White House

Trump Can Do No Right

President Donald Trump speaks to the White House Press Corps on Air Force One after visiting the sites of recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, August 7, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
His speech deserved praise, but didn’t receive it.

When the El Paso shooter’s manifesto was first reported, it was an excellent time to disengage not only from social media, but also from its nominally more responsible relatives, the news giants. It was instantly obvious that 1) President Trump would be blamed for the shooting; 2) he would be called upon to unite us; and 3) no matter what he actually did, he would be blamed again for giving a lousy response.

The media demanded Trump denounce white-supremacist thinking in his speech on Monday. So he did exactly that. He said, “in one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” using the specific words for which the media had clamored. He gave a speech that would have been lavishly praised had a Democrat given it. But Trump is a Republican and Republicans can do no right.

Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto used to have a running gag about how the media covered awful news when Barack Obama was president: “Why do bad things always happen to him?” Taranto would sardonically inquire. National calamities were framed as matters that did unfortunate harm to Obama’s reputation and even unsettled his vacations. “The war in Afghanistan follows Obama to his vacation in Hawaii,” read the Washington Post headline on a 2016 story about the deaths of six soldiers, for which, as commander in chief, Obama was ultimately responsible.

If, say, Mitt Romney or George W. Bush had been president on August 3, each of them would also have been blamed for inspiring the El Paso massacre, and whatever either of them said afterwards would have been labeled grossly inadequate, or worse. The major difference is that the magma-hot temperature of many of Trump’s public remarks and tweets is considered by the media to give them license to be equally intemperate, even if it means making themselves look foolish.

The shooter specifically said his views predated Trump’s rise, and he cited everything from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to college debt to universal-basic-income proposals in his rather wide-ranging explanation of his murderous thoughts, but as his manifesto intersected with Trump’s rhetoric via the single word “invasion,” the media figured they might as well shift the blame to Trump, as though Trump were the first president to use overwrought language.

I would have been pleased if Trump had taken a moment to apologize for his intemperate use of the word “invasion” and acknowledged the humanity of illegal immigrants while maybe even admitting that this class of people isn’t actually more criminally inclined than Americans. But, had he done so, would the media have responded with a hearty “Attaboy, Mr. President?” You and I both know the answer. The six-column headlines would have read, “President Virtually Admits Inspiring El Paso Shooter.”

In short, this president can do no right, ever. Whether he is turning it up to eleven or dialing it down to three, he knows from experience the media will react with the same supercharged hostility. He knows from the popped balloon of the two-year Robert Mueller extravaganza that at no point will the media even admit to overplaying their hand; when one scandal peters out, they’ll simply keep the hysteria level at DefCon Three while shifting the new source of alleged crisis to some silly thing the president said on Twitter or, if all else fails, to a deliberate misconstruing of fact. “Trump falsely says the Constitution gives him ‘the right to do whatever I want,’” the Washington Post reported breathlessly on July 23, though Trump was clearly referring to the power to fire Mueller, which he did in fact enjoy.  As long as Trump resides in the White House, the media can never concede that any condition other than a state of emergency obtains in the United States of America.

After Trump condemned racism and bigotry, the New York Times changed its headline from “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS,” shifting the goalposts before our very eyes, as though Trump were obliged to have as much hatred for a fundamental American right as Times readers do. Kirsten Powers, on CNN, said the speech amounted to “the arsonist saying they want to help put out the fire . . . at a minimum it should make him feel some sort of culpability . . . he is not in a position to be claiming to be condemning white supremacy.” So Trump isn’t allowed to condemn white supremacy? Max Boot, in the Washington Post, said Trump is “leading our country to destruction,” which sounds even more overwrought than Trump’s reference to 2016 crime levels as “American carnage.” Boot added on CNN, “To contribute to the slaughters in the streets, he cannot then say, ‘I condemn racism and white supremacy and violence.’” So Trump is a contributor to slaughter. And he should also just shut up about it. As if a silent Trump wouldn’t be generating headlines attacking him for keeping his counsel.

The endlessly repeated replay to which we are all being subjected is beyond tiresome. An intemperate president creates an intemperate media, which makes such a spectacle of its hostility to him that Trump fires back, which in turn raises the media’s dudgeon level from “high” to “ludicrous.” After El Paso, or any similar calamity, we need our media to be extra-sober, extra-judicious, more measured and cautious than they are on their best days. We need calm. Instead, what do we get, every time? A food fight.

Why are we so divided, the media ask? Talk about arsonists saying they want to help put out the fire. CNN and other news organizations turn a handsome profit by marketing non-stop emergency, panic, and revulsion. Admitting that Donald Trump is not to blame for everything that goes wrong, or that even the president occasionally gives a reasonably okay speech, would be bad for business. It might be good for everyone’s blood pressure, but there’s no longer much of a market for being reasonable.

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