Calibrating outrage in the age of Trump
WASHINGTON -- The week that was:
Last Sunday, President Trump once again publicly humiliated his secretary of state, this time tweeting that Rex Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man."
On Tuesday, the president tossed rolls of paper towels to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico like T-shirts at a sporting event. He contrasted the disaster they are enduring to the "real catastrophe" of Hurricane Katrina and lauded the "great job" his administration has done responding to Maria.
On Wednesday, Tillerson non-denied an NBC News report that he had called the president a "moron." The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opined that Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and White House chief of staff John Kelly "are those people that help separate our country from chaos."
On Thursday, a day after the Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan leadership reaffirmed the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election -- and the panel's Republican chairman said that "the issue of collusion" with the Trump campaign "is still open" -- the president tweeted that the panel should be "looking into the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!"
This situation is not normal. This behavior is not OK. We -- we in the media, and we Americans -- need to keep reminding ourselves of this, day after day, tweet after tweet. We need to call out every false statement. We need to remember, after every failure of empathy and every narcissistic demand for praise, after every impulsive, bellicose taunt and every challenge to constitutional norms, that this is not the way a president acts.
Each of the past week's episodes -- and last week offered an overflowing but not unique bounty -- is disturbing and disappointing in a different way. They exposed Trump's dangerous recklessness and his racially tinged indifference to the suffering of U.S. citizens, his appalling ignorance and his even more appalling lack of respect for democratic values.
Taking them in order: First, Trump's serial undercutting of Tillerson erodes his standing to speak for the United States. If there is method in the insults he hurls at Kim Jong Un, Trump is playing an awfully risky game.
Second, at this point, Trump's empathy impairment is no surprise, nor, sadly, is the particular failure of his empathy when it comes to victims of color. But the glaring gap between Trump's energetic response to the hurricanes in Texas and Florida and his lackadaisical approach to the disaster that has befallen U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico has been especially repellent, tweeting that the people there "want everything to be done for them." The jarring insouciance of the towel-tossing put a fittingly ugly coda on all that had gone before.
Third, let us pause for a moment to take in that it is entirely believable that a member of his own Cabinet would call the president a moron, not to mention that this remarkable effrontery would leak -- or that many Americans hearing it would nod in agreement.
Americans, maybe even Cabinet secretaries, have scoffed at their presidents before, but the depth and combination of Trump's inattention, ignorance and bluster know no equal. Similarly with Republican Sen. Bob Corker's chilling comment: When, before, have we imagined the Cabinet as a thin blue line against presidential chaos?
Finally, perhaps most alarming of all, Trump's persistent indifference to a foreign adversary's efforts to undermine our democracy. He has directed more anger at the mayor of Puerto Rico than at Vladimir Putin. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but the president is not a patriot, if an essential part of patriotism means being willing to stand up for your country when it is under attack.
And the authoritarian, anti-constitutional suggestion that the Senate intelligence panel should have some role in probing "Fake News Networks" at home betrays, yet again, Trump's contempt for, if not fear of, a free press. Clamping down on information and dissent is the first instinct of every would-be dictator.
Our Constitution and our governing institutions are, I trust, too resilient to let Trump translate that urge into reality. Still, the desire alone is scary enough.
Properly calibrating degrees of outrage is a delicate task in the age of Trump. There is so much to lament and to call out. Energies understandably flag with the fourth unhinged tweet of the day. Episodes that would ordinarily consume news cycles for days pass with scarcely a there-he-goes-again shrug.
This is no time for shrugging.
Ruth Marcus' email address is email@example.com.
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