During a week when President Donald Trump should have been beating his chest nonstop to celebrate the strong U.S. economy, he instead chose to flog his enemies, dead and alive, on Twitter and on camera.
On Wednesday, Trump bashed the late Sen. John McCain, a war hero and Vietnam POW, in front of Ohio supporters who did not appear to see the dead man bashing as just clean fun. “I never liked him much,” Trump offered, flaunting his conviction that people actually care whom he does and does not like.
On the same day, he dismissed George Conway, the lawyer husband of key adviser Kellyanne Conway, and referred to him as “Mr. Kellyanne” — like that’s a bad thing.
Conway has not been blameless in the exchanges. On Twitter, Conway has questioned the mental health of his wife’s boss. Other Conway tweets have framed Trump as “beneath contempt,” and a habitual liar “who disgraces his office, and all around him, especially those who shamelessly defend him.”
Rather than back off in order to give the Conway family a respite, Trump and company have responded with the claim that George Conway is just plain jealous of his wife’s high profile in the West Wing.
Conway is a sad example of the reality of Trump World. In order to hit Trump where he lives, you have to become Trump and embrace his super-human ability to never let go of a grudge, even after you’ve won. Your need to feed your resentment must be so strong that, like Trump, you don’t care whom you hurt, including your spouse and valued colleagues.
George Conway shows what happens to Trump haters as they morph into Trump imitators — to fight in Trump’s ring, you risk a Pyrrhic victory of the soul.
Meanwhile in the East Room on Thursday afternoon, Trump held an event to promote free speech on campus. I doubt that the executive order he signed will make much of a difference substantively, but the symbolism was undeniable. An American president put academia on notice that administrators have to accommodate the free-speech rights of conservative students and end the far-left’s near monopoly on political discourse on campus — or face consequences.
To be in the room was to see Trump at his best — letting institutions understand that they are accountable to forces outside their cocktail circuit and assuring everyday Americans that they have a seat at his table. He mostly stuck to the script on the teleprompter.
Another plus: The event was not all about Trump.
That version of Trump is the reason many conservative voters stand behind the president.
Voters also have the advantage of not being elected Republican officials who not only have to defend Trump, but also must support his policies even if they don’t like them, and even though they know that Trump could prod them to walk a plank which Trump himself might pull out from under them at any moment.
That’s what happened in December — and it resulted in the longest government shutdown in history — after Trump walked away from a budget deal his team had signaled he would support.
Look at Trump’s ginned up national emergency. Yes, there is a crisis at the border, but a more focused White House would have found a smarter way to fund border security without walking Congress to the breach. This time, 12 Republicans voted against the scheme. According to news reports, some GOP senators approached Trump about cutting a deal to check an arguable act of executive overreach and help them save face. But Trump isn’t interested in helping his allies save face.
Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway posture worked in the GOP primary and his first two years in office. The Trump base loves Trump for it, and they love how well his stubborn posture has brought others to their knees. It’s like tonic for a GOP voter base that has seen countless conservatives cave rather than argue.
Over time, Trump’s knee-jerk counter-punching seems like the flip side of that coin. Voters too often see a man who can’t stop jutting his jaw and can’t exercise simple acts of kindness to protect those around him. His autopilot is on rant, and it’s getting old. Trump has turned his bully pulpit into a bully pit.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.