White House

Trump’s Many Empty Words — and Why He Doesn’t Pay a Political Price for Them

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a meeting with Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in the Oval Office, September 16, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)
The president has reaped the benefits of a double standard he helped create.

It is often said these days that if any other president — Obama, Bush, Clinton — said the things President Trump says, we would be much more upset.

Of course, it is true. We would be more upset if other presidents had said the things Trump says — because they might have meant those things if they’d said them.

Journalists, those hyper-verbal strivers whose words count so much in their lives, struggle to cover a president who says so much that means so little.

First, there are the phrases Trump coins and repeats like mantras without bothering to define them. “Presidential harassment” is a legally and almost politically meaningless phrase. Trump loves it.

Then, there are the approving citations of his supporters’ most incendiary statements, which we can trust Trump likes because they are approving, rather than because they are incendiary. When he quotes some hyped up political pastor saying that impeachment of the president will lead to a civil-war-like fracture in our republic, we know he is just rewarding an empty, if hysterical, flatterer, rather than giving us a judgement about the body politic that we should consider.

And then there are the statements whose meaninglessness is underlined by Trump’s willingness to discard them just as easily as he utters them. “Lock her up” he says of Hillary Clinton, until deciding that “she went through a lot and suffered greatly.” “And Mexico is going to pay for it” he says of the border wall, until the U.S. Air Force does.

Saleno Zito famously said that Trump’s supporters “take him seriously, not literally.” There is something to that. But even among those inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, his statements can cause confusion. He made a habit at campaign rallies of saying things like, “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell . . . I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” At one point, referring to a protester, he told a crowd of supporters that, he’d “ like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.” A few weeks later, a protestor was being taken out of a rally in Fayetteville, N.C. when John Franklin McGraw got up and sucker punched him. If McGraw expected Trump to pay his legal fees, he’d made the mistake of taking the president literally twice.

The most meaningless words Trump ever spoke were on a phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Trump asked Erdogan if Turkish forces could finish the job against ISIS. Erdogan said yes, and Trump, speaking down into the line, told his then-national-security adviser, John Bolton to “start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.” He would follow up that instruction with equally meaningless words: “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now. We won, and that’s the way we want it, and that’s the way they want it.”

Over the following two months, the White House announced that the exact opposite of a troop withdrawal was happening. Our boys, our young women, our men — they were all staying in Syria, after all.

Why doesn’t Trump pay more of a political price for his carelessness in speech? Because Americans have a very odd folk morality, in which being authentic is as important or more important than being appropriate or good. He makes sure his audience knows he is a jokester, an occasional thug, a self-serving cad, and even a liar. He lives up to his own billing — and Americans appreciate getting the genuine article.

If a President Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren said “lock her up” from the West Wing, one could safely assume that someone would be imprisoned that very night. When President Trump says something like that, I wait for some kind of confirmation or action from the White House or the executive branch.

Most of the time, it never comes.

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