Trump's Shocking Recklessness

The president’s latest comments shouldn’t be surprising—but his deliberate inflammation of tense situations is no less stunning.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) of the United States, raising their fists and bowing their heads in a protest at the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics. They were protesting the policies of President Lyndon Johnson, who said absolutely nothing about the event or their criticism. At left is silver medalist Peter Norman, of Australia, who did not raise his fist but who wore a badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. (AP)

During last year’s presidential campaign, I conducted a running feature called the “Trump Time Capsule.” Its purpose was to chronicle the things Donald Trump said or did that were entirely outside the range of previous presidents or major-party nominees. This, in turn, was meant to lay down a record of what was known about this man, as the electorate decided whether to elevate him to presidential power.

By the time the campaign ended, the series had reached installment #152. Who Donald Trump was, and is, was absolutely clear by election day: ignorant, biased, narcissistic, dishonest. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in our current issue, everyone who voted for him did so with ample evidence about the kind of person they considered the “better” choice, or even as a minimally acceptable choice for president. Almost nothing Trump has done since taking office should come as a surprise.

But numerous things Trump has done are objectively shocking, in the sense of further violating the norms of the office and the historic standards the previous 44 incumbents have observed. (Among the things the Trump era has taught us: the difference in nuance between shock and surprise. Donald Trump in office has delivered a nonstop series of shocks, no one of which can really be considered a surprise.)

The past 36 hours have brought two dramatic and destructive illustrations, in which Trump has recklessly done great damage in areas where even the most flawed of his predecessors felt some constraint. They are his unmistakably race-baiting attacks on athletes as widely popular as Steph Curry and LeBron James, and as controversial as Colin Kaepernick, who have in common the fact of being black; and his unmistakably war-mongering latest set of tweeted insult-threats against North Korea and its leader.

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Race Baiting

Since everyone from the sports pages to the political pages is pointing out what’s wrong with Trump’s “get that son of a bitch off the field!” comments in Alabama, obviously aimed at Kaepernick, and his follow-up Twitter war with Steph Curry, let me focus on what is unusual about it.

Other presidents have faced exactly this challenge: that of successful African American athletes using the leverage of their sporting prominence to make political points. In some cases, the athletes have been much more directly critical of a sitting president than Colin Kaepernick has been of Donald Trump. (Remember that Kaepernick began his kneeling-protests back in the summer of 2016, when he was calling attention to police violence against African Americans and when Donald Trump was still an implausible long-shot to become president.) But no previous president responded in the ugly and divisive way Trump has chosen.

Conveniently, the most prominent modern examples include presidents not otherwise thought to be models of restraint or of bringing the country together: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Consider the parallels between temptations facing them, and what Trump has done:

  • In 1966, Muhammad Ali—gold-medal winner for the United States in boxing at the 1960 Olympics, 24-year-old reigning heavyweight title holder, reportedly the most famous American in the world—formally refused induction for the draft, because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. A year later Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. By 1971 the Supreme Court had overturned his conviction, though Ali had irretrievably lost more than three years of his fighting prime. Twenty-five years later, by the time of the 1996 Olympics, Ali was revered enough to be the lighter of the Olympic torch for the Atlanta games. Ten years after that, in 2006, none other than George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Update: I originally said that Ali had been out of action for five years. It was actually three and a half, from March 1967 to October 1970. Thanks to James Rosen for the correction.)

    But when Ali took his stand, he did so in direct opposition to and criticism of the president who hoped that the “Great Society,” and not the nascent war in Vietnam, would be his legacy: Lyndon Johnson. Ali memorably said, in explaining his draft refusal, “I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong … no Viet Cong never called me nigger.”

    And what did Lyndon Johnson say about this? In public, nothing. “Nothing,” that is, that I was aware of as a teenager at the time or in research since then. It would have been unworthy of a president to answer criticism in this way. Even for the notoriously thin-skinned LBJ.
  • In 1968, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals (respectively) in the 200-meter race at the Olympics in Mexico City. When the awards ceremony came, they performed the original version of what now would be considered a Kaepernick protest. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played they bowed their heads; they raised their black-gloved fists in what was then known as a “Black Power” protest salute; and they displayed on their USA team jackets a prominent badge from an anti-racist organization. The silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, did not raise his fist but displayed the badge and later made clear his support for the protest.

    This was on an international stage, rather than aimed at the mainly-U.S. audience of Kaepernick’s NFL protests; it was much more assertive than simply “taking a knee”; and it came during a year that is surpassed only by those of the Civil War in its trauma and turmoil for the United States. This was during the bloodiest fighting of the entire Vietnam war; it was six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King and four months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy; it was after a summer in which dozens of American cities had widespread riots; and it was three weeks before Richard Nixon’s election as president.

    Within the Olympic “family,” the protest made huge waves. The very conservative head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was outraged and ordered Smith and Carlos expelled from the Olympics. Much of white America piled on to criticize the two athletes. “If I win, I am American, not a black American,” Smith said later. “But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.” Nearly 50 years later, their protest is memorialized and honored in the African American History Museum on the National Mall. {Update: I had always heard and thought that Brundage also stripped Smith and Carlos of their medals. There are conflicting online accounts, and I’ve removed that detail.}

    The serving president, Lyndon Johnson, was a direct object of Smith’s and Carlos’s criticism. The soon-to-be president, Richard Nixon, was running on a law-and-order campaign in which he could easily have used the protest as evidence of why “real” Americans had to put the country’s house back in order.

    What did Johnson say about Smith and Carlos? In public, nothing (as best I remember from that time, and have been able to find since then). What did Nixon say on the stump in those fervid last days of the campaign? Nothing (as best I have found).

  • In 1969, the All-Star outfielder Curt Flood, who was black and an outspoken proponent of the era’s civil-right causes, was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did not want to go—and he refused the deal. As Alan Barra explained in an Atlantic account, even though Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court (and suffered irreparable damage in his baseball career), he eventually forced a change in the owner-player power balance not only in baseball but in much of professional sports.

    Significantly, Flood cast his resistance in racial-justice terms. “I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold,” he said in a letter to the baseball commissioner, arguing why he considered baseball’s “reserve clause” unjust. The owners were white; the players affected were disproportionately black—and Flood, like Ali, Smith, and Carlos before him, directed attention to these racial dynamics.

    Richard Nixon was president at the time. He was besieged by critics and protests, over his Vietnam policies and the racial implications of his “law and order” emphasis. Nixon also fancied himself an avid sports fan.

    What did he say about Curt Flood? As best I knew then and have found since, what he said in public was, nothing.

    Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are usually taken as cautionary examples of mis-using the powers of the presidency, rather than of appropriate restraint. The new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick PBS documentary series on Vietnam documents in shocking detail the way each of them lied in public, to further enmire the United States into combat in Vietnam.

    But even the two of them understood something Donald Trump didn’t. A president doesn’t go out of his way to inflame America’s longest-standing injustice and wound, the legacy of its centuries of slavery. That is what Trump has recklessly done.
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2. War mongering. What Trump tweeted last night about North Korea is shocking, even for him:

Every American president since Harry Truman has had at his command the power to kill countless millions of people in a nuclear exchange. Every one of those presidents except Donald Trump has borne this knowledge as a matter of the utmost gravity. Living with this responsibility is one reason presidents look 20 years older when they leave office than when they arrived.

For a man who could decide to use nuclear weapons to speak about them in a cavalier and bullying tone is obscene. For professional wrestling, fine; for matters of worldwide life and death, no.

To do so in threatening a dimly-understood foreign regime whose legitimacy is based on facing down bigger foreign enemies—this is reckless on a scale with no precedent I can think of in modern presidential posturing. (John F. Kennedy made a bad mistake in approving the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he soon rued that as the naivete of a new president. Lyndon Johnson made a disastrous mistake in step-by-step deepening America’s commitment to Vietnam, but he did not boast about it, Trump-style. George W. Bush made a catastrophic mistake in deciding to invade Iraq—but it was recklessness of a different nature than courting a nuclear showdown via Twitter.) If you’re in doubt about the folly of Trump’s dares to Kim Jong Un, please read Mark Bowden’s comprehensive story in The Atlantic, or Evan Osnos’s account of a recent visit to North Korea in The New Yorker.

Many of Trump’s tweets have been outrageous and insulting. This one crosses the threshold into being actually dangerous.

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During the campaign, I argued that the greatest responsibility for Trump’s rise lay not with the man himself—he is who he is, he can’t help it—but with those Republicans who know what he is, and continue to look the other way. Their responsibility for the carnage of this era increases by the day, and has grown by quite a lot this weekend.