Opinion

The impunity is the point

The president's shameless self-enrichment isn't just hypocrisy. It's provocation.

President Trump knew how his "suggestion" that Vice President Mike Pence — and his entourage, and the federal money that comes with them — stay at a Trump property while on official business in Ireland would be received.

He knew reporters would quickly calculate that the luxury resort in Doonbeg is clear across the country from Pence's affairs of state in Dublin and would have to be accessed by plane commute. He knew the explanations about family ties and practical convenience for the Secret Service wouldn't pass muster. He knew this would again raise the issue of his use of the presidency for personal profit and the attendant debate over whether this is a constitutional violation worthy of impeachment. He knew it would make his opponents very, very angry — and that's precisely why he did it.

The temptation when Trump pulls this sort of thing is to focus on the hypocrisy. When former President Barack Obama was in office, his critics did a busy cottage industry of complaining about the cost and frequency of his vacations and other leisure activities. He golfed too often! The first lady's dresses cost too much! We must self-immolate in shame over the tan suit!

Those indignations are naturally recalled by the new president's extravagances and his supporters' apparent insouciance. Three years ago the right was howling in pique at Obama's impositions on the American taxpayer, and now, when Trump does all the same things and pockets much of the price of his own pleasure — now, nothing? When Trump does it, it's suddenly okay?

The hypocrisy is galling, but I submit that, more than hypocrisy, this is provocation. The aggravation is intentional. The impunity is the point.

Unlike provocation, hypocrisy may be unconscious, and it is there where I would locate most of the acquiescence of Trump voters to expenditures and habits they would deem unacceptable in a Democrat. But for the president himself and some subset of his enthusiasts, this sort of behavior is intended to rile. Trump invited Pence to stay at his resort not despite the move's hypocrisy but because of it. He understood the commotion it would generate. He wanted to antagonize.

In a widely cited piece for The Atlantic last year, Adam Serwer argued that the cruelty in much of Trump's policy and rhetoric is not accident or side effect. It is a locus of distorted community, an opportunity for shared enjoyment, a tribal rallying cry.

Here, likewise, the blatancy of the president's grift is not happenstance. Pence's trip to Doonbeg was not planned in an unwitting innocence which never pondered how it would play to the public. Trump's regular decampments to his resorts, his hosting of foreign heads of state at Mar-a-Lago, his proposal last week that the 2020 G-7 summit take place at his Miami golf course — these are not naive decisions. The anger they will engender is obvious. Indeed, the anger they engender is part of their appeal.

This rancor and rivalry is core to who Trump is as a politician. "The Trump presidency is the result of politics organized around unending partisan aggression, which has driven out even the pretense of other aims. The only goal of power in the Trump era is to own the libs," Tom Scocca writes Tuesday at Slate. "Opposition [is] the only principle," so each "decision or announcement or tweet is pure antagonism, a boast of a win built on taunting the losers."

Does Pence's stay at Doonbeg frustrate you? Does it strike you as self-evidently corrupt, as something the president should not be allowed to do? Well, he's doing it, and you can't stop him. (Incidentally, such petty displays of power are also one compelling explanation for Trump's incessant stream of pointless lies.)

"I played a very fast round of golf yesterday," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning in the midst of the Doonbeg furor. "Many Pols exercise for hours, or travel for weeks. Me, I run through one of my courses (very inexpensive). President Obama would fly to Hawaii."

President Obama would fly to Hawaii.

In a masterstroke of political vexation, Trump brings it full circle. You were mad about the resort stay. You were exasperated with the hypocrisy, the cost to taxpayers, the personal gain. And now Trump himself raises the Obama comparison, claiming his behavior is actually the less egregious, that there is no hypocrisy, that you should be grateful to him for stewarding federal resources so responsibly.

It's infuriating — it flies in the face of all reason — it's a brazen double standard — it's shameless impunity! And that's the point.

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