Editor’s Note: Steven L. Isenberg, former publisher of New York Newsday and chief of staff to New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, is chairman of the board, emeritus, at Adelphi University and a senior adviser for the Committee to Protect the Journalists. He has written for The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Review of Books and Essays in Criticism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Some days, America gets a reassuring sign that President Trump has a sense of the responsibility and stature of the office he holds. When he spoke of “the love, the respect for the office of the presidency” he encountered in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, or when he called upon China to be “humane” in dealing with the Hong Kong protesters or when he said that while no one could surpass his support for the Second Amendment, he did not want guns in the “hands of a lunatic or a maniac,” he thereby acknowledged the place the presidency holds in confronting violence and the prospect of chaos.
And yet those moments are short-lived. It is never long before the President’s communications become prickly and personalized, combatively thin-skinned. Something deep and reflexive seems to overtake him. The presidency never fully inhabits him nor inhibits him.
We saw this in Texas after the El Paso shooting, where the community at large, bruised by past statements and the day’s horror, never felt words or gestures of presidential comfort and sympathy that were offered in the hospital. Shock, anxiety and anger naturally had taken hold, and perhaps because the White House wanted to avoid emotional displays of hurt, resentment and demands for action on gun control, Trump never spoke in public.
And once again, the ground of disagreement quickly became a launching pad for disparagement. What infuriates Trump is an accusation or a call for accountability, any comment that points toward his words or actions as a cause for what has gone wrong.
It feels hopeless to think that Trump will ever admit that anything he may have said or done has helped to fray the material of civility and ignite the chemistry of estrangement among young men, especially white young men. His claim that “my rhetoric brings people together,” which he absurdly mustered with a straight face, betrays his pathological aversion to taking responsibility for his own acts.
This behavior runs to all things. The shiver this week running through the stock market and bond prices, the specter of recession and the role that erratic moves on tariffs have played, are met by the President blaming it entirely on the Federal Reserve.
To read of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledging after the report of the Ethics Commission that he made mistakes in a case involving a Canadian company or to see the sign held up in the Hong Kong airport by protesters asking that their mistakes in causing inconvenience to travelers be forgiven are reminders of what we won’t hear from our President.
We saw this over and over again with regard to Russian interference in our elections. The President claims no part at all in encouraging it and moreover has taken no measures to meet his high responsibility for preventing fully documented Russian efforts to sabotage our basic instrument of democracy.
He cannot do so because in his mind there can’t be the slightest admission that he or his election team have done anything wrong or benefited from Russian actions in the 2016 election – or that in any way, his victory might have been tainted.
We have reached a point where the convolutions of President Trump’s mind, his adherence to Roy Cohn’s never-give-an-inch legal advice and the fact that everything is seen now through the prism of the 2020 reelection campaign combine to dampen any hope of enlarging the President’s sensibilities, which would take him outside of himself.
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He seeks justification in his opponents, whom he characterizes as promoting open borders, encouraging racial divisiveness and employing political opportunism. As with his efforts to vilify the media, Trump’s character and way of thinking continue to harden in their antagonism. And Trump delights in being small, in stooping to conquer, as seen by how he convinced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reject the application of two congresswomen to visit Israel.
Our nation is now bound in knots tied by the inseparable politics and psychology of its president, each force tightening the other and diminishing every day the dignity, integrity and persuasiveness of the holder of our highest office.