A few weeks ago, I noted President Trump’s shaky command of the presidential levers of power, including the bully pulpit: among other things, Trump “cannot give a speech without his hosts distancing themselves from his rhetoric.” Things have actually worsened over the past week, something I didn’t think possible.
Consider Trump’s three biggest rhetorical own-goals over the past week. His “fire and fury” statement on North Korea forced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to try to talk the United States off a ledge. This in turn led to Sebastian Gorka denigrating Tillerson and Trump saying he had perhaps been too soft in his rhetoric. Which, in turn, caused Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to try to talk the nation off a ledge again. The point is, professional diplomats are pretty freaked out about the president’s hyperbolic rhetoric.
Trump’s belated response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ejection of U.S. diplomats was even worse:
Finally, to cap off a week of rhetorical miscues, Trump attempted to address the violence triggered by white nationalists in Charlottesville with a namby-pamby statement that blamed “many sides” for the violence. It is odd that a president who claimed to despise political correctness with respect to Islamic terrorists suddenly chose to be circumspect in describing homegrown neo-Nazi terrorists.
It is safe to say that Trump’s response did not go down well at all with the commentariat. As my Post colleague Michael Gerson noted, “Trump’s reaction to events in Charlottesville was alternately trite (‘come together as one’), infantile (‘very, very sad’) and meaningless (‘we want to study it’).”
Sounding Presidential 101 is not complicated:
- Sound calm during an international crisis.
- Defend loyal, hard-working professionals working for the federal government.
- Be forthright in blasting neo-Nazis.
Trump has failed and failed spectacularly at rudimentary rhetoric. Why?
To understand Trump’s own-goals, you have to remember that there really is an art to being a politician. Say what you will about politicians as a group, but it is striking how all of them, from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz, knew the right thing to say in response to Charlottesville. Running for office repeatedly tends to hone one’s rhetorical instincts. At a minimum, most professional politicians learn the do’s and don’ts of political rhetoric.
Trump’s political education has different roots. He has learned the art of political rhetoric from three sources: reality television, Twitter and “the shows.” His miscues this past week can be traced to the pathologies inherent in each of these arenas.
I have not watched much reality television, but I have seen just enough of the “Real Housewives” franchise to know that this genre thrives on next-level drama. No one wants to watch conflicts being resolved; they want to watch conflicts spiral out of control. So it is with Trump and North Korea. He never sees the value in de-escalating anything, and North Korea is no exception. Calm resolution is not in the grammar of reality television. No wonder Trump never speaks that way; it is a register he cannot comprehend.
I am pretty familiar with Twitter, and the thing about that medium is that it is drenched in sarcasm. It is a necessary rhetorical tic to thrive in that place. The problem is that while sarcasm might work on political Twitter, it rarely works in politics off Twitter. Sarcasm requires that observers be able to discern the hidden meaning behind a person’s words. When it comes to politics, most people miss the text; expecting them to catch the subtext is insane. So it is not surprising that some of Trump’s worst rhetorical missteps come during lame attempts at sarcasm.
Finally, there are the political talk shows. If there is one thing Trump has learned from that genre, it is the “both sides” hot take. Pundits are so adept at blaming a political conflict on both sides that the #bothsides hashtag is omnipresent on political Twitter.
Of course, the #bothsides trope is commonly used when discussing Democrats and Republicans, or Congress and the presidency. As a general rule, any conflict in which one side is dominated by neo-Nazis is not a #bothsides moment. Even CNN’s Chris Cillizza, the king of the Savvy Washington Take, knows this:
Both sides don’t scream racist and anti-Semitic things at people with whom they disagree. They don’t base a belief system on the superiority of one race over others. They don’t get into fistfights with people who don’t see things their way. They don’t create chaos and leave a trail of injured behind them.
Arguing that “both sides do it” deeply misunderstands the hate and intolerance at the core of this “Unite the Right” rally. These people are bigots. They are hate-filled. This is not just a protest where things, unfortunately, got violent. Violence sits at the heart of their warped belief system.
Trying to fit these hatemongers into the political/ideological spectrum — which appears to be what Trump is doing — speaks to his failure to grasp what’s at play here. This is not a “conservatives say this, liberals say that” sort of situation. We all should stand against this sort of violent intolerance and work to eradicate it from our society — whether Democrat, Republican, Independent or not political in the least.
Deep down, there are substantive problems with Trump’s reaction to each of these three crises. He seems overly eager to escalate tensions with North Korea and steadfastly does not want to call out Vladimir Putin or white nationalists by name.
What makes Trump’s presidency worse, however, is his limited grasp of the bully pulpit. He ad-libbed all these rhetorical miscues. In doing so, he relied on tropes he had learned from reality television, social media and political talk shows.
Those tropes might work for a reality-show hack desperate to engage in self-promotion. They do not work for the president of the United States.