Before 6 a.m. ET, Donald Trump had already sent two tweets about the self-proclaimed “big baller” LaVar Ball.
“It wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t the State Department, it wasn’t father LaVar’s so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long term prison sentence - IT WAS ME. Too bad! LaVar is just a poor man’s version of Don King, but without the hair. Just think LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool!”
Even for Trump, who has defined the idea of the presidency downward, these tweets are shocking. So shocking in fact that I had to check multiple times that they were actually from Trump’s verified Twitter account rather than some satirical one. But, they are very real – and telling.
At the root of Trump’s personality is grievance and a sense of victimhood. He has spent his whole life – in his own mind – on the outside looking in. His father was a successful developer, but not in Manhattan. When Trump became a player in Manhattan real estate, the old money in the city wouldn’t accept him as one of their own. When he went to Washington in 2011 amid public speculation of a potential presidential bid, President Obama and the rest of the so-called media elites laughed at him.
At every stage, Trump has been driven by these perceived snubs. His operating principle in life can be boiled down to “I’ll show you. I’ll show you all!” And he is forever convinced that he’s not being given proper credit for things he actually has done. He will find any evidence of these alleged snubs and do whatever it takes to “right the wrong.”
Which brings me to the first part of the Trump tweets on Ball Wednesday morning.
Trump is reacting to this totally bananas interview Ball gave to CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Monday night. In it, Ball insists he doesn’t need to say “thank you” to Trump for helping get LiAngelo Ball and two other UCLA basketball players out of China after they were arrested for shoplifting because “I had some things done, I talked to some people that did some things, too.”
Obviously, it makes no sense for Trump to respond to Ball – ever or in this particular situation. Ball is someone who is widely ridiculed in the popular culture for being a chest-pounding braggart, using his kids’ athletic prowess to enrich himself.
And yet! Trump is simply incapable of letting any slight, any attempt to steal credit from him, go by. It doesn’t matter whether it’s LaVar Ball doing it or the president of a foreign country. They’re all the same to Trump. They’re all people trying to lessen him, to take away what is rightfully his. And so, he claps back. It’s all he knows how to do. It’s as natural to Trump as calling everything “beautiful” and “amazing.” It’s instinctual.
The credit-hogging by Trump is actually the least toxic thing he is doing in these two tweets this morning. What’s far worse is the racial dog-whistling he offers up by describing Ball as a “poor man’s version of Don King – without the hair” and blasting him as an “ungrateful fool.”
It’s also a little weird for Trump to belittle Ball by comparing him to King, an avowed Trump supporter, who appeared with Trump on the campaign trail and with whom Trump conducted an odd press conference as president-elect.
Given Trump’s demonstrated willingness – as a candidate and as president – to play on racial stereotypes and racial animus to benefit his own political interests, it’s impossible to ignore the underlying messaging here.
King and Ball are both black. King is someone with a long-held reputation as a over-the-top hype man. By comparing Ball to King, Trump is hoping to minimize him, turn him into a sort of cartoon character in the eyes of the president’s political base.
Then there is the reference to Ball as an “ungrateful fool.” Who is this (black) guy who isn’t saying “thank you” to me for everything I have done for him and his family? How dare he not be appropriately grateful?
What’s so so damaging about all of this is that Trump knows what he is playing at here. And he doesn’t care – or at least he doesn’t care enough not to do it.
Whereas past presidents put the good of the country first, Trump puts himself first. Always. How does this affect me? Why am I being disrespected? What is the political gain I can reap from this?
Of all the ways Trump has changed politics and the presidency, his “me first, second and last” view of the world is the most profound and troubling.