White House

Trump Inflicts Pain With Purpose

The president is not the champion of the denizens of the “real America.” He is their avenger.

He’s mean. They want that.

Photographer: George Frey/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s chaotic first weeks have featured a recurring theme not generally associated with deliberate means and ends of U.S. government policy.

His sudden travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries left grandmothers stranded incommunicado in American airports, unable to reach family members waiting to receive them. Other detained travelers were denied access to lawyers, as well as family. An infant girl, whose grandparents are American citizens, was prohibited from traveling to Oregon for treatment of a serious heart ailment until extraordinary pressure was applied by Oregon politicians.

It’s possible that these instances of seemingly pointless cruelty resulted merely from incompetence. From the sloppy travel ban, to his damaging and bizarre conversations with and about foreign leaders, to his attacks on the federal judiciary, Trump’s presidency has been consistent with his haphazard, improvised campaign. As my Bloomberg View colleague and Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien points out, Trump’s only experience running large organizations -- casinos -- ended in chaos and bankruptcy. He is not the business manager many Americans imagined.

But the travel ban exhibited something more than incompetence. When the hardships  produced by the ban became apparent, broadcast by the hated news media and disseminated across social platforms, the Trump administration made no effort to mitigate them. More telling, it made little effort to pretend to mitigate them. The administration dissembled about the total number of travelers affected. But no government lawyers rushed out to Dulles International Airport in suburban Virginia to reassure anxious family members or the public. 

The suffering of travelers was worthwhile if the ban saved just one life, said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. (An interesting standard not only because the ban, which manages to be both unsystematic and indiscriminate, appears to have little likelihood of improving security, but also because this administration will oversee some 30,000 American gun deaths this year -- almost certainly without policy intervention.)

As Conor Friedersdorf noted in a powerful September essay in the Atlantic, cruelty is one of Trump’s most consistent and fundamental character traits. During the campaign, Trump tweeted side-by-side photographs of Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz. Senator Ted Cruz’s wife had been caught in an awkward pose that makes normal people appear curiously ugly. Trump used the photos to demean her, taunt his rival and show off his own wife in the manner of a tribal chief parading the spoils of a village raid.

Given the traditional context and mores of American politics, it was natural to view this behavior as both personally disqualifying and politically self-defeating. Would American voters really want a president who was so viciously, pointlessly cruel?

Well, now we know.

We also know that Trump’s cruelty is not merely personal. It’s political. He uses it to signal to both followers and detractors that he’s having his way, and won’t be stopped. Like authoritarians in Europe and South America, he manufactures enemies not just to hate, but to hurt. Mexico, Muslims, immigrants, even American businesses that fail to genuflect at the appointed hour must pay a price.

To supporters, the pain he inflicts, randomly or otherwise, is a mark of authenticity. “He’s going to be a bully,” one Trump supporter told the New York Times, approvingly, last March. “He don’t care who he makes mad in the process.”

Whether the victims are immigrant families or longstanding alliances with pro-American democracies, Trump’s destruction is thrilling to some. “He is a bull in a china shop,” GOP strategist and Trump supporter John Feehery told the Hill. “But people knew that when they let him in the china shop. They wanted the china shop torn asunder.” 

Trump’s chaotic personality and his chaotic politics are in sync, and the resulting wreckage is not always incidental. Often it’s the point. When his White House ideologist, Steve Bannon, spoke of destroying the state, Lenin-like, he specifically said he wants “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

That is Trump’s promise. He is not just the champion of the denizens of “real America.” He is their avenger. Those aligned with Trump will enjoy his protection. All those outside the circle -- foreign or domestic -- have earned their pain.

In a campaign speech in May, Trump said, “The only important thing is the unification of the people -- because the other people don’t mean anything.”

This is the polarizing, populist essence of Trumpism. Only Trump supporters qualify as “the people.” The “other people” have no claims on the American government that he is bound to honor, and no claims on community that his supporters are required to respect. Trouble is headed their way. They’ve got it coming.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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