It's Not an Act

It’s no longer possible to pretend that President Trump is simply playing at bigotry, hypocrisy, and detachment from reality.

Susan Walsh / AP

Over the past 24 hours, President Trump has delivered a concentrated dose of misinformation, self-sabotage, hypocrisy, and bigotry that stands out even by the standards of his short and eventful political career.

The president blew up negotiations to fund the government with a tweet attacking Democratic congressional leaders. He retweeted inflammatory and misleading  anti-Islam videos from a bigoted far-right British politician. He joked about presenting a “Fake News Trophy” to media networks. He called attention to Matt Lauer, the NBC host fired on Wednesday for sexual misconduct, despite Trump’s own past admissions of sexual assault. He baselessly implied that NBC host Joe Scarborough, a onetime informal adviser, might have been involved in the death of an intern years ago in Florida. And several outlets reported that the president privately continues to claim preposterous things, including that it wasn’t him on the Access Hollywood tape and that Barack Obama really wasn’t born in the United States.

It’s unclear what precipitated the meltdown. Trump was having a decent stretch in office, including relatively smooth progress for the GOP tax bill. Taken individually, none of these examples is all that unusual for Trump. His bigotry toward Muslims has been on display for years. He has blown up budget negotiations before. He frequently passes along unverified and false information. His hypocrisy about sexual-harassment allegations is not new. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories.

Taken together, however, they offer yet another display of poor judgment and divisive leadership from the putative leader of the free world, and they again cast doubt on his fitness for his office. They are also further evidence that Trump’s hypocrisy, bigotry, and dishonesty are not an act. He means it all.

On Tuesday, North Korea launched what appears to be its most powerful rocket yet, one it claims is capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States. There’s no time when it’s safe for a nation to have a leader who cannot grapple with reality, but it is especially dangerous at a moment when a nuclear adversary is brandishing ever more powerful rockets at the United States.

The videos that Trump retweeted were from Jayda Fransen, the leader of the far-right political party Britain First. Fransen was convicted last year of harassing a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab. The three videos that Trump retweeted are a mixed bag. The first, labeled, “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” depicts an attack by supporters of the deposed Islamist president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, on a young man; his killer was later hanged. The second is labeled “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” According to Dutch media reports, however, none of the people involved are Muslims. The provenance of the third, labeled “Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!” is unclear; it shows a man crushing a ceramic statue, and has no apparent point beyond inflaming anger at Muslims. The office of British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned Trump for retweeting the videos.

Trump has no hesitations about inflaming anger toward Muslims, and in fact he revels in it. But while some supporters wrote off such behavior as politicking during the campaign, Trump’s persistence now indicates a more deep-seated bigotry. His continued provocations also hurt his cause. His tweets about the “Muslim ban” on immigration have already caused judges to rule against the order in court, and Neal Katyal, a lawyer arguing against the ban, suggested Wednesday that he’ll use the latest tweets against Trump as well.

The president’s willingness to pass along the videos without vetting them, knowing what was in them, or considering their source is the latest example of his unwillingness or inability to separate accurate information from dreck. Trump has at least a double standard on this. On the one hand, he refused to quickly condemn violence by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, saying he needed to first understand what had happened. “I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement,” he said. When the alleged villains are Muslims, Trump is not so careful.

Moreover, Trump is spreading misinformation at the same time that he bashes the press for supposedly doing the same. Commenting on the Lauer firing, Trump implicitly accused NBC News Chairman Andy Lack of sexual harassment, without offering any evidence. He also referred to an old, and long-debunked, accusation that Scarborough had been involved in the death of a staffer in his congressional office in Florida in 2001. (That conspiracy theory has been pursued over the years by both the left and the right.)

Fake-news claims aside, hypocrisy also surges through any condemnation Trump offers for sexual harassment, as I’ve noted previously. Even as many powerful men are punished for unacceptable behavior, ranging from the criminal to the creepy, Trump himself has escaped sanction for his own. Not only are there 16 women who have accused him of various degrees of harassment, but Trump himself admitted to sexually harassing women in the infamous Access Hollywood tape revealed in October 2016.

“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

But the president has a new solution to that problem: He’s simply denying that it was him, offering the least plausible defense since Shaggy’s 2000 hit song. The New York Times first reported this over the weekend, and Tuesday night both The Times and The Washington Post added more detail.

“We don’t think that was my voice,” Trump told a senator, according to The Times, which adds, “Since then, Mr. Trump has continued to suggest that the tape that nearly upended his campaign was not actually him, according to three people close to the president.”

This is not the only case where Trump is at odds with plain reality. The Times again:

In recent months, they say, Mr. Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He has also repeatedly claimed that he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud, according to advisers and lawmakers.

One senator who listened as the president revived his doubts about Mr. Obama’s birth certificate chuckled on Tuesday as he recalled the conversation. The president, he said, has had a hard time letting go of his claim that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States.

Trump’s insistence on debunked arguments about Obama’s place of birth and about widespread voter fraud were once viewed as political posturing. For his critics, this kind of behavior was demagoguish, immoral, appalling, and divisive. For his defenders, it was perhaps a little boorish, but then again all is fair in politics; besides, they liked his willingness to throw a punch. Either way, the shared assumption for many (though by no means all) observers was that Trump was being disingenuous.

Since then, however, the president has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s not just posturing, and it’s not simply a cynical ploy. Trump isn’t being hypocritical simply for sport or political gain. His bigotry isn’t just an act to win over a certain segment of the population. Of course it wasn’t: Trump has been demonstrating that since he arrived in the news, settling a case alleging that he had kept African Americans out of his apartment buildings, up through his demand to execute the Central Park Five. He isn’t spreading misinformation just to twist the political discourse—though he may be doing that—but because he can’t or won’t assess it. It is not an act.

All of this has been clear to anyone willing to see it for a long time, yet some people have convinced themselves it’s merely an act. That includes the Republican members of Congress who shake their heads but try to ignore the tweets. It includes the senator who chuckles at Trump’s enduring birtherism. And it includes the White House staffers who, according to The Times, are “stunned” to hear their boss denying the Access Hollywood tape. It’s stunning that they’re still stunned.