“When someone hits you, you hit them back ten times harder.” That’s the man’s motto. That way no one messes with you ever again. He said that should be America’s motto in the world. That’s the way America should deal with the world – and as crude as that seems, and is, just enough voters in just the right places said “Hell, yeah!”
He said that the rest of the world was laughing at America. He said that the rest of America – the blacks and the gays and the urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and all “politicians” in general – was laughing at real Americans. He could fix that. He wasn’t a politician. He had no experience in government at all. He knew nothing about diplomacy or international relations or anything military – he certainly knows nothing at all about science – but he would hit back ten times harder. That was enough for just enough voters. He won the election.
So, should Donald Trump suspend all aid to Puerto Rico – all of it – until that uppity mayor down there – a minority woman of all things – says she was wrong, and stipulates, in writing, that this was and is the best hurricane response ever, and that Donald Trump is the best president that ever was and ever will be? Did she have a point, or was this just more disrespect spewed at a decent white man by a total loser?
That might seem like a stupid question, but Chris Cillizza offers the context for the question:
In an 11-hour period beginning at 7:19 a.m. and ending at 6:46 p.m. Saturday, the President of the United States ripped off 18 – yes, 18 – tweets dealing with the dire situation in Puerto Rico following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.
What’s more remarkable than Donald Trump – aka the commander in chief, aka the most powerful person in the country – tapping out 18 tweets on a single subject in less than 12 hours is the tone of those tweets: negative, defensive and dark.
Everyone knows the story by now:
It all began with Trump’s slashing attack on San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has become the face of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico – thanks in no small part to her interview Friday on CNN’s “New Day” in which she angrily denounced attempts by the Trump White House to present the situation in Puerto Rico as a “good news story.”
Trump, already worried about the perception that he and his administration have responded inadequately to the situation, responded to Yulin Cruz the only way he knows how: Viciously.
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump,” Trump began just after 7 a.m. ET. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” he added. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort – 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
Cillizza, like many, was appalled:
At a time of crisis for more than 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, their President decided to pick a fight with a local official due to her frustration with the recovery efforts. Rather than send a tweet urging patience (or maybe not tweeting at all), Trump decided the best course of action was to go after Yulin Cruz and “others in Puerto Rico” for their allegedly poor job in dealing with Hurricane Maria.
The words Trump used are telling. “They want everything to be done for them,” he tweeted. “They?” You mean the millions of American citizens in Puerto Rico? And the not-so-subtle suggestion of laziness in Trump’s tweets is just more of the same racially coded language that the President has trafficked in since the day he announced his campaign.
But there was more:
Trump spent the next eight hours tweeting out a series of attacks against the so-called “fake news” media for allegedly misrepresenting the actions of his administration in Puerto Rico.
“Fake News CNN and NBC are going out of their way to disparage our great First Responders as a way to ‘get Trump,'” he tweeted in one. “Not fair to FR or effort!”
“The Fake News Networks are working overtime in Puerto Rico doing their best to take the spirit away from our soldiers and first R’s. Shame!” went another.
Trump provided no evidence for his claims, or, really, explained what he meant by them.
But everyone knew what he meant by them:
“They” are lazy and want everything done for them. “They” are being nasty because Democrats told them to. “They” aren’t rooting for our first responders. “They” are trying to convince people that our soldiers aren’t doing a good job.
That caught on. Who the hell do these people think they are? Facebook was filled comments from the “hell yeah” crowd saying just that, often with links to “news” stories about how awful that Yulin Cruz woman really is, news items probably generated at Russian bot-farms and distributed by Breitbart and InfoWars and Drudge. The Russians do like to mess with us, but Cillizza might agree that was just icing on the cake:
The 2016 election was an 18-month master class in how to divide the country for your own political gain. Trump’s handling of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his deliberate decision to pick a fight with (mostly black) NFL players over the national anthem illustrate that same perpetual need to divide.
That default divisiveness makes Trump different than every person who has held the office before him. For the 43 previous presidents, their ultimate goal was to find ways to remind people in the country of our common humanity, to take the high road, to appeal to our better angels. Many of them missed that mark – often badly – but it was always their North Star.
It is not for Trump. Not close. For Trump, the lone goal is winning at all costs. If that means attacking the mayor of San Juan even as Puerto Rico faces a historic recovery challenge, so be it. If it means blaming Puerto Rico’s debt and infrastructure issues even as people are desperately searching for their loved ones, well, that’s just how it goes. If it means trying to build the media up as a scapegoat, to cover up a slower-than-ideal response to Maria’s aftermath, consider it done.
It’s a matter of hitting back harder, but Cillizza does note that Trump was coming off a really bad week:
Saturday 9/23: Trump disinvites Steph Curry and his Golden State Warrior teammates from the White House after Curry expresses some hesitation about meeting with the President. He also stokes a controversy he started the night before in Alabama – lashing out at NFL players who protested social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem with statements that, at the very least, could be considered racially insensitive Trump also tweets a taunt at Kim Jong Un, referring to the North Korean dictator as “Little Rocket Man” and promising “they won’t be around much longer!”
Sunday 9/24: The entire day is dominated by images of NFL players protesting Trump’s harsh words about them over the past 48 hours. A series of NFL owners – including longtime Trump friend Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots – releases statements that are directly critical of Trump and what they term his divisive comments. The day ends with the NFL running a TV ad calling for unity during its Sunday night primetime broadcast – a clear rebuke of Trump’s comments.
Monday 9/25: Trump issues a barrage of early morning tweets continuing his war of words with the NFL and its players. North Korea’s foreign minister suggests that Trump’s “they won’t be around much longer” tweet amounts to a declaration of war. The Trump administration acknowledges that it has no evidence that Iran test-fired a missile over the weekend – even though Trump tweeted that it had happened on Saturday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) announces she will vote “no” on the last-ditch Republican attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, a vote that effectively kills the legislation.
Tuesday 9/26: Trump, again, starts his day early with tweets blasting the NFL players. “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger,” he tweeted. Trump, in a joint press conference with the Spanish prime minister, warns North Korea of “devastating” consequences if they continue their missile testing. Criticism begins to surface that Trump and his administration are not fully focused on the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Senate Republican leaders acknowledge defeat on the health care repeal-and-replace effort, announcing no vote will be held on the Graham-Cassidy legislation. Trump’s endorsed candidate in the Alabama Senate race – appointed Sen. Luther Strange – loses badly to former state Chief Justice Roy Moore, a candidate backed by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. A trio of Trump tweets supportive of Strange are deleted from his official account in the wake of the results.
Wednesday 9/27: Trump begins his hump day by insisting via Twitter that the health care repeal-and-replace effort is on track. “With one Yes vote in hospital and very positive signs from Alaska and two others (McCain is out), we have the H-Care Vote, but not for Friday!” Senate leaders disagree, noting that the votes still aren’t there. The allegedly-hospitalized Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) tweets that he is not in the hospital and could return to Washington to vote if need be. Before leaving for Indianapolis to roll out his tax reform proposal, Trump tells reporters he is “not happy about” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s rampant use of private planes. The depth and breadth of the devastation and desperation in Puerto Rico becomes a huge national news story, as does the Trump administration’s slower-than-expected response to the situation on the ground.
Thursday 9/28: In an interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump suggests that the NFL owners are “afraid” of their players – stoking another round of “is he playing on racial animus or not?” Trump reverses course on the Jones Act, a measure that limits shipping between US ports to America vessels – and is blamed for the lack of adequate food and water reaching Puerto Rico. He uses Twitter to play defense on the rising chorus of criticism over his handling of Puerto Rico… CNN breaks the news that trump son-in-law Jared Kushner didn’t disclose the fact that he used a personal email account to conduct official White House business during his testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Elaine Duke, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, tells reporters in Washington of Puerto Rico: “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”
Friday 9/29: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz expresses her outrage over Duke’s comments; “This is a ‘people are dying’ story,” she says. Trump goes into full crisis mode on Puerto Rico, arguing that his administration is doing everything it can to improve the situation. “Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló just stated: ‘The Administration and the President, every time we’ve spoken, they’ve delivered,'” Trump tweets. He speaks to reporters in the mid-afternoon – announcing that he will make a decision on Price by Friday night. Less than an hour later, Price is fired resigns.
Saturday 9/30: Trump, at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club for the weekend, was up early – and on Twitter.
Cillizza adds this:
When faced with twenty possible storylines every day, the media can only realistically cover five or six well. Trump’s goal is to make it the five or six that work in his favor. This past seven days is a perfect example of that purposeful flooding of the news zone by Trump. Most people would (rightly) have a sense that it wasn’t a great week for him. But, few would grasp how bad it actually was.
Chris Cillizza is a “seasoned” political reporter – he’s been at this since 2001 – and he has trouble keeping this all straight. Who is this guy? Trump hits back harder. What are the politics of that? Donald Trump is all snarls and insults without thinking about the consequences of those snarls and insults. He’s proud of those snarls and insults. Those made him president. Is that all there is to all of this? That leaves journalists with nothing else to say. That’s a dead end.
Journalists don’t like dead ends. Journalists are supposed to report on what’s really going on. The public needs to know what’s really going on – the actions of any president can change everything in their lives, or end all life on the planet in a flash – but in this case that’s difficult. Journalists find themselves guessing what’s up with this guy. That’s all that’s left.
Journalists find themselves guessing anyway, and Nate Silver considers the two major theories about what motivates Donald Trump’s conduct:
The first theory is that it was a deliberate political tactic – or as a New York Times headline put it, “a calculated attempt to shore up his base.” We often hear theories like this after Trump does or says something controversial or outrageous. His response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August was sometimes explained in this way, for example. “Mr. Trump has always appreciated the emotional pull of questioning bias and fairness, especially with his white working-class base,” the Times wrote, portraying Charlottesville as an issue that drove a wedge between the Trumpian and the Republican establishment.
It’s also often claimed that Trump leans into controversies such as the NFL protests as a way to distract the media from other, more serious issues, such as the repeated Republican failures to repeal Obamacare, or the various investigations into Trump’s dealings with Russia. These claims also assume that Trump’s actions are calculated and deliberate – that he’s a clever media manipulator, always staying one step ahead of editors in Washington and New York.
Don’t like that theory? The guy’s not that smart or focused? Fine, so try this one:
The second theory is that the response was impulsive and primarily emotional. Trump initially began criticizing the NFL and NFL players at a rally last Friday in Huntsville, Alabama, including referring (although not by name) to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a “son of a bitch” for protesting during the national anthem. Perhaps encouraged by the raucous response he received from the crowd, Trump went on a tweetstorm about the NFL, its owners and its players that lasted intermittently over the next several days. Somewhere along the way, he also disinvited former NBA MVP Stephen Curry from attending the White House ceremony scheduled to honor the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. (Curry had already said that he didn’t like what Trump stood for and didn’t plan to attend.)
Not all of this – particularly not roping the popular Curry into the controversy – necessarily seemed all that “calculated” to me. Instead, it seemed to fit a different behavioral pattern: Trump is piqued by criticism and rarely backs down, especially when he’s challenged by women or minorities – such as Curry, the predominantly black NFL player pool, ESPN’s Jemele Hill, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Judge Gonzalo B. Curiel, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, to take some of many examples.
Okay, the guy can’t help himself, and then there’s the combination-of-the-two theory:
Couldn’t these responses reflect fits of emotional pique on Trump’s behalf – and yet also have the effect of pleasing his base, or distracting the media from health care and Russia?
Sure, they could. Trump’s base support isn’t quite as immovable as some pundits seem to assume – but public opinion on many issues such as Charlottesville quickly polarizes itself along partisan lines. And Trump’s tweets and insults often have the effect of upending the news cycle; covering Trump is in some sense covering one distraction after another.
That’s what Chris Cillizza was saying but the contradictions remain:
The first theory says that Trump is calculating and rational; the second says that he’s impulsive and emotional. The first theory implies that Trump may be employing “racially charged” rhetoric and actions for political gain. The second implies that Trump himself may harbor degrees of racial resentment, and resentment toward women, and that it colors his response to news events. Either way, Trump’s actions could be politically effective or ineffective. (Trump’s approval rating declined slightly this week after his NFL comments, although it’s hard to know if they’re the reason why.) However, it seems important to know what motivates them. If Trump’s actions are driven by emotional outbursts more than calculated trollishness, that might predict a different response to how he deals with escalating tensions with North Korea, for example.
That is a concern, but no one will ever know:
After Trump’s NFL remarks, you really could have argued either theory. In addition to the racial dynamics at play, Trump has some personal grievances with the NFL, including his failure to purchase an NFL franchise. But the protests from Kaepernick and others have been unpopular, and the response to them has been highly partisan. One can imagine Trump thinking it was effective politics to bring them up as a wedge issue, especially at a political rally in Alabama.
It’s much harder to describe some of Trump’s other outbursts – like those against the Khan family or Judge Curiel, for example – as representing a calculated political strategy. The same goes for Trump’s tweetstorm on Saturday morning about San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had criticized the White House’s response to Hurricane Maria.
That did seem irrational:
No matter how cynical one is, it’s hard to see what possible political benefit Trump could get from criticizing Cruz, whose city was devastated by Maria and remains largely without power and otherwise in crisis. Nor is the government’s response to Maria necessarily something that Trump wants to draw a lot of attention to. I’ve seen debates back and forth in the media over the past week about whether Trump’s response to Maria is analogous to the one former President George W. Bush had to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Trump’s dismissiveness toward Cruz almost certainly won’t help his side of the argument; instead, it will amplify growing criticism about how the government handled Puerto Rico and why Trump seemed to be more interested in the NFL protests than in his administration’s hurricane recovery plan.
I’m happy to acknowledge that Trump’s responses to the news are sometimes thought-out and deliberate. His criticisms of the media often seem to fall into this category, for example, since they’re sure to get widespread coverage and Republican voters have overwhelmingly lost faith in the media.
But at many other times, journalists come up with overly convoluted explanations for Trump’s behavior (“this seemingly self-destructive emotional outburst is actually a clever political strategy!”) when simpler ones will suffice (“this is a self-destructive emotional outburst.”). In doing so, they violate both Ockham’s razor and Hanlon’s razor – the latter of which can be stated as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Nate Silver recommends that approach to guys like Chris Cillizza:
One can understand why journalists who rely on having close access to Trump avoid explanations that portray Trump as being irrational, incompetent or bigoted. But sometimes they’re the only explanations that make sense.
When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder? Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. There’s no need to rationalize this guy’s behavior.
There’s also no way to rationalize what Peter Baker reports here:
President Trump undercut his own secretary of state on Sunday, calling his effort to open lines of communication with North Korea a waste of time, and seeming to rule out a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear-edged confrontation with Pyongyang.
A day after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said he was reaching out to Pyongyang in hopes of starting a new dialogue Mr. Trump belittled the idea and left the impression that he was focused mainly on military options. Mr. Trump was privately described by advisers as furious at Mr. Tillerson for contradicting the president’s public position that now is not the time for talks.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, using the derogatory nickname he has assigned to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. “Save your energy Rex,” he added, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
What has to be done? Donald Trump will hit back harder. No one knows what that means. Donald Trump may not know what that means – in addition to having no diplomatic experience whatsoever, he has no military experience whatsoever – but he will hit back harder.
It was time for more guessing:
While some analysts wondered if the president was intentionally playing bad cop to the secretary’s good cop, veteran diplomats said they could not remember a time when a president undermined his secretary of state so brazenly in the midst of a tense situation, and the episode raised fresh questions about how long Mr. Tillerson would remain in his job.
A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil with no prior government experience, Mr. Tillerson has been deeply frustrated and has told associates that he tries to ignore the president’s Twitter blasts. But these would be hard to disregard as Mr. Tillerson returned from China, where he was trying to enlist more support from North Korea’s primary trading partner and political patron.
Why the hell would they talk to him now? Normally, the secretary of state is the administration’s public voice on foreign policy, the single person to go to in order to understand what our foreign policy is, the person who is articulating it, the person to turn to for guidance or direction in trying to interpret it. Donald Trump just told the Chinese to ignore Rex Tillerson. They’ll be wasting their time if they speak with him now.
What’s really going on here? The public needs to know – the actions of any president can change everything in their lives, or end all life on the planet in a flash – but now no one knows. They only know that Donald Trump will hit back harder. That uppity mayor down in Puerto Rico should know that now. All those black NFL players should know that now. The North Koreans should know that now. Everybody should know that now. Hell, yeah!