On Tuesday, CNN’s Jim Acosta — one of President Trump’s favorite human targets — and other members of the media were abused and heckled by Trump supporters at a rally in Florida. Videos of the event — see here or here — show the crowd at one point loudly chanting “CNN sucks,” with many angrily brandishing middle fingers in the direction of the living, breathing members of the press corps.
Trump’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted out video of the “CNN sucks” chant, with the hashtag #Truth, while directly singling out Acosta. And the president himself retweeted his son. The president’s son is actively encouraging Trump supporters to direct rage and abuse toward working journalists, and the president is joining in, helping to spread the word.
You might think it reeks of “whataboutism” to juxtapose this event with the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. On the contrary, I’d like to argue that both these events belong in the same category: They both were the direct result of Trump’s nonstop and very deliberate efforts to provoke as much rage and division as he can, in as many quarters as he can. The profound imbalance and asymmetry revealed by the juxtaposition of the two situations is the real story here.
After the Tampa rally, Acosta worried aloud that all this anger could result in “somebody getting hurt.” We don’t know whether it will come to that, but it is impossible to watch those videos without concluding that it’s a serious possibility. The president commands an enormous megaphone. Instead of concluding that such an outcome is to be avoided, and recognizing a responsibility as the bearer of that megaphone to use his influence to make that so, he is actively stoking the anger, with nonstop attacks on the press for the simple act of holding his administration accountable, and now, by approvingly drawing attention to one of the most flagrant displays of it yet.
Jay Rosen calls all of this a “hate movement against journalists” that is essential to Trump’s political style, and urges them to recognize it as such. And Trump’s approving retweet of his son does appear to confirm that he believes all this anger benefits him politically, probably by energizing and consolidating the base heading into the midterms.
But we should expand that point to note that Trump plainly sees political gain in provocation on as many fronts as possible. When Trump pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his lawless and racist civil rights abuses, Trump had grown persuaded that it was “a way of pleasing his political base.” When Trump refused to unambiguously condemn white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, choosing instead to stoke racial tensions further, Stephen K. Bannon candidly declared that those tensions would help Trump politically.
There can be no doubt that Trump sees benefit in riling up his supporters with decisions like those, regardless of the anger that it unleashes on the other side. Indeed, that anger, coming from the “right” people, the liberals and the elitists, is useful, because it further provokes the anger of his own supporters. At a minimum, we know Trump recognizes no institutional responsibility to try to dial down these tensions where possible. Indeed, it’s worse: The deliberate goal, as Bannon has put it, is “to throw gasoline on the resistance.”
The provocations, of course, also take the form of policy, with severe human consequences: Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda is spreading fear and suffering in immigrant communities, and lest you think this is merely rooted in good-faith differences over how to handle immigration enforcement, Trump also layers the ritual dehumanization of immigrants on top of that cruelty. All this has crystallized in his horrible family separation policy, and even here, Trump reportedly claimed that “my people love it.”
The asymmetry is the story
You cannot seriously assess the relative civility of both sides of the Trumpian divide without placing these full-scale and calculated provocations, coming from the very top, front and center. As acts of civil disobedience go, the Sanders expulsion was relatively restrained, a use of very limited clout to protest the powerful, that is, to protest a presidency and an agenda that is provoking widespread fury and deep, searing tensions along multiple cultural and racial fault lines — again, in many cases deliberately.
Indeed, when Sanders was asked to leave, the exchange was reportedly civil. The real tell came after, as Brian Beutler points out: The White House whipped up a campaign of retributive rage at the restaurant owner. Whether you agree with the expulsion or not, the White House took deliberate action to turn it into a major and divisive cultural event, in a manner similar to Trump’s multiple other provocations.
The Acosta affair reveals that the asymmetry here is the story. Trump is now actively encouraging his supporters to direct their fury and abuse toward those whose institutional role is to hold the powerful accountable. Early on in this presidency, the savvy response to Trump’s assaults on the press was to treat them as mere gamesmanship: Trump doesn’t really mean any of this; it’s all a big show; behind the scenes, our media and political elites are just as chummy as ever. That comfortable illusion stopped being sustainable long ago. Now the possibility cannot be dismissed that it could end up getting shattered more violently than we expect.
* TRUMP’S TRADE WAR SET TO ESCALATE AGAIN: Bloomberg News reports that Trump officials may ratchet up the tariffs on China:
Officials are considering more than doubling planned tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports, people familiar with the deliberations said. The U.S. had threatened an additional $200 billion with levies of 10 percent, a level the administration may raise to 25 percent in a Federal Register notice in coming days, one of the people said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is in talks with Chinese officials to find a way out, but as Bloomberg notes, this represents “yet another increase in tension.” Trump’s totally got this.
* CHINA VOWS RETALIATION: Reuters reports on the Chinese response:
“If the United States takes further escalatory steps, China will inevitably take countermeasures and we will resolutely protect our legitimate rights,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing. Investors fear an escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing could hit global growth.
As it is, Chinese retaliatory tariffs are already directly aimed at industries with many jobs in counties carried by Trump. This is likely to get worse.
* TRUMP MAY SLASH REFUGEE LEVELS AGAIN: The New York Times reports that Trump administration officials are mulling a cut in refugee levels from 45,000 to as low as 20,000:
A “migration crisis” was gripping the country, [one] official said, and the administration was instead prioritizing asylum cases in which a person is already in the United States and claims a credible fear of returning home. … The official noted that there was a backlog of 700,000 asylum cases, asserting that “most asylum seekers are illegal immigrants,” and that there were high costs and “enormous security challenges” in admitting people to the United States on humanitarian grounds.
A “migration crisis,” eh? This rationale should come under intense scrutiny, and as always, it’s likely the real rationale is just to keep as many refugees out as possible.
* TRUMP ISN’T TAKING RUSSIAN SABOTAGE SERIOUSLY: The Associated Press reports that Trump is facing increasing criticism for not taking the prospect of Russian sabotage of the midterm elections seriously enough:
Republicans and Democrats have criticized the administration’s response as fragmented, without enough coordination across federal agencies. … Trump himself rarely talks about the issue. And in the nearly two years since Russians were found to have hacked into U.S. election systems and manipulated social media to influence public opinion, the White House has held two meetings on election security.
And in his refusal to take this seriously, Trump is in direct contradiction of his own director of national intelligence.
* DEMOCRATS ARE RUNNING ON HEALTH CARE: Margot Sanger-Katz has a good piece reporting that Democratic senators in tough races, and numerous Democratic House candidates, are relentlessly talking to audiences about Obamacare’s protections for preexisting conditions:
After the Republicans’ failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Democrats have detected a newfound concern that the consumer protections established under the law might go away. And that fear has turned into a potent campaign theme. … The issue is coming up in House races across the country. … Analysis of television ads through May from the Wesleyan Media Project found that health care was the most common subject of Democratic campaign ads.
But wait, didn’t the pundits tell us that Democrats are running only on anti-Trump hatred?
* TRUMP LIES … AND LIES … AND LIES: The Post fact-checking team updates its grand tally, and now calculates that Trump has now made 4,229 false or misleading claims:
The average number of claims per day keeps climbing the longer Trump stays in office. In fact, in June and July, the president averaged 16 claims a day. Put another way: In his first year as president, Trump made 2,140 false or misleading claims. Now, just six months later, he has almost doubled that total.
Also important: There are at least 144 claims that Trump has repeated at least three times. The repetition of the lies is as important to Trump’s approach as the initial lying itself.