Every week I search for something that occupies the national stage to write about, other than Donald Trump. But I confess that it’s hard to look away. Since he and Melania rode down that escalator in Trump Tower, he has been what some pundits have referred to as “that shiny object,” using words such as “unprecedented” to describe his behavior.
He has also been characterized as that individual standing in front of a carnival tent bidding all who pass by to enter. “Come on folks, what have you got to lose? A swamp will be drained! Things will be great again!” As it turned out, 63 million people took his word for it.
But once inside the tent — inside the world of Donald Trump — the prism through which so many initially peered was altered. For the media it was as if the full meaning of the 2016 election and his breathtaking victory suddenly came into focus, and the Fourth Estate awoke from a long and distracting dream. The press finally began to report on his statements and interminable Tweets.
The full implications of his election were at first puzzling, then unsettling, and now include a much-discussed concern for the resiliency of our democracy.
As a result, with the White House in chaos, buttressed by a growing presence that shall not be named (Russia), the press has devoted endless hours of analysis to this new president, his policies (or lack thereof), and certainly his style.
But what has emerged so far, for all of the erratic governance exhibited by Trump, is his seeming need to create crisis and conflict. In a recent New York Times piece, Peter Baker discussed this proclivity at length. It resonated, for it revealed a disturbing pattern when viewed over the past nine months.
Consider Trump’s most recent statements in Huntsville, Alabama, regarding NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. What he said about them amounted to a vulgar dog whistle of racism, a thread that has stitched together the quilt of his life for decades, made blatantly evident with his fraudulent and insidious birther assertions. The knee is a controversy that continues to preoccupy the White House while some 3.5 million Americans on the island of Puerto Rico descended into a crisis that has now morphed into a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
But the above was but one crisis among many forming what has been viewed as a pattern of dysfunction that transcends all understanding. Recall that Trump began his primary campaign by harshly disparaging immigrants. He soon included Muslims. He has denigrated a Muslim Gold Star family, attacked our courts as well as his own Republican Party (most often Mitch McConnell), the Department of Justice (including Jeff Sessions), insisted Trump Tower was wired, fired the FBI director (who he called a “nut job” and had tapes to prove it), questioned the relevancy of the U.N. and NATO, and now plays verbal roulette with North Korea and "Rocket Man.” He has called our intelligence services “Nazis,” criticized the pope, continues to harangue the “dishonest media,” and stated John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured, later escalating his rhetoric when McCain (just diagnosed with brain cancer) voted against the Republican health care bill.
Trump’s pugnacity may play well as he stands before an Alabama or Arizona rally. But for the 65 percent of Americans who are not part of his hard-core base, this constant battle-ready style, as evidenced in his “fire and fury” face-off with nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un, can be harrowing. Yet he continues to seem strangely energized by his perpetual war of unscripted words and tweets.
Trump relishes not only perpetual conflict (some might call it strategic distraction), but by so doing he obviates any need for a coherent strategy, domestic or international.
Understanding Peter Baker’s hypothesis, however, will not ease those years of discontent, disbelief or downright fear that stretch ahead. Perhaps the only response to this president is to say, “It is what it is ...” while we wait for Robert Mueller and find ourselves whispering, “Please hurry.”
— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.