In covering the most bizarre era in American history, dominated by the most bizarre personality in American history, it is important not to be seduced into experiencing the world as Donald Trump experiences it, as a haphazard series of momentary distractions. Because once you enter his world, you lose the sense of perspective and rationality needed to understand just how absurd this has become.
Events of the last weekend illustrate the danger perfectly.
We can begin our foray with the following tweet from the president of the United States, ostensibly the most important person on the planet, yet a man who parades his deep and crippling insecurities as if they were missiles in a North Korean military parade:
In ordinary times, such a childish whine for attention would be considered extraordinary evidence of a leader’s incapacity and weakness, and cause for global concern. It is literally inconceivable coming from any other major political figure, perhaps in history, and in fact is inconceivable from anyone else beyond the age of 10.
In the era of Trump, it’s just a Sunday.
Then there’s the cheap little publicity stunt that Trump cooked up with his vice president, Mike Pence. And by cheap, I mean cheap as in tawdry, not cheap as in inexpensive for the taxpayers. On Sunday, Pence and his extensive entourage flew from Las Vegas to Indianapolis on Air Force Two, supposedly to attend a football game. At that football game, some NFL players took a knee during the playing of the national anthem, as everyone knew they would. A supposedly angry Pence then left the game in protest, as he and his staff already knew he would.
The kickoff was a few minutes after 1 p.m. By 1:08, Pence’s staff had already tweeted the prepared protest note:
Trump then confirmed the scripted nature of the stunt, while adroitly elbowing Pence aside to take credit:
In a subsequent tweet, Pence went on to explain that “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”
I have several problems with that line of thought, beginning with the claim that “everyone is entitled to their own opinions.” Clearly, they are not so entitled. That’s kind of what the whole thing is about.
I’m also troubled by the phrase “too much to ask.” “Ask” implies a request, a request that the other party is free to deny. And again, that is not what is going on here. What’s going on here is an effort to force Americans to take a stand — literally — that goes against their will and against their personal conscience. Because, you know, freedom and liberty and all that stuff.
Thomas Jefferson, who knew a thing or two about freedom, warned us that “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.” I’ve said repeatedly that I could never envision myself “taking a knee,” because it runs against how I was raised and the values that I was taught to honor. But I’m beginning to question that. I’m beginning to think that under these circumstances, those values may require me to take a knee.
But again — and this is the frustrating part — by even having this discussion, we allow Trump to lower the discourse and distract our attention. We become no better than he is, chasing the shiny object of this cheap political stunt. Because while Trump and Pence were acting out this little morality play, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was laying out an indictment against Trump just as damaging as any that Robert Mueller might bring.
Trump is leading us down a path that could lead us to World War III, Corker said of his fellow Republican. “He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”
“I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker said, citing the presence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly as essential in avoiding catastrophe.
“As long as there are people like that around him who are able to talk him down when he gets spun up, you know, calm him down and continue to work with him before a decision gets made, I think we’ll be fine,” according to Corker, who was trying to be reassuring but in fact was anything but.
“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said. “Of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”
That’s just extraordinary, not least because it is of course true. And confronted by such candor by a member of his own party, a senator of standing who had previously attempted to work with Trump, the president once again reverts to form, attempting to turn it into a petty personal dispute with Corker.
None of that is true. There is substantial evidence that Trump backed Corker, that he wanted Corker to run again and that he called Corker to ask him to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election. The entire narrative is a fabrication, because as Corker also noted, “I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”
Pence’s little stunt, the tweets about Puerto Rico and the personal attacks on Corker would, in any other time under any other president, be the stuff of scandal. Under this president, they are distractions from the most important point of all, which is that we have a commander in chief with a tenuous grip on reality, kept within the bounds of sanity only by the presence of better, wiser men who could be swept out of their positions by a simple act of presidential petulance.
Other than that, how’s YOUR Monday going?