Dr. James J. Zogby ©
President Arab American Institute
We are only a little more than six months into the Trump presidency and I’m already becoming emotionally exhausted by the antics of the president and his underlings. What I’m beginning to suspect is that this may be the reaction Trump is seeking to elicit from his opponents. He is using chaos and outrage to wear us down.
Like millions of other Americans, I wake up each morning and turn on TV and check Twitter to see what new and outlandish things have been said by the occupant of the White House: Who has he demeaned? What new whoppers has he told? What bizarre charges has he levied at his favorite targets?
Analysts and commentators have posited several theories in an effort to make sense of the president’s behavior. I think, to a degree, all of them may be valid.
One theory suggests that the president makes particularly outrageous comments when he is under attack or failing. Understanding media, he knows that if he can create a “feeding frenzy” with a crazy tweet, he can steer attention away from his inability to pass legislation or damaging aspects of the continuing probe into Russian collusion.
Others see in the language Trump uses in his tweets and speeches an effort to play to the worst instincts of his supporters while cultivating his own brand of authoritarian leadership. In his messaging, he promotes the notion that he and he alone speaks for true American values and, therefore, those who question or oppose him are not patriotic. He uses his tweets to target his (and, therefore, America’s) enemies—the media, judges, the intelligence agencies, those law enforcement officials who are investigating him, minorities of all stripes, etc. Because, as he has claimed, “no one knows the system better than me, [and therefore] I alone can fix it”—it is particularly disturbing that those who are susceptible to his messaging are being led to see our nation’s most fundamental institutions as a threat to their leader and his ability to restore some vague promise of “greatness”.
Then there are those who simply see in Trump’s tweets an unhinged narcissist who out of his own sense of inferiority needs to prove himself to be better, stronger, smarter, and more virile than everyone else. This need drives the president to make outrageous and clearly dishonest claims about the size of his crowds (or his hands), his legislative successes, or his ability to accomplish things that no other president has been able to accomplish. This same pathology leads the president to demean opponents or those whom he feels are standing in his way.
Finally, there is what I mentioned in the beginning—the chaos and the exhaustion. Whether by design or unintended consequence, Trump’s tweets are taking a toll on the psyche of many Americans who are simply finding the daily outrages and the circus-like antics in the White House to be too much to bear.
Like other charismatic authoritarians before him, Trump thrives on chaos. From the beginning, his staff had competing power centers. This was by design. As he watched his underlings squabble and/or cannibalize each other in a craven struggle for influence and access to the “great man”, he kept ultimate power and decision-making in his hands. In this game, he played the media as a useful tool. One day, it’s Bannon and his allies on top, the next day it’s his son-in-law and his allies. When he sees one or the other getting too much credit or attention, Trump knocks them down a peg. The result is that he remains in control.
During this week, we were gifted with a full dose of all of these behaviors. His speeches to the Boy Scouts of America and an audience in Youngstown, Ohio were classic Trump. He bragged, made promises he couldn’t keep, repeatedly attacked the “fakenews” media, and encouraged boos for former President Obama.
He used his tweets to repeatedly humiliate his Attorney General. Trump is furious with the AG because he recused himself from the Russian investigation and, as a result, can’t do the president’s bidding. It is speculated that Trump wants this AG out of the way so he can appoint a more “loyal” person who will fire Special Prosecutor Mueller and thereby stop the investigation into the Russian connection and Trump family finances.
As an additional distraction, Trump created an unnecessary firestorm with tweets banning Transgender Americans from military service. While he claimed that he made this decision in consultation with “my generals”, that was refuted by the Pentagon which said it would not implement this tweet. Net result, no immediate change in policy, but “red meat” for his base, and enough of a distraction that Russia was out of the news for a day.
The week went from bad to worse with the bizarre antics of Trump’s newly appointed Communications Director, the brash and slick, but crude, Anthony Scaramucci. Mimicking his boss, Scaramucci used Twitter to threaten the president’s Chief of Staff. Then, in an interview, using the most vulgar language imaginable, he attacked many of his West Wing colleagues, making it clear that he saw himself in charge of cleaning up the mess in the White House. At one point, he claimed that he would “fire everyone of them…kill them all” in order to protect the president and his agenda.
Now, it matters not whether Scaramucci will or even can carry out his threats. In a few days, Trump may see him accruing too much power or getting too much media attention and decide to put him in his place. What matters is that, for now, the new kid on the block is creating chaos, providing a distraction, feeding the president’s ego, and using the kind of “take no prisoners” language that feeds the aggrieved base of Trump supporters.
While Trump’s supporters love all of this, the rest of us are left, as I said, exhausted asking whether this situation is sustainable. A few Republican leaders in the Senate have drawn lines in the sand: leave the AG alone; don’t fire Mueller; and stop making threats against other Senators. Meanwhile, despite the distractions, the investigation into Russian involvement continues to expand and the president still hasn’t been able to win any major victories.
The questions that remain are: Will Trump’s antics continue to poison the political well, firing the passions of his supporters while wearing down the rest of us? Or will the situation come to a breaking point where he takes a step too far and his presidency implodes?