're taxpaying Americans who love our nation, obey our laws, and care for our people. It's time to expose the crooked media deceptions, and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions.
And yes, by the way—and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that.
In response, one of the founders of Politico and Axios, Jim Vandehei, noted:
To family/friends who support Trump: what he said last night about reporters was despicable, extremely deceptive, dangerous...— Jim VandeHei (@JimVandeHei) August 23, 2017
Paul Ryan doesn’t speak this way. Nor Mitch McConnell. Nor the great majority of Republican senators and representatives. They know this is dangerous. They know this is wrong. Increasing numbers of them wring their hands in concern.
But with every day that passes without their doing something about it, the stain and responsibility for Trump’s ungoverned tone stick more lastingly to the Republican establishment that keeps looking the other way as he debases his office and divides his country.
The broadest conception of “doing something” would mean authorizing the investigations and hearings necessary to determine whether Donald Trump is fit—financially, ethically, temperamentally, legally—to retain the powers of the presidency. Not even 20 years ago, Republicans in Congress were sure that Bill Clinton’s lie about extra-marital sex justified impeachment proceedings against him. Trump has given them 100 times greater grounds for action.
I understand that not even a hundred-fold difference may be sufficient to proceed against a president of one’s own party. So how about this first step: a formal motion of censure, introduced by leaders of both parties, against a president who has challenged the patriotism and loyalty of fellow citizens, and failed to distinguish between neo-Nazis and the objects of their hate. It would be a start.
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