The time has come to turn off The Trump Show.
I know: We can't simply ignore the president. He has enormous power at his disposal. Because of this, normally everything a president says has news value. Presidential words matter. They inspire actions and reactions across the federal government, and throughout the citizenry. They shape public opinion and drive policy changes. They can move markets at home and abroad. They send signals to foreign governments.
Yet it's also true that we've been dealing with Trump in the presidential arena long enough — since he launched his campaign three years ago — to have learned something important about how he uses his pulpit differently from all previous presidents.
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President Trump uses his public utterances, and especially his tweets, not to rally the country as a whole but to rally his base of far-right voters, to encourage a cult of personality around himself, and to troll everyone else. To accomplish these goals, he exaggerates, insults, lies, and spreads transparent nonsense in the hope of provoking a reaction — adulation among his supporters and anger in his opponents.
At this point, there's no good reason why we should lend credence to this miasma of presidential BS. If the president wants to engage in base maintenance and mobilization by denouncing "fake news" or the special counsel's investigation of his campaign's myriad ties to a hostile foreign government, he can go ahead and do that. But journalists shouldn't be complicit in spreading or legitimating the message.
Why is it still considered news, or even worthy of note, that the president has once again denounced the Mueller investigation, called it a biased witch hunt, or flagrantly lied about the content of top-secret documents that actually undermine such claims? Because it could be a sign of his guilt? Maybe. But certainly no more than all the other times he's said the same thing. Or is it news because Trump is indicating he may soon fire the special counsel? The first time Trump said these things, this might have seemed plausible. But now? After he's repeated the same empty accusations dozens of times? By this point, that doesn't even count as a bluff. It's more like intentional nonsense designed to create noise and baseless doubt in the minds of low-information voters.
Or how about the president's latest attacks on the "fake news media"? Why do they warrant coverage? Because they're outrageous and incendiary? They certainly are, but they're also familiar — a part of the president's faux-populist shtick. We wouldn't excuse such utterances by ignoring them. We'd be depriving them of impact. Or maybe they're newsworthy because they signal that the president is about to trample the First Amendment and shut down news organizations he doesn't like? Since he's been attacking the media for quite a long time and done nothing of the sort, perhaps journalists should stop treating these verbal threats as more than inflammatory garbage.
Or what about, finally, Trump's tendency to undercut members of his own party in Congress, possibly jeopardizing delicate budget negotiations with threats? This is news of a gossipy sort, but certainly nowhere near as significant as, say, a presidential veto, which would be action rather than mere bluster — and indicate a willingness to do more than talk trash.
Political cynics have long made the point: Presidential statements and speeches are significant, but it's far more important to pay attention to what the man in the White House actually does. If you want to reach an informed assessment of his performance, actions always deserve to speak louder than words. And this is truer with Trump than with any of his predecessors. That's because those predecessors at least used presidential rhetoric to signal an intent, a direction, to lay out a principled position, to wrap actions in reason and justification and ideals, whereas Trump uses it to entertain his base with the political equivalent of a pro-wrestling match. Nothing is real. It's all atmospherics, empty acting out, showing off, going through cartoonish motions of politics without actually governing.
Three years in and journalists are still responding to Trump's provocations as if they're hearing them for the very first time. Every tweet inspires the same reaction: "Can you believe the president is saying this? It's crazy! And it's news!"
I'm sorry, but on this it's finally time to normalize the president. This is who he is and who he will always be. Nothing is gained by allowing ourselves to be continually shocked and surprised that Trump acts more like the star of a reality show about a know-nothing, mobbed-up real estate mogul becoming president than he does like an actual president. This isn't going to change. Pretending like it's novel only succeeds in driving the ratings on the reality show through the roof.
We need a little less outrage at the president's words and a little more disgust.
Outrage is a response to a perceived injustice or affront. It provokes righteous anger or indignation, which can be addictive, because it confers a sensation of empowerment on the part of the person provoked, who feels driven to strike back. But that feeling is deceptive. Outrage actually empowers the transgressor, who continually demonstrates his capacity to inspire a reaction in others. He's the one in charge. Every time Trump hurls an insult at the media and the media responds, he proves his potency.
Disgust inspires a different response — not an instinct to fight but a self-protective turning away from something ugly.
We all need to turn away from the president and his distinctive style of ugliness. That's the surest way to deprive him of his demagogic power.
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