As much as I would like to put a clever title on this, it seems better to simply state the phenomenon clearly. It’s a real pattern, one you can see if you step back from narrow investment in one narrative or another, and just watch what happens.
Back in 2016, I observed a different but related pattern that I dubbed “Trump truth.” Trump would say something that everyone said was off the wall, wasn’t based on evidence, could be easily dismissed — and then, within days, the terms of discussion were actually Trump’s and not the media’s, and evidence itself even started coming out. It wasn’t off the wall anymore. Trump articulated things others weren’t willing to say, and the debate changed. (Other examples are here and here.)
Another related, but not identical, phenomenon was followed by our Ben Bowles and Howard Portnoy last year, when they traced the fortunes of a group of psychiatrists who agitated to remove Trump from office for supposed mental instability — even though none of them had ever examined the president. To make this push, the psychiatrists had to violate the ethics of their profession, and they got called out for it.
A lot of media coverage of Trump has suffered from the same deficiency, violating journalistic ethics simply to make Trump look as bad as possible.
But the pattern of recent weeks has shifted to something even more surreal. Now Trump’s accusers seem to denounce Trump — along with the horse he rode in on and everything else they can think of — and then to almost immediately begin manifesting in themselves the qualities or enormities they accuse Trump of.
On Tuesday, for example, at the beginning of the Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the Democrats made much of the talking point that the Trump presidency is illegitimate, and therefore the nomination of a Supreme Court justice is illegitimate.
At the same time, the Washington Post published an extended treatment of Bob Woodward’s new book (Fear) about the Trump White House, in which Trump is depicted as impetuous — even crazy — rash, uninformed, hard to restrain, erratic, foolish, etc. Within hours, the New York Times had published an editorial piece, reportedly by an anonymous “senior official of the Trump administration,” reinforcing to the letter the barrage of adjectives deployed in the article on the Woodward book.
Then, on Thursday, as if on cue, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) mounted an absolutely ridiculous performance in the Kavanaugh hearings: a performance that might as well have been scripted to make him look like the mentally, professionally incontinent jackass Trump is accused of being.
Booker waded into the hearing claiming to be behaving illegitimately, by improperly releasing documents protected as “committee confidential.” He asserted numerous times that he was violating Senate rules, implicitly to make his point “against” Kavanaugh.
His point turned out to be that Kavanaugh had declined after 9/11 to endorse discrimination by transportation security, in its screening efforts, on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion. That few Americans would see this as a point “against” Kavanaugh seemed not to deter Booker. His goal was apparently to place himself at the center of a supposed “civil disobedience” drama, regardless of how moronic it made him look.
But it didn’t end there. It later came out, as Ben Bowles outlined for us Thursday afternoon, that Booker wasn’t even violating the rules, as he claimed. The “committee confidential” classification of the documents had been lifted — at his request — before the hearing. The whole thing was a big act on his part (complete with a reference to the fictional character Spartacus).
This inane imbecility — incongruously frivolous, unhinged, reeking of illegitimacy — is exactly the kind of thing Trump’s opponents are desperate to hang on him. After reading and listening to the media onslaught about Trump this week, and hearing the impassioned complaints of the Senate Democrats, the innocent bystander would have been watching Trump for the Booker meltdown.
How dumb is Cory Booker? He did his whole "Sparticus Moment" KNOWING he would be busted as a faker, AND the email he released proved Kavanaugh is NOT a racist.
— Bill Mitchell (@mitchellvii) September 6, 2018
But it was Booker who melted down. It’s not clear if he’s even aware of how obvious it is. If he’s not, he appears to share that condition with the foot soldiers of the “internal resistance” against Trump, who, we are told, spoke to the authors of a Daily Beast article that (inevitably) came out on Thursday in the wake of the NYT anonymous editorial.
After the anonymous editorial, many commentators visited at least briefly the point that what we’re talking about is basically an internal coup against the elected president. A bunch of unelected people have appointed themselves to “frustrate” the president’s intentions, on the undemonstrated (indeed, unexamined) pretext that the president has in mind doing damaging or unspeakable things, and these unelected people have to stop it.
Questioning the nature of their self-assigned mission got at least a minimal treatment in a number of outlets. But not in the Daily Beast article. The question appears to be settled, from the Daily Beast editorial perspective. And it certainly is for the “internal resistance.”
But the result conveyed in the article may not be what either the “resistance” or the Daily Beast writers intended. Trump is disparaged as paranoid and exploding in impotent fury about this internal resistance. Yet the “resistance” members are depicted as doing, egregiously and with fist-bumping, exactly what they accuse Trump of being furious and paranoid about.
At the Department of Justice—which has been eyed suspiciously by the White House for nearly two years as a source of insubordination—the atmosphere was tense Thursday morning. Two officials inside the department said they’ve been passively resisting the president since he took office in 2017. “We see ourselves as rebels,” one official said laughing, adding that the op-ed marked a perfect time to celebrate.
“We even went around fist-bumping each other,” another official said.
But a third, who feels similarly about Trump, sounded darker notes about where Trump’s ire over public embarrassment could lead.
“It could motivate Trump to pursue the Erdogan-style purge of the bureaucracy that he hasn’t pursued yet,” said a Justice Department trial attorney. “Some of the Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are serious people committed to law enforcement. What if Trump were to replace them with loyalist hacks from the campaign, like Boris Epshteyn? We’d like to think that the Senate wouldn’t allow it, but we can’t be sure.”
Middle schoolers have more moral self-awareness than this.
Apparently, in their giggling excitement at having the imagined effect they intended, they can’t see that they are announcing their own culpability, with gusto. Or, if they can see it, they have a psychotic perception that no matter how they are breaching the actual rules of constitutional government, everyone who is advised of their activities will agree that what they’re doing is just awesome.
This, again, is the sort of deranged perspective and incalculable behavior the media are strenuously urging us to see in Trump. Yet the only picture of Trump behaving this way comes through the mainstream media and their unnamed sources.
When we actually lay eyes on Trump, and hear him speak, he may have flamboyant and repetitive mannerisms, but he is thematically consistent and rational. I don’t even agree with him on trade policy, and there are things I would do differently on national security and foreign relations. He has been extremely effective at rolling back regulation, but he’s not my idea of a philosophically integrated political leader and defender of core principles (prominent examples of that would be Reagan and Ted Cruz).
But day after day he keeps pounding the same goals and themes, in ways that meet what I think of as the “Reagan test”: the average person, after paying just a little attention, could articulate what Trump’s intentions are on a given policy topic in 25 words or less. The fact that his views don’t conform exactly with mine doesn’t make him crazy, any more than it made Obama crazy.
There is no evidence that Trump is melting down. But we’ve reached the point now at which his detractors seem to be calling in fire on their own positions. Whatever they try to tar Trump with, they promptly demonstrate in themselves, as if they can’t help themselves and as if they don’t even recognize it. It’s remarkable to watch, and hard to account for by empirical means alone. I’m hoping to not have to watch too much more of it.