A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
This weekend had me thinking about how our political language has changed in the Trump age.
Fifteen years ago never talked about “never-Bushies.” Ten years ago, five years ago, we rarely heard the term “pro-Obama.” But these days, stories and segments and arguments and elections are all aligned on a pro-Trump, anti-Trump axis. And “Never Trump” has become an insult and an identity and a badge of honor like we’ve never quite seen before. Think about it: “Never Nixon” wasn’t a thing. “Never Clinton” wasn’t a thing. But “Never Trump” is an organizing principle for both the president and his opponents.
Case in point: On Sunday Trump lashed out at Jennifer Williams, a State Department employee and an aide to VP Mike Pence, after the release of her testimony revealed that Trump’s push for Biden probes struck her as “unusual and inappropriate.” Polling indicates that most Americans agree with Williams. A majority of Americans share her concerns. But her testimony under oath made her, in the mind of the president, a “Never Trumper.”
Let’s pause and recognize how unusual this is. Presidents always have proponents and detractors, but it’s so much more explicit and extreme now. It’s affected the way we talk. If there are “Never Trumpers,” that must mean there are “Always Trumpers,” right? In other words, two tribes with totally closed minds.
Real life is much more complicated… much more nuanced… but the president likes these black and white, with-me or against-me titles. His media allies are on board too.
“Never Trump” was a movement, of course, so it wasn’t the president’s creation. But there’s something really insidious about the suggestion that a person’s testimony is tainted or irrelevant simply because they’ve been labeled “Never Trump.” As CNN media analyst Bill Carter wrote on Twitter, “The concept here, initiated by Trump + backed by all the Trumpkins, is that it’s not possible for anyone to report any objective truth. If they do not support Trump, no matter their job or background or previous reputation for honesty, they are an enemy and ipso facto lying.”
Here’s the good news: The public will be able to hear from Williams directly when she testifies in front of cameras on Tuesday morning…
What the “Never Trumpers” say
So just how unprecedented is this constant invocation of “pro-Trump” and “anti-Trump” and “Never Trump” identities? I asked a couple of self-proclaimed “Never Trumpers.”
“‘Anti’ was always around,” Bill Kristol pointed out to me, citing “anti-Communist.” But “anti-Trump” is unique in that “it’s focused on a person not a thing,” he added. And “Never seems distinctive” to this time and place.
So why now? What is this about?
Jonah Goldberg said his theory is this: “Trump’s erratic behavior makes the personality cult stuff the only safe harbor for Republicans. Infallibility (Trump is always right!) is the only intellectually consistent argument to defend Trump on precisely because there’s no ideological or simply logical consistency to the guy.” Conservative and liberal have been hijacked by pro-Trump and anti-Trump…
About Trump’s surprise trip to the hospital…
There are serious questions about why Trump abruptly went to Walter Reed military hospital on Saturday; why the visit wasn’t planned in advance; and whether the White House is telling the whole truth about the trip.
W.H. press secretary Stephanie Grisham said it was a “routine checkup as part of his annual physical.” But Trump had a full physical exam last February. Saturday’s trip “did not follow the protocol of a routine presidential medical exam,” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported on Sunday, citing “a person familiar with the matter.”
This is when Trump needs to have credibility
Here’s what I said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources:” It is times like these when the president really needs to have credibility. But the Trump W.H. gives us new reasons to distrust it almost every day. So skepticism is not just understandable — it is necessary. At this point, it’s downright irresponsible to just take Trump at his word.
→ Bottom line: Hopefully all is well with the president. Hopefully the W.H. is telling the whole truth about his doctor’s visit. But we can’t cover these stories like this is business as usual. This is not business as usual…