The surprisingly subdued President Trump
Has the president learned to be quiet — or did aides just take away his phone?
When a gunman killed 50 people in an Orlando nightclub last June, Donald Trump immediately sent out a message focusing the country's attention on what's important. "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism," he tweeted. "I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!" Throughout his campaign, he would portray the United States as under siege from a horde of foreign Muslims — and maybe domestic ones too — who needed to be kept out if Americans were to be safe.
Yet you might have noticed something about Trump's response to Monday's bombing of a concert in Manchester, England. It was almost subdued.
Trump did make a statement about the bombing, in which he said about terrorists, "I will call them, from now on, losers. They're losers. And we'll have more of them. But they're losers. Just remember that." It wasn't exactly a thundering call to vengeance. There were no promises of policy change, no criticisms of England for being weak, no angry tweets — indeed, judging from the anodyne offerings on his Twitter account since he embarked on his foreign trip, Trump's staffers have confiscated his phone.
Another strange thing happened on this trip. After the Orlando shooting, Trump said on his Facebook page, "In his remarks today, President Obama disgracefully refused to even say the words 'radical Islam.' For that reason alone, he should step down. If Hillary Clinton, after this attack, still cannot say the two words 'radical Islam' she should get out of this race for the presidency." He echoed this idea repeatedly (as did many other Republicans), that the words "radical Islamic terror" are a magical incantation that, once spoken, will all but banish terrorism from the Earth.
Yet when he gave a speech on Islam to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, not only didn't he utter the magic words, he was positively complimentary toward a religion for which he used to have nothing but contempt. He even called Islam "one of the world's great faiths." Maybe the gold medal the Saudis gave him warmed his heart.
Is this a kinder, gentler Trump?
That doesn't seem likely. This is still the man who called up Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte — who has engaged in a campaign of murder and terror against drug dealers and users in his country, killing thousands with no pretense to due process — to tell him how impressed he was. "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump told Duterte. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."
Trump's admiration for thuggish autocrats and his more general bloodlust are surely undiminished. But one thing has changed: He's the president now.
Trump may realize that things are more complicated than they used to appear from his limited view. As a candidate he said about ISIS, "I would bomb the s--t out of 'em," which got a cheer from the crowd, but isn't exactly a plan of action. Speaking of which, he also claimed to have "a foolproof way of winning the war with ISIS," which he couldn't reveal lest they figure out what he was up to. Everyone understood that to be a lie as soon as he said it, and in practice he has essentially continued what President Obama was doing on that front. Perhaps he was made aware that the campaign against ISIS is making steady progress, and if he just doesn't screw things up eventually he'll be able to declare victory.
But that's his war now, and in a similar way, he may have come to realize that terrorism is his problem. He used to be able to blame any attack anywhere on the supposed weakness of Barack Obama, but he can't do that anymore. And when the next attack on American soil comes, he'll try to respond to it in a way that doesn't make it seem like it's his fault.
It would be great if Trump were completely honest with the public at that moment, and told them that while we have to work hard to stop such attacks, terrorism is a minor problem for Americans — you're more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be killed by a jihadi terrorist. We can be vigilant, careful, and thoughtful about it, but we need not be governed by our demons. He could say that terrorism is meant to make us lose our senses, to panic and overreact, but we can make a choice not to. We can choose to be strong and resolute, and not to let it force us to turn on one another.
I would like to think that Trump is capable of that kind of response, but nothing he has done so far suggests he is. It's more likely that in that moment he'll tell us to give in to our worst instincts and our basest emotions, to look for scapegoats and nurture our fear. Perhaps he'll rise to the occasion and offer Americans something better than what he has in the past. But I wouldn't count on it.