In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.
This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.
One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.
As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.
Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.
There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)
Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.
But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.
Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.
As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?
Fallows is on a plane once again, this time back from China, so he asked me to help compile and edit all the most insightful and varied emails among the tsunami sent to him directly and sent to our hello@ inbox. This first reader dissents over Jim’s mega-popular note, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media” (follow-up note here):
Public trust in institutions is very low (all-time low?), and trust in the media is particularly low. Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.
Instead, what if instead of making this “illegal votes” episode a story about a “tweet” or a “lie” or even a liar, the media made it a story about a serious and dangerous claim by our president-elect? What if you actually doubled-down on the “normalizing” and gave Trump every opportunity to back up his claims with evidence? What if you refused to move on from this very serious issue and instead demanded that he explain seriously and at length why he believes that three million illegal votes were cast, and why they were cast only for Clinton?
What if you refused to move on from this one tweet for several weeks? What if the media did that for every dangerous claim made by this (elected) administration, baseless or otherwise? Don’t accuse him of lying. Instead, force him to use his platform to either back it up or back down. Don’t try to shoot him; give him a rope to hang himself with.
This next reader favors the opposite approach—ignore Trump’s antics and conspiracy theories whenever possible:
One major problem not being addressed is why any news media needs to put something like Trump’s tweet reaction to the recount on the front-page or at the head of their news feed? If the claim has no evidence, then what’s news here? What is there to report? I can read the damn tweet on my own; what do I need you or the NY Times to add to it? If Trump’s claim has “no evidence,” then go ask the guy if he has evidence—and then come back to me, the reader, and report some news on that.
Another reader favors the “go ask the guy” approach but dialed way up to 11:
While reading the Ned Resnikoff quote (and essay) that Fallows linked to, here’s a scenario that played out in my mind. In an interview or press conference, an exasperated reporter says something like, “Why should the American people believe anything you have to say, given the kind of outrageous lies you’ve told over and over again? Ted Cruz’s dad was involved with the JFK assassination? Obama is the founder of ISIS? These are baseless and absurd claims. Why should any foreign leader take you seriously? Why should we in the press take your words seriously? Your outrageous lies are very similar to the type employed by autocratic rulers, who try to cause confusion, infecting people with the feeling that the truth cannot be known. We in the press reject that notion, and we see your lying as an assault on facts and reality, and we’re not going to put up with it!” I’m not a good dramatist, but you get the idea.
My hope is that the moment could be something that would reverberate through the press corps and maybe through the entire body politic. It would be an emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Perhaps, this is wishful thinking, but I feel the press and the larger American public need this type of jolt.
That reader continues:
The current overall approach from the media seems to gloss over Trump’s BS approach, moving on to things like his policy positions. But who cares about his policy positions if you can’t really believe what he says? If he really is lying to cause confusion, rather than communicate, then his words about policy or almost anything else don’t matter. This is a do-not-pass-go situation. At this point, Trump has to prove his good faith—that he actually wants to use words to communicate ideas, not to attack the notion that we can know reality in a shared and meaningful way. If he doesn’t, some kind of consequence has to occur— maybe really hostile coverage. I’m not sure what the answer is, but to proceed with covering him as if he were a normal president would be a dangerous charade, normalizing his BS.
By the way, I also think that the press should aggressively confront the Trump transition team and Congressional supporters about Trump’s conspiracy theories and outrageous lying. What do Pence, Ryan, McConnell, et al., think about his conspiracy theories and outrageous lies? Do they believe that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can actually agree upon facts and reality? Do they believe that this is important to our democracy? Do they not think that Trump’s lies are undermining these important beliefs? If they continue to support his lying, there should some consequence for them as well.
I feel like a line has to be drawn—a line dividing those who support a reality-based community versus those who are hostile to it. The Fourth Estate should be an ardent defender of reality-based communication and decision-making. It is essential to what they do, and without it, they and our democracy die.
Along those lines, a retired Foreign Service officer is “deeply concerned about the international implications of Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud”:
Embassy staff in China or Russia are bound to be told, “It doesn’t look like your governmental system is doing so well, does it? See, your future President is saying that your elections are rotten with fraud.” What could our people then say? For the sake of truth and the honor of the country, they can’t agree; but to disagree is to call their future boss a flagrant public liar. That he is in fact such a liar is, in that situation, beside the point. Our ability to advocate for our country is being recklessly endangered simply to satisfy Trump’s vanity.
Speaking of that vanity, here’s reader Nate: