Proving he considers the presidency similar to his previous job as the host of a “Lord of the Flies”-style reality show, Donald Trump said in a Monday night dinner that he was thrilled by the response to his recent race-baiting performance in Alabama. As CNN’s Jim Acosta reports, Trump was energized by the effects of his speech, which wounded many of his fellow citizens.
“It’s really caught on. It’s really caught on,” he reportedly explained to dinner guests. “I said what millions of Americans were thinking.” He echoed that sentiment in his Tuesday press conference.
Setting aside what millions of Americans may or may not think, Trump’s sense that he succeeded because the press is talking about his performance ignores the fact that media coverage is not the measure of a president’s success. Achieving certain policy goals, unifying the nation with calls to grace and maintaining America’s standing in the world — three objectives which many of his predecessors strived for — determine how history writes about presidencies.
Thus far, our 45th President has failed on all counts. He has succeeded, however, in showing that he is the man he has always been — selfish and bombastic — and incapable of growing into the responsibilities of the job he now has.
The deficiencies of character and intellect that limit the President have been evident throughout his life. This is a man who cried “reverse discrimination” when he was asked to obey fair housing laws in the 1970s. He then cast doubt on the tribal identities of American Indians in the 1990s. And he also spent several years in the pursuit of proof that Barack Obama wasn’t a legitimate president, an effort that well-known Republicans Michael Steele and Colin Powell deemed racist.
In these and many others instances, Trump chose to appeal to the most bigoted parts of Americans’ hearts — and based on a calculation that enough people would support him to make the bigotry worthwhile.
In Alabama, the President, who was there to campaign for a Republican senate candidate, veered off his campaign speech. Speaking to a largely white crowd in a state with a tragic history of racism, he chastised a handful of football players who respectfully knelt during the National Anthem. Notably, most of those players are African-American. And while they are concerned about the number of unarmed black men killed in encounters with police, they are also seeking a broader discussion of the longstanding problems of racism and discrimination.
Trump ignored their motivations and the quiet nature of their protest, though, choosing to frame it as an unpatriotic attack. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b– off the field right now?'” he said. “Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Trump’s use of the word “fired” echoed the catchphrase he deployed during every episode of his program, “The Apprentice.” On the show, Trump’s catchphrase was always delivered in a lowered tone of voice, and he used this device in Alabama, where his second “he’s fired” came with an added growl for theatrical effect.
And while other television performers, like Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel on “Family Matters,” consider these catchphrases a potential handicap in future employment, Trump has embraced it. (Urkel, if you don’t remember, was famous for saying “Did I do that?” in a nasally, high pitched voice.) In fact, Trump loves his catchphrase so much that he looks for opportunities to use it and revels in its delivery.
If we set aside the fact that Trump is President and view him as the selfish man that he is, we can begin to make sense of his recent behavior. Throughout his career, Trump has played the same bombastic character — it’s what made him a billionaire and ultimately our President. But none of the theatrics that made him so powerful prepared him for the challenges of governing, which to date include a failed health care plan and an increasingly aggressive investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
Not surprisingly, Trump is miserable. But rather than acknowledge his mistakes, he is willing to blame everyone else, from Senator John McCain, who opposes repeal and replace, to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation.
A more considerate man in Trump’s position would reflect on his condition and change his ways. Other presidents — Bill Clinton comes to mind — stumbled badly at the start of their presidencies, but learned to do better. The trouble is that Trump has never been the type to learn something new. Thus, he seeks refuge in the company of people who love his divisive attitude and seemingly support him unconditionally. Like Trump, these people don’t want to hear their assumptions and prejudices challenged.
They like it when Trump tweets about others who are “disrespecting our Flag & Country.” The message is clear — we own the nation and its symbols.
In time, perhaps when he seeks re-election, Trump may discover that playing to prejudice and dividing a nation that actually gave his opponent the popular vote is a losing proposition. But for now, we can expect more of the same, because this is not a man who has ever demonstrated generosity of spirit or a willingness to work on himself.
As the presidency is debased and devalued, those who don’t think like Trump’s “millions” are challenged to maintain hope. In “Groundhog Day” fashion, he delivers constant reminders that he is incapable of doing better. And while he may not be, we are.