It’s a new kind of presidency. Get used to it. Donald Trump says outrageous things. He tweets outrageous things. He enjoys it, or he thinks that it’s part of his job, the reason he was elected – to shake things up. He may or may not believe the false statistics he comes up with – three to five million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton – but it hardly matters. The point is to shake things up, and as he likes to say, he heard that somewhere. Maybe it is true. Assume it’s true – or don’t – he doesn’t care. It riles up his base and puts the politically correct and bleeding-heart liberals, and anyone who didn’t vote for him, on the defensive. They get all upset. He likes that. They sputter. They tie themselves up in knots. He laughs at them. They lose.
This is a change. For eight years it was No-Drama Obama. Trump is the King of Chaos. It has served him well. Just enough voters in just the right places wanted to kick over the table. Measured thoughtfulness hadn’t improved their lives in the slightest, even if it had – the economy if now fine, for all but those in dying industries that will never come back, and even those who wanted to kick over the table can now buy no-tricks health insurance at a reasonable price, after subsidies to those living on the edge.
Don’t tell them that. They don’t believe it. They’ll go with the tweets, but the latest was problematic:
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
He was at it again. The media treats him unfairly. Their news of him is fake news – but this was different. The news media itself is now the enemy of the people. Perhaps this was just hyperbole. No one thinks he will issue an executive order designating these five news organizations “terrorist organizations” and shut them down – but no one knows if he won’t do that. He doesn’t explain his tweets. He just puts stuff out there, stuff that makes many uneasy. They should be uneasy. He was elected to make them uneasy. That may get him reelected too.
That’s the plan. Give the people what they want. Be outrageous, but even for a “friendly” news organization not on the list, Fox News, this was a bit much:
Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday pressed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to explain President Donald Trump’s comment that the press is “the enemy of the American People.”
“He said that the fake media, not certain stories, the fake media are an enemy to the country. We don’t have a state-run media in this country. That’s what they have in dictatorships,” Wallace told Priebus on “Fox News Sunday.”
Priebus responded by calling “unsourced” stories about turmoil inside Trump’s administration “total garbage.”
That argument didn’t go well:
Priebus argued that the media has not covered Trump’s actions during his first month in office as closely as it has covered his notable failures.
“We covered all of that,” Wallace interjected. “Here’s the problem. When the President says that we’re the enemy of the American people, it makes it sound like if you’re going against him, you’re going against the country.”
He compared Trump’s response to critical media coverage to President Barack Obama’s response.
“You don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince! You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did,” Wallace said. “I’ve got to say he never said that we were an enemy of the people.”
“You don’t get to tell us what to do?” Add a sixth news organization to the list of enemies of the people, but there was this:
Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis said Sunday that he does not “have any issues with the press” in a break with President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the media.
“I’ve had some rather contentious times with the press,” Mattis told reporters in Abu Dhabi. “But no, the press as far as I’m concerned is a constituency that we deal with, and I don’t have any issues with the press myself.”
It seems that “Mad Dog” Mattis isn’t mad at anyone, or he didn’t get the memo, or he’ll be fired, or quit – or Trump was just saying things and everyone should just relax. Mattis knows better. Trump didn’t mean it – or he did. No one knows, but one old fuddy-duddy took Trump at his word:
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defended the free press in an interview aired Sunday and warned that suppressing critical coverage is “how dictators get started.”
“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” McCain said in an interview on NBC News’ Meet the Press.
He said that a free press is “vital” to that.
“Without it I’m afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started,” McCain said.
“That’s how dictators get started? With tweets like that?” Chuck Todd asked McCain, referring to a tweet posted by President Donald Trump on Friday…
“No, they get started by suppressing a free press,” McCain said Sunday. “The first thing that dictators do is they shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator, I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”
McCain had to be ambiguous. Republicans wanted a Republican president, and got one. Trump will have to do. When Trump reads a bit more and learns a bit more he’ll be fine, but that’s not going to happen, as David Remnick notes here:
For months, cool, responsible heads have been counselling hot, impulsive heads to avoid overreacting to Trump. We must give him a chance. We must not in all our alarm compare him to all the tin-pot dictators and bloody authoritarians who have disgraced history. The Oval Office – its realities and traditions – will temper his rages. His aides, his son-in-law, and his daughter will “soften” his impulsivity. Besides, he doesn’t really mean all he says. Even as Trump was signing one chilling executive order after another – all with the cool counsel of Steve Bannon, late of Breitbart – we were assured that everything was fine. He was simply fulfilling the agenda of his campaign. Calm down. Don’t react to every tweet. Don’t take the bait.
Then came his press conference, last week, his first solo press conference in office, and it was epochal. Ostensibly an occasion to announce a replacement appointment to the Department of Labor after the first had to step aside, Trump instead took it upon himself to denounce repeatedly and at length the sinful, dishonest press and the “very fake news” it produces. It was unforgettable. With all his nastiness, his self-admiring interruptions and commands (“Sit down! Sit down!”) Trump resembled an over-sauced guy at a bar who was facing three likely options in the near term: a) take a swing at someone, b) get clocked by someone else, or c) pass out and wake up on a hard, alien cot.
But the venue was not a bar. It was the White House, and this was hardly a joke. What Trump resembled at the lectern was an old-fashioned autocrat wielding a very familiar rhetorical strategy.
There are, after all, precedents for this:
Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, makes the point that autocrats from Chávez to Erdoğan, Sisi to Mugabe, all follow a general pattern. They attack and threaten the press with deliberate and ominous intensity; the press, in turn, adopts a more oppositional tone and role. “And then that paves the way for the autocrat’s next move,” Simon told me. “Popular support for the media dwindles and the leader starts instituting restrictions. It’s an old strategy.”
Simon pointed to Trump’s lack of originality, recalling that both Néstor Kirchner, of Argentina, and Tabaré Ramón Vázquez, of Uruguay, referred to the press as the “unelected political opposition.” And, as Simon has written, it was the late Hugo Chávez who first mastered Twitter as a way of bypassing the media and providing his supporters with alternative facts.
This is what Trump many not know, which is even worse:
Trump, as indulgent parents say of an indolent child, is “not a big reader.” He may not hear every historical echo in his “enemy of the American people” tweet. What he does know, however, is that the American trust in “the media” – that generalized term that stretches from the Times to NewsMax – is miserably low. He is determined to exploit that to the hilt, if only to distract his base from the disappointments that are sure to come. On Saturday evening, he held a rally in Melbourne, Florida, and doubled down on the familiar theme: putting himself in the same league as Lincoln and Jefferson, he told the crowd, “Many of our greatest Presidents fought with the media and called them out.” The agenda is always to divide. “They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not your agenda,” he said.
Trump of course got Jefferson backwards on the importance of a free and sometimes irritating press, and made sure it was protected in the Constitution, but only historians and school kids know that, so we are where we are:
The attacks on the legitimacy of the courts, on the intentions of the intelligence agencies, and on the patriotism of the press have become too evident, too repulsive to be discounted as mere sideshow. Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida and the co-host of “Morning Joe,” tweeted a telling call to the right on Friday: “Conservatives, feel free to speak up for the Constitution anytime the mood strikes. It is time.”
Yes, it is, but shutting down the free press, as the enemy of the people, is only one off-the-cuff idea that Trump has floated, and McCain was at it again:
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) delivered a scathing criticism of President Donald Trump’s worldview on Friday, though he never mentioned Trump by name.
“What would von Kleist’s generation say if they saw our world today?” McCain said at the start of a speech at the Munich Security Conference, referring to the international security policy conference’s founder.
The conference, founded in 1963, now hosts hundreds of diplomats and senior government officials annually. Other American attendees this year included Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Murphy (D-CT)
“I fear that much about it would be all too familiar for them, and they would be alarmed by it,” McCain continued.
“They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism. They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see towards immigrants and refugees and minority groups, especially Muslims. They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies. They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”
The last comment was a subtle jab at an interview Trump gave to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday. After O’Reilly called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer,” Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” (McCain indirectly referenced the comment later in the speech, when he said: “I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries.”)
“But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West,” McCain continued. “That they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without, and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it’s unclear whether we have the will.”
That was curious. Yes, Trump is big on the ties of blood and race and sectarianism – those, and introducing what he sees as necessary chaos, have served him well – and he’s the President of the United States, not John McCain. Neither are Pence or Mattis, which seems to be confusing our allies:
Diplomats and leaders across Europe had one crucial – if unstated – question for Vice President Pence when he visited Munich and Brussels this weekend: Is he the shadow president or a mere shadow of the president?
And if the mission of Pence’s trip abroad was clear – to reassure worried allies this weekend that, yes, despite what his boss may say, the United States remains committed to the security of Europe and to the historic transatlantic partnership – Pence’s role was anything but.
Although the vice president repeatedly stressed that he was speaking on behalf of President Trump, the two men indeed seemed as though they were separated by an ocean.
Pence offered bland mollifications, forced to calm and cajole European countries that, in the post-Cold War order, until recently never had cause to question the support of the United States. But at a campaign rally Saturday evening in Florida, Trump did the opposite, again criticizing NATO – hours after Pence had extolled its virtues in Munich – and offending yet another ally when he implied that there was a recent terrorist attack in Sweden, one that seemed to exist only in the president’s imagination.
The less said about that Sweden thing the better. Trump had just seen something about something or other on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News and ran with it. He heard it somewhere, but that sort of thing won’t do, as no one knows what to believe anymore:
The day after Trump, in a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended decades of U.S. foreign policy by saying that he was open to a one-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process, Nikki Haley, his U.N. envoy, said the administration was, in fact, “absolutely” committed to a two-state solution. And at a NATO meeting in Brussels last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to contradict Trump’s claims that Russia had not tried meddle in the U.S. elections, and also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO.
On Saturday, Pence largely echoed Mattis’ message of support for NATO. And on Monday, in Brussels, he will meet with senior EU leaders before returning to Washington.
Our allies try to make the best of this:
In many ways, like the voters in the United States who took Trump seriously but not literally, some allies are now taking Pence hopefully – because he might be, they say, their best hope at maintaining the existing world order.
“I put my trust in them, so I am definitely reassured,” said Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who met Pence on Saturday with other Baltic leaders.
“He was very understanding, very friendly, and told us that if we ever have any problems we should call,” she said. “He said if you don’t want to call the president, you can always call me.”
Okay, call Mike, not Donald. Mike will set you straight. Donald is a bit… well, you know. He just says things. He’s like that. There’s a workaround.
It seems that the vice president just told our allies to ignore our loopy president, but that won’t do:
Pence and Mattis were “very cautious because they don’t know whether half of what they say could be contradicted by their boss on Twitter,” said Jan Techau, the director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.
One European diplomat said they worried that there was no way to bridge the gap.
“There remains by necessity skepticism about the nature of the president Pence serves,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss candidly his conversations at the conference. “No one can dispel that, no matter what he said.”
And there’s this:
In a tweet Saturday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was even more blunt, posting, “Looks like we have two governments.” He wrote that Pence had just delivered a speech about shared values between the United States and Europe while the president “openly wages war on those values.”
Perhaps we do, and Josh Marshall explores the implications of all this:
The really significant comments and warnings came from Germany and France. The countries’ defense and foreign ministers respectively warned the US about trying to sow divisions in Europe or even break up the European Union. As the storied and long-serving retired US diplomat Nicholas Burns put it in a tweet, America’s erstwhile European allies are now worried about America as a threat to the international order.
That may be the real problem here:
While it has received relatively little attention in the US press, the White House has been pursuing an open policy of destabilizing the European Union and using the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU to pry the EU apart with a series of bilateral trade agreements with the US. Whether this is feasible is another question; this is the intent. Why the White House – specifically President Trump and Steve Bannon – would want to do this is an important question. The fact that this aim lines up perfectly with Russian foreign policy goals speaks for itself. But it can equally plausibly be explained by the desire to destroy internationalist, liberal and largely cosmopolitan institutions to pave the way for a new global order based on competing blood and soil nationalisms. The US government is now in the hands of a faction or party the rise of which much of our statecraft has spent almost seventy years trying to prevent from coming to power in the states of Europe.
What is most striking about these warnings from the Europeans, however, is not simply the historical inversion. It is the fact that the Europeans are warning us, sounding the alarm about US attempts to destabilize and destroy the world order – particularly the North Atlantic order – that the US in fact created and which it has been the guarantor of for almost seventy years. The US is not only its creator but it is based on US concepts of government and norms and of course has the US at its center. If the record in what was once called the Third World is more mixed, the US has much to be proud of for the era of relative peace and historic prosperity since the 1940s in Europe and industrialized democracies of Asia. But it also goes without saying that the American-built and American-led world order has driven immense benefits which the US continues to enjoy.
The historic oddity of this situation points to a common dynamic Americans now face at home and abroad.
Our partners in the international order we created – some of whom we conquered to make it possible – are now seeking to defend it from us. Let’s say that again, defend it from us.
Somehow we became the enemy:
We cannot ignore the fact that the American experiment is now in a kind of exile – taken refuge elsewhere – and the executive power of the American state now under a kind of, hopefully temporary, occupation.
And that leads to an obvious question:
What do you do as an institutionalist when the central institutions of the state have been taken over, albeit democratically, by what amount to pirates, people who want to destroy them?
What do you do when the king is the King of Chaos? You turn to history:
This is not the first time this question or this dynamic has been faced. For scholars who study the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, one of the central questions has always been the role of the Social Democrats. The Nazis came to power democratically and the proceeded to dismantle the state using its own power. The Social Democrats were the only political force in the country with a sufficient mass base, contrary ideology and organization to resist. And yet the extremely simplified version of the story is that they did not. The reason is that (again, this is a very simplified version of the story) they were too bought into republican government and constitutionalism to take the actions which would have been necessary in that moment of paradoxical and existential crisis.
We are all warned, rightly, to avoid comparisons to the Nazi Germany whenever possible. But in this case I do so first to note the comparable dynamic – how does one vindicate and defend liberal values and constitutionalism when the people holding the levers of state power are trying to destroy them but even more to point to the ways in which this historical analogy is not at all comparable.
We usually hear the story of the rise of Nazism as a cautionary tale of the way fascism can rise from within a democracy to destroy it. This is a highly misleading description of events. Weimar Germany was in essence a failed state which was born to a relatively brief but intense and brutal period of civil war and political violence, went immediately into a catastrophic, multi-year economic crisis and then briefly stabilized for no more than half a dozen years before lurching again into crisis with the onset of the Great Depression. Imperial Germany had a thin parliamentary tradition but its political culture was deeply illiberal and authoritarian. The democracy Hitler destroyed was at best embryonic and broken. One can easily argue that it scarcely existed.
I say all this because while the danger of the current moment is severe, American is nothing like Germany of the 1920s or 1930s. American democracy is in more danger now than at any time since at least the 1930s and arguably more than at any time in its history. But we have centuries of unbroken history of regular elections, vibrant democratic institutions and most importantly a deeply embedded, though not infrequently challenged democratic political culture. I say this not in favor of complacency but to bolster confidence, which I think is sorely needed.
So there is hope, but only hope:
How do we act within democratic norms to protect our institutions from the piratical individuals who have taken hold of them? McCain gave some hint of this when he pledged that the legislative and judicial branches of the American would be upholding constitutionalism while the executive was in this period of what I would term occupation. This is something of an empty boast as long as the legislative branch, which McCain’s party controls, has done little to nothing to rein in Trump’s rule. It also shows the nature of the challenge since the executive is the branch with executive power, the power to act, especially abroad. Because of that we face a comparable question in how we defend the America-led international order during this period of occupation or this interregnum when the American presidency is under the control of men who openly seek to destroy it.
Yes, the American presidency is under the control of men who openly seek to destroy America-led international order, and who also openly seek to destroy the free press here at home – unless Trump is just kidding – but no one knows that. He doesn’t explain things. He just smiles. The King of Chaos does that, he just smiles, and this may not be a period of occupation or an interregnum. He did win the election. Those who want chaos, no matter what is destroyed, aren’t going anywhere. Now no one else will.