Trump’s New Catchphrase Is an Attempt to Delegitimize Dissent
Facing pressure from the incoming Democratic majority in the House, the commander in chief swears he’s the target of “presidential harassment.”
Donald Trump is a devoted sloganeer, from “You’re fired” to “Make America great again.” But slogans grow tired and lose their oomph with time and repetition, which means it’s important to keep refreshing and replacing them.
Enter “presidential harassment.”
On Thursday, with the government shutdown in its 13th day, with no sign of abating, and the new Democratic majority taking over the House, the president tweeted this:
The Shutdown is only because of the 2020 Presidential Election. The Democrats know they can’t win based on all of the achievements of “Trump,” so they are going all out on the desperately needed Wall and Border Security - and Presidential Harassment. For them, strictly politics!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2019
There is, as they say, a lot going on here. Trump is probably not wrong to suggest a 2020 connection. Democrats are staunchly opposed to the wall as a waste of money, but they also want to deprive him of a victory on a key campaign promise, undermining his reelection hopes. (There’s a lot of politics in this shutdown fight for Trump, too, of course—he was signaling a willingness to compromise until he was assailed by right-wing media figures.) And who knows what the scare quotes around Trump’s name are meant to be? (Maybe there’s a weird Dave-style switch just waiting to be discovered?)
But it’s that simple phrase, “presidential harassment,” that jumps out. This is the eighth time he’s employed it, according to factba.se, with uses coming more frequently of late. The nascent rise of the phrase is an indication that Trump feels newly embattled, but it also underscores the way he tries to construe any criticism of himself as illegitimate.
Trump is a magpie, borrowing his most famous lines: “Make America great again” from Ronald Reagan; “America first” from Charles Lindbergh; “fake news” from Hillary Clinton. He nicked “presidential harassment” from Senator Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader seems to have coined the phrase in an October 10 Associated Press interview, and then reprised it the day after the midterm election, warning Democrats against prying too deeply into Trump’s affairs.
“The whole issue of presidential harassment is interesting,” McConnell said. “I remember when we tried it in the late ’90s. We impeached President Clinton. His numbers went up and ours went down and we underperformed in the next election.”
Leaving aside whether McConnell offered this advice in good faith, he meant it in a limited sense of oversight investigations. Trump, displaying his knack for branding, has quickly expanded the phrase to encompass any kind of criticism. First came this tweet, five days after McConnell’s post-election warning, and seeming to follow the same definition:
The prospect of Presidential Harassment by the Dems is causing the Stock Market big headaches!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2018
Two days later, in an interview with The Daily Caller, Trump said:
I think we’ll do very well if they want to play the presidential harassment game. If they play the presidential harassment game I don’t think anything’s going to be done ’cause why would I do that, okay? If they want to get things done I think it will be fantastic, I think we can get a lot done.
Three days after that, he used it again during a gaggle, this time in a riff about the presumptive Democratic House leader, who was then fending off a leadership challenge:
I like Nancy Pelosi. I mean, she’s tough and she’s smart. But she deserves to be speaker. And now they’re playing games with her just like they’ll be playing with me with—it’s called “presidential harassment.” The president of your country is doing a great job, but he’s being harassed. It’s presidential harassment.
In addition to the odd dip into the third person, this represents an important step in Trump’s process for reifying his claims, with “it’s called” serving a purpose similar to “many people are saying,” when in fact only he is saying it, or the one calling it that. Already, the meaning is slipping—opposing Pelosi is harassment, just as opposing Trump constitutes harassment. See, for example, this December 6 invocation:
Without the phony Russia Witch Hunt, and with all that we have accomplished in the last almost two years (Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judge’s, Military, Vets, etc.) my approval rating would be at 75% rather than the 50% just reported by Rasmussen. It’s called Presidential Harassment!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2018
On December 23, he complained on Twitter, “Presidential Harassment has been with me from the beginning!” Two days later, during a videoconference with members of the military, Trump couldn’t resist turning the occasion into a political rally. Asked about what to expect in the new Congress, he answered, “Well, then probably presidential harassment, and we know how to handle that. I think I handle that better than anybody. There’s been no collusion.”
On December 29, in the midst of a long string of self-pitying messages, he tweeted:
I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security. From what I hear, they are spending so much time on Presidential Harassment that they have little time left for things like stopping crime and our military!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2018
Every president hates criticism, though few take it as personally or respond as prolifically as Trump does. More important, few if any have dedicated themselves so fiercely to portraying any criticism of themselves as illegitimate per se. By spinning House oversight (a constitutionally mandated function) and any other criticism as “harassment,” he labels it untoward, unseemly, even potentially illegal.
Labeling dissent as illegitimate is uncomfortable in a liberal democracy, a form of government about which Trump is ambivalent at best. And his victimhood is unearned. There’s more than enough evidence to warrant stricter congressional oversight of the executive branch. Could Democrats overreach? Of course. But it’s too soon to know. Trump is trying to preempt them.
The phrase is uncomfortable for another reason, too. It’s difficult, especially in this age, to decouple the word harassment from its frequent prefix of sexual. That’s perhaps especially true for Trump. In addition to the at least 19 women who have publicly accused the president of sexual misconduct, there is the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasts about sexually assaulting women because he’s a star. He also mocked Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school.
By commandeering the term harassment to dismiss any criticism of himself, Trump is also belittling his own accusers. The White House has flatly rejected all the accusations against the president and refused to recognize them. With his woe-is-me claims of “presidential harassment,” Trump is challenging the public to do the same to him.