The question has emerged again and again in the media and causal conversations since he was legitimized by his electoral college victory: Do we take Donald Trump too seriously?
The most recent serious piece about this serious question came in the form of a Wednesday op-ed in The New York Times, which addresses the biggest reader complaint against a heavy-weight article, “Donald Trump’s Plan to Save Western Civilization,” on its own pages by Stephen Wertheim, a historian at King’s College at the University of Cambridge.
In an interview exchange between Wertheim and Max Strasser, an assistant editor at The Times, the two thoroughly discussed that reader complaint, which was that Wertheim took Trump far too seriously in the article, and that by doing so he legitimizes or normalizes the country’s liar-in-chief. Here’s a quote from Wertheim rebutting that argument:
In fact, [Trump] is dangerous precisely because he makes it hard to take his politics seriously. He inspires a Pavlovian ridicule. But that reflex to ridicule is allowing some people to avoid trying to understand his policies and to avoid developing a real critique of them. It makes them read a sober analysis of Trump as an endorsement! That really concerns me.
This is anecdotal, but I’ve faced the same type of arguments in my daily life from colleagues, friends and family for months now. On New Year’s Eve, for example, I was lamenting Trump’s election to someone I had just met at a bar in the Castro district of San Francisco, and I was good-naturedly told that, and I paraphrase, “we could just laugh at him” until he just couldn’t take it anymore, and, if that didn’t work, we could go to the streets.
I’m as sarcastic as the next person—note my use of “liar-in-chief”—and humor and satire are powerful political weapons, and always will be, but I agree with Wertheim that we desperately need sober analysis of Trump’s positions and that we need to seek out legitimate patterns in the policies he and his corrupt regime champions. Wertheim also argues:
. . . if we talk only about how bizarre [Trump] is or his spelling mistakes or whatever, we’ll repeat the same strategy that failed during the campaign. We can’t get too obsessed with him as a person and with his inner circle. Hey, I follow those things, too! I plead guilty to sarcastic tweets, and I do a terrible Trump impression that drives my wife nuts. But we have to go beyond that.
Wertheim makes an important point. Just this week, for example, Trump inspired thousands of Boy Scouts at their jamboree to boo former President Barack Obama, issued a Twitter edict to throw out transgendered people serving in the military and urged on the callous Senate Republicans to deny health care for millions of Americans. Meanwhile, he continued his hounding sadistic Twitter criticism of Attorney General Sessions while continuing to argue Hillary Clinton should be under investigation. This is all interspersed with exaggerated information about new business investment in the country and perfunctory celebrations of military and right-wing civic institutions. The week isn’t over yet.
Part of Trump’s strategy, whether calculated or just intuitive, is to flood the field with so much outrage or abnormal behavior for a president that it’s difficult to do the type of sober analysis to which Wertheim refers. By the time one does some careful analysis, the entire rhetorical landscape has morphed into some new weird reality, leaving rational, intelligent people aghast and slow to react to the mediocrity.
The inappropriate Boy Scout speech, which I wrote about here, lends itself to satire and mockery, and Sessions, with his deep southern accent, is an easy target for imitation and SNL skits, but what do all this events I listed have in common and is there a pattern?
(1) One pattern that obviously emerges is that Trump is engaging in a politics of contempt that has transcended in scope and quantity the hate politics of the modern era of polarization. Obama, transgendered people, people in need of medical care, Sessions, Clinton, all were targets of Trump’s contempt this week. It’s easy to speculate the Trump exercises this rhetoric to appease his base or that it’s a deflection, but perhaps another truth is that the man is simply filled with hate and anger as are most despots in the making. He’s a rhetorical sadist. He’s not fighting back. He’s getting pleasure.
(2) Another obvious pattern that emerges is that Trump engages in a politics of inequality. Transgendered people, the sick, a black man and a woman were on the receiving end of his hate this week. Sessions, of course, is the exception here, but Trump has a long history of rejecting equality and attacking women in particular.
(3) Another pattern is that Trump practices a politics of the elite. His speech to the Boy Scouts, in particular, and his crass reference to a businessman who made it big and had a yacht and parties and cocktail parties incapsulates this in its essence. Scouts need to make a lot of money, have yachts and party down, Trump argues. How do we fit this in the Scout motto? What happens now to the elderly people trying to cross the street?
We can get lost in the Trump outrages that trigger us the most, but the bottom line is he engages, as we look at this particular pattern, in the politics of contempt, the politics of inequality and the politics of the elite. He is a clear threat to American democracy and seeks to undermine its basic government and civic institutions. His explosive, discombobulating tweets deflect us from these larger concepts.
Do we take Trump too seriously? No. We don’t take him seriously enough. Democracy hangs in the balance.