It seems like a year ago, given the tsunami of tweets and gibberish that came from President Donald Trump over the weekend, but it was only Friday when Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Good Morning America” to criticize the news media’s coverage of her boss as “neither productive nor patriotic.” Ah yes, the patriotism trope again. You might be old enough to recall how, throughout the comparatively bucolic presidency of George W. Bush, we were repeatedly told in no uncertain terms that criticizing the president while American troops were in harm’s way was unpatriotic and undermined the troops. Let’s review:
“You don’t criticize the commander-in-chief in the middle of a firefight. That could be construed as putting U.S. forces in jeopardy and undermining morale.” — Bill O’Reilly, April 2004
“I’ve held this in long enough. I really suspect that these liberal tactics are damaging, maybe even killing the morale of our troops.” — Rush Limbaugh, June 2007
“The only ideas that they espouse are ways to undermine the troops in harm’s way and undermine their commander in chief while they’re at war. Your candidates have no idea how to keep this economy strong.” — Sean Hannity, October 2006
“He’s the commander in chief. And what I find frankly repugnant about you and some of your fellow Democrats — you have undermined our president …” —Sean Hannity, March 2006
“You know, Norman, those comments while we are at war, while troops are in harm’s way, while he is the commander in chief, do you not see the outrage in that?” — Sean Hannity, November 2007
“I have had it with members [of the Democratic] party undermining our troops, undermining a commander in chief while we are at war …” — Sean Hannity, November 2005
“Through their relentless, vicious attacks on Bush, they systematically undermined the public’s confidence in the war and our ability to optimally wage it.” — Columnist David Limbaugh, August 2014
As of Jan. 20, 2009, of course, the Republicans abandoned these rules with whiplash-inducing haste, even while American soldiers continued to fight and die overseas. But now that Barack Obama is out of the way, the rule is back.
We’re not allowed to hold the president accountable, they’re saying. We’re evidently not allowed to talk about the mounting evidence that Donald Trump may have engaged in a growing roster of nefarious activities — possible collusion with the Russian government to hijack the 2016 election and all the accompanying obstruction of justice, witness tampering and abuse of power that may have gone along with it. (There could be myriad additional crimes that investigators have yet to uncover.)
Journalism along these lines is unpatriotic, according to the White House. In other words, it’s unpatriotic for a free press to investigate and hold accountable a president who happens to be the centerpiece of what may be the most unpatriotic plot by any American, president or not, in the history of the republic. If guilty, the president will have worked with a foreign government to commandeer our democratic elections, then abused his power as chief executive to cover it up. This is the very definition of “unpatriotic.” Yet it’s the members of the news media who are the villains somehow.
When the president tweeted a video of himself clotheslining a pro-wrestling villain whose head had been replaced with a CNN logo, his sycophants and disciples sucked it down like cocaine. In the wake of the tweet, the right-wing crowd that tried to brand “patriotism” seemed perfectly at ease with a president whose behavior is absolutely an abomination — a malignant tumor on our democratic system.
Worse, Trump’s supporters seem thrilled with a president who, over the weekend before our celebration of national independence, declared the final demise of acting presidential decency and decorum. Trump declared in no uncertain terms that his use of Twitter is “not presidential.” Instead, in a tweet likely to live in infamy, Trump pronounced it “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” The next day we were treated to the aforementioned CNN wrestling tweet, which itself was apparently lifted from a racist, anti-Semitic troll on Reddit.
It’s not my job to ordain who or what is patriotic, but it can’t possibly be seen as patriotic to excuse and condone the continued vulgarity, indecency, irrationality and defiant ignorance of the current commander in chief. As I’ve written throughout Trump’s ascendancy in politics, his behavior is creating damage to the system. Is the president being patriotic? Decide for yourself. Is it patriotic for the Republican Party to abandon its “family values” high ground just to piss off liberals and the hosts of a morning talk show?
Trump and his supporters will ultimately be judged by history as to whether it’s patriotic to applaud the president as he lies about his opponents with graphic, exclamatory phrases that all too often include bloody imagery. History will decide whether it’s patriotic to support a president who, by his own account, sexually assaulted women and then bragged about it. History will decide whether it’s patriotic for a president to attack a Gold Star family and a POW who was tortured in Vietnam. History will decide whether it’s patriotic to lie to the people about voter fraud that does not exist. History will decide whether it’s patriotic to encourage the president to continue to destroy the dignity of the office, establishing that from here on out it’s OK for the supposed leader of the free world to behave like a Twitter troll.
Trump supporters, swelled with victimhood, will tell you that other people — the press and the Democrats — started it. Trump supporters will tell you that CNN and the New York Times are being obnoxious and unpatriotic, and therefore deserve equally nasty treatment by the president. Trump voters have a right to say all this, of course. But they are badly deluding themselves and they ought to be swiftly and accurately corrected.
They don’t seem to accept the obvious distinction that Jake Tapper of CNN is not the president. Michael Schmidt of the Times and Robert Costa of the Washington Post and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC are not the president. I’m not the president. The job of journalists in this context is to hold the president accountable. Likewise, it’s the job of the “resistance” to do what activists do. It’s the president’s job to set an example of calmness, decency and rationality — to rise above the pettiness and the vindictive shovel fights occurring in the darker corners of the internet. It’s the president’s job not to act like a wrestling stooge or an unhinged online comments troll, especially since he has legions of superfans online and on conservative media to handle the trench warfare for him.
The Rubicon of presidential conduct has not only been crossed by Trump and his people, it has been crossed and then used as a gigantic latrine. By encouraging the president to throw down and go Full Trump all the time, they’re setting new and harrowing standards for the office. Each president puts his stamp on the traditions of the presidency, and Donald Trump has already done that. The repercussions may include the slow disintegration of America’s reputation, not to mention the respectability and integrity of the executive branch.
With every insane new chapter of the Trump presidency, the floor for how low a president can sink has almost vanished. Because he’s been allowed to get away will all of it relatively unscathed, almost anything goes — even the mocking of a disabled reporter, even the repeated usage of childish nicknames. Already, the very fact that Trump (barely) won the election despite his erratic and repulsive behavior during the campaign has sent a signal to future politicians that Trump’s style is a winner’s style. That is almost certain to breed future Trumps. The takeaway will be that it’s both patriotic and successful to behave like a vicious overgrown toddler who incites violence against his fellow Americans.
I’m afraid we’ve already careened beyond the point of no return. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that those who hold some level of benevolent power use it to help unseat this madman before the damage is fully wrought — before this cancer on the presidency and our entire political system becomes inoperable. Then history will decide which side was acting with patriotic intent and which side was burning it all down in the service of malevolent, selfish and ultimately destructive ends.