If LaVar Ball had wanted to avoid President Trump’s ire, he should have had the presence of mind to ensure a vote for Trump’s tax bill by running for the Senate.
Instead, as a Trump critic with access to a microphone, Ball has been a focus of Trump’s rage for several days running. The father of LiAngelo Ball, one of the UCLA basketball players arrested in China for shoplifting, the elder Ball has refused to pay Trump the fealty the president clearly feels he deserves for his son’s escaping jail time in the country. While LiAngelo pointedly thanked Trump (after the president hinted that he should), LaVar declined to do so in an interview on CNN Tuesday.
“If I was going to thank somebody, I was going to thank President Xi,” he said, referring to the president of China. He added more thoughts on the president of the United States: “If he said he helped, that’s good for his mind. If you helped, you shouldn’t have to say anything.”
So, on Wednesday morning:
Trump once said that his tweets may not be presidential in the traditional sense but, instead, are “modern-day presidential,” as though he has redefined the meaning of the word to his benefit. Americans, broadly speaking, would prefer a traditionally presidential president, with 70 percent in a recent poll suggesting he change his approach to Twitter.
For Trump, though, the medium has an obvious benefit: He uses it to encourage and rile up his base of support to his own political advantage. His base, those who fervently approve of him, also approves of the way he behaves in office. A Pew Research poll from August found that a majority of those who approve of Trump’s job performance approved of him because of his approach and personality more than his policies and political values. Trump encourages the base and the base loves it.
The latest iteration of his fight with Ball happened the day before Thanksgiving. Last year, Trump used Thanksgiving as an opportunity to try to assuage the concerns of Americans who hadn’t voted for him and many of whom had taken to the streets in protest after his win. It was his first extended statement as president-elect, and it had a deliberate theme.
“It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country, strengthened by shared purpose and very very common resolve,” Trump said.
“This historic political campaign is now over. But now begins a great national campaign to rebuild our country and to restore the full promise of America for all of our people,” he later continued. “I’m asking you to join me in this effort. It’s time to restore the bonds of trust between citizens because what America is unified there is nothing beyond our reach, and I mean absolutely nothing.”
It was, in short, a call for unity, ostensibly for building an America in which his voters and Hillary Clinton’s came together for one American Dream. Bonds of trust between citizens restored! An ideal modern-day America.
As president, though, Trump has fostered the divisions that he leveraged to get elected. Not only on Twitter, though certainly there. His policies have been broadly focused on his political base, which itself isn’t unusual, but he’s also spent a great deal of energy on undoing policies enacted by his predecessor.
Over the weekend, Politico noted that Trump still tracks polls obsessively, as he did early in the campaign when the numbers were more favorable. The polls he sees, though, are generally “designed to make him feel good,” Politico’s Josh Dawsey and Steven Shepard wrote, often only including the opinions of that same core base of support.
A pollster who’d worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign explained the rationale to Dawsey and Shepard.
“[T]hey don’t really care where all Americans stand on the issue of tax reform,” he said. “Because 35 to 40 percent of Americans are never going to support anything he does. Why should I spend my money trying to find out what they think?”
In that sense, disunity is self-reinforcing. If you believe that your opponents will never change their minds — and 57 percent of Trump opponents said they wouldn’t in an August poll — then there’s no point in trying to actually join with them in unity. Set aside that 40 percent say they could be persuaded to support Trump.
Set aside, too, that this is not a newly emergent phenomenon. It is not the case that Trump tried to actually appeal to those who’d opposed him, as noted above. His inaugural speech quadrupled down on the divisive rhetoric of his campaign, and he wasted no time in making the changes that he’d pledged in the primary and which he’d never moderated. Trump’s call for unity was never about both sides coming together. It was about his opponents accepting and embracing him because he was president.
It was about fealty.
In that sense, the feud with Ball is the perfect capstone to the past year. It’s a literal manifestation of Trump’s insistence that he get credit for good things whether it’s presidential to demand it and whether that credit is actually due. It’s Trump’s version of unity: He deserves love and admiration, the end.
This may be modern-day presidential in the sense that the president in this modern day acts this way. But there’s a reason that former presidents didn’t act this way: They were actually more deliberate about leading a united United States.