The presidential Twitter feed is probably all these things, and more. What it’s not, however, is an illuminating good-faith discussion of issues and opportunities facing the American people. So I prefer not to fall under its mesmerizing spell.
Today, I’m making an exception. A Trump tweet passed through my peripheral vision that struck me as so nakedly revealing of its author’s values and character that it is worthy of examination. It’s almost Shakespearean in the way it distills to a few words a complex web of circumstances and ideas.
We start with a little message recorded by former president George W. Bush as part of a fundraising project for coronavirus-related relief efforts. Most listeners found it to be a gentle pep talk urging Americans to uphold values of kindness, generosity and mutual support while meeting the challenge of the pandemic. Bush closed on this note: “Finally, let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat. In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants, we are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”
Enter Pete Hegseth, a decorated Army veteran turned Fox News television commentator. Every TV host needs a niche, and Hegseth finds his in a cartoonishly exaggerated version of conservative patriotism. Normal soldiers respect the Constitution they have pledged to defend. Ultra-soldier Hegseth has part of the preamble tattooed on his forearm.
He was offended by the timing of Bush’s declaration that we are not partisan combatants. Why, Hegseth demanded to know, didn’t he say that during Trump’s impeachment proceedings? Personally, I’d guess it’s because the impeachment was partisan combat. But the TV provocateur’s half-baked question made so much sense to Trump that he repeated it in a tweet, adding, for good measure, that Bush “was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”
What I find revealing is that the word “Trump” appears nowhere in the Bush statement. The former president was plainly speaking in a general way about all Americans “equally.” Yet Trump’s tweet embraced and amplified the idea that Bush’s remarks should properly be viewed through the prism of Trump’s political fortunes. Why?
No doubt the president’s florid narcissism explains part of his reaction. (It certainly explains Hegseth’s slavering courtship of the Trump ego.) As the only noteworthy occupant of his own psychological state, Trump seems to think everything is about him.
But something more was going on. Even a narcissist could choose to hear the call to unity and think: Isn’t that nice? As president in a crisis, I need everyone pulling together, and he’s trying to help me with that.
Since George Washington waved goodbye, every president has been the leader of a party. But they also lead the nation, especially in times of great peril. Yet here, a plea for national unity is the occasion for a presidential rebuke. The only sensible explanation: The president has no interest in unity.
Like the heart beneath Edgar Allan Poe’s floorboards pounding in the ears of a guilty man, Bush’s statement hit Trump like an indictment. He knows that unifying the public is not on his agenda. He has no interest in bringing us together. After all, there is no “team” in “I.”
Our life-or-death struggle with a new disease has become, for Trump, just another chance to divide the country, to leverage resentments, to fuel suspicion, to antagonize his critics — in the slim hope that he’ll galvanize his supporters while demoralizing the opposition. That’s why he thinks the Bush statement is about him.
On a March day in 1865, near the end of four long and bloody years of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke of national unity, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” He never lost sight of the better angels of our nature. That is how presidents are supposed to lead. And it’s the reason — in case Trump is still wondering — Lincoln gets good press.
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