Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
In the space of just two days, the President called his political opponents “treasonous;” The White House chief of staff implied that immigrants who didn’t sign up for the DACA program were “too afraid” or “too lazy;” and a prominent Democratic senator referred to President Trump as “Cadet Bone Spurs,” a reference to his Vietnam-era draft deferments.
Welcome to Trump’s Washington, a town where the language of politics has been so debased by the Oval Office’s incumbent that nothing should surprise us anymore. People like chief of staff John Kelly and Sen. Tammy Duckworth are among those who now are playing at Trump’s level.
Kelly, the White House chief of staff, said, “There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the President sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” according to audio posted by The Washington Post. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” Kelly added.
Duckworth, an Army combat veteran who was disabled in the Iraq war, criticized the President on his favorite medium, Twitter.
“We don’t live in a dictatorship or a monarchy,” she began. Then she delivered some punishment: “I swore an oath – in the military and in the Senate – to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not to mindlessly cater to the whims of Cadet Bone Spurs and clap when he demands I clap.”
But Duckworth wouldn’t have gone to this level of insult had it not been for President Trump’s incendiary “treason” remarks Monday.
Unwilling or, perhaps, incapable of operating by the usual standards of adult behavior, Donald Trump openly shares what’s in his heart and mind, and often it’s a spray of juvenile insult, recklessness, and ignorance. The outbursts hit everyone and everything within range, bringing the potential for contamination and, thus, demanding a response.
When he was a mere businessman, Trump’s heedlessness hurt others individually and sometimes disturbed the peace in New York City. (Remember his ads attacking the men accused in the infamous Central Park jogger case, who were later found to be innocent?) As candidate and now President, Trump’s nastiness has a far bigger effect, and it puts every American, but most especially other leaders, in the terrible position of having to deal with his provocations.
In a speech Monday, Trump complained about Democrats who failed to applaud him at the State of the Union address. “They were like death and un-American. Un-American,” he whined. “Somebody said, ‘Treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not.”
Treason is, of course, a crime punishable by death, which might be just one of a hundred reasons why no previous President has thrown the word around like our current Commander-in-Chief did. It must be said that this is Donald Trump, perhaps the most ridiculous person ever elected to any federal office, and the world has come to expect him to spew nonsense. But still, he is the President, which means we must consider the impact not only of each individual utterance but, more importantly, the overall effect of his method.
Similar to the style of an autocrat whipping a mob into a frenzy, Trump’s style of leadership has deepened divides between Americans and brought politics into the gutter. As Slate.com reported, GOP candidates around the country have adopted Trump’s method for exploiting anger and resentment for political gain. This trend threatens the stability of our institutions and erodes our prospects for getting along.
After Trump’s treason remark, regular leaders were, for the umpteenth time, forced to consider their options. This is how a man who doesn’t care about the consequences gets attention and distracts the country from more serious matters, like, say, ongoing investigations into Russia’s election meddling and possible crimes committed by his campaign officials.
Were Trump an actual child, rather than a man who acts like one, adults would have to choose between refusing to reward his outbursts with attention, seizing the opportunity for a teachable moment, or punishing the bad behavior. Since Trump is President and the nation’s well-being is part of the context, ignoring him isn’t always the best option. In these cases most responders seem to mix teaching and punishing in the hope of protecting the public interest.
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Unlike most of Trump’s insults, which involve generic name calling – calling people “little” or “fat” or “losers” – Duckworth’s “Cadet Bone Spurs” could have referred to no one else. Trump’s claim (made in an interview I conducted) that his time in a military high school was equivalent to actual military service cemented the image of him as a cadet playing soldier in many minds. And Duckworth’s “bone spurs” refer to the ailment that allowed Trump to avoid military service during the Vietnam War. (By the way, when Trump whipped off his shoes during the interview to show me the deformities on his feet, I saw nothing but normal-looking heels.)
More creative than Trump’s accusation of treason and delivered from her position as a respected and decorated war veteran, Duckworth’s reply to Trump was pitch-perfect because it was direct and precise. Yes, she hit back, but unlike Trump she acted not out of personal pettiness but out of concern for our democratic system and, with her tailor-made put-down, she showed she was not infected by Trump’s juvenile style. She didn’t reference his height or his weight, but rather, his deluded self-image.
As a compulsive provocateur, Trump will continue to say and do awful and dangerous things. In each instance the rest of us will have to choose from the menu of responses available to adults seeking to maintain order when confronted with a childish outburst. Those who lack the proper status and message would do well to make room for those, like Duckworth, who both possess them and know how to use them.