White House

It's Hard to Ignore Trump, But We Have to Try

The country needs more discussion of his policies and less about his tweets.

The country is bigger than this president.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Think about this: We now live in a country where nobody would want the president to speak at the memorial service for a victim of racist violence that horrified the nation. That’s scary, but it’s true. So maybe the time has come to treat our president as an irrelevancy.

Seriously.

On Wednesday, mourners of all colors and political stripes gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to listen as elegant voices eulogized Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday when an alleged white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of marchers protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. President Donald Trump was not among those who spoke; presumably he was not invited. Had the White House reached out, the family, with full justification, would have curtly refused. Trump’s bizarre but determined efforts to draw a moral equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those who opposed them has all but placed him outside the universe of rational discourse. That’s a bad place for a chief executive to be.

In recent years we have become accustomed to presidential eulogies at moments that should bind us together. Barack Obama was particularly skilled. Even his critics would concede that he gave two of the finest addresses of his presidency at the funeral of Pastor Clementa Pinckney after the 2015 terror shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and at the service just over a year ago in honor of the five slain police officers in Dallas. One expects the president to rise to such occasions.

Trump refuses.

His dwindling tribe of defenders insists that the news media are biased against him, a proposition that is true but in this case utterly irrelevant. We speak here not of the refusal of the press to report what the president says but of the president’s inability to speak with a single note of grace or conciliation. He knows only verbal combat. Like Don Quixote, he jousts constantly against a world he considers cruel and unfair. The difference is that Quixote dueled against those who threatened the weak and the innocent; Trump fights against what he sees as slights against himself.

The Oval Office has been occupied by more arrogant men, but never in my lifetime by one so utterly self-involved. Criticism or even orthodox opinion is for Trump a hateful and smothering blanket. He is constantly punching his way out. Jab, jab, hook, jab, jab, hook: The spectacle has become so bizarre that tens of millions evidently find it attractive. Cable news commentators hang on his every confused utterance or vile tweet. One has to work hard these days to find stories about what the administration is actually doing, because everything is crowded out by the nonstop circus of which he is the not-terribly-competent ringmaster.

Trump longs to be Oz the Great and Powerful, magically unleashing the power of the economy, or perhaps Harrison Ford in the film “Air Force One,” bashing the nation’s foreign enemies and kicking them off the plane. Alas, he’s more like Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fictional president of the galaxy in Douglas Adams’s geek classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The election of Beeblebrox was seen by many “as the clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas.” 1  Beeblebrox was an ex-hippie (okay, that part doesn’t apply) whom Adams describes as a “manic self-publicist, terribly bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch.” He was ideal for the post because he was “an infuriating but fascinating character.” Writes Adams: “His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.”

Just consider the amount of airtime that has been occupied by deep analyses of each presidential utterance about the Charlottesville attack. Commentators keep asserting that Trump should say something different, something better, something richer and more unifying. But he cannot, and we know he cannot. He entirely lacks the capacity for grace. He hasn’t a clue what it takes to pull a country together, and I’m not sure he would do it if he could. Trump’s commentary on Charlottesville has been like his commentary on much else: scattershot, unthoughtful, belligerent, offensive and wrong.

Yet we go on asking him to say more, whereas in a saner country we would ignore him. By the Beeblebrox standard, Trump has done his job of distracting us from serious debates over policy. Try to find in-depth coverage of the Interior Department’s decision to revoke the Obama administration’s rule raising royalties for coal mined on federal and tribal lands, or of the Trump administration’s proposal for sharp restrictions on the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to hire foreign nationals, or of the debate over whether Germany, in the wake of Trump’s criticism, will or will not increase defense spending. You can dig up information, but you have to go looking for it. In this sense, news reporting has become a casualty in the Trump era. Like Beeblebrox, he is infuriating yet fascinating. It’s hard to turn away. 2

But it’s time to try. The news media would do better to start ignoring the man in the Oval Office -- ignoring, at least, most of what he has to say. Journalists should by all means cover what the president and his appointees actually do, particularly at the level of regulation. But the nonstop coverage of his every silly or venal remark leaves little room for conversation about what his administration is doing -- and yet it is those acts, not his words, that will have a lasting effect on the nation. So let’s stop wasting energy deconstructing his tweets and start the important democratic work of debating his policies.

I’m no leftie, and I’ve never thought of myself as part of the anti-Trump resistance, which is a bit too morally smug for my taste. And regular readers know that I have little use for the argument ad hominem. But enough is enough. I’m glad the president didn’t speak at the service for Heather Heyer. I’m also glad that the news media have somewhat underreported his too-little, too-late tweet about what a wonderful woman she was. She clearly was -- but it’s time to stop caring about whether Trump says so. If we pay less attention to the utterances of the graceless vulgarian in the White House, perhaps the nation can indeed begin to heal.

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

  1. I am not suggesting that Trump voters were bananas. One can have good and sufficient and entirely rational reasons (a) to distrust the Democratic Party, and/or (b) to distrust the entity known derisively as “Washington.” Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that his victory last November was met with astonishment and disbelief, even among most of his ardent supporters. In that limited sense, the analogy works.

  2. I am not suggesting that Trump necessarily intends to distract. Adams wrote of Beeblebrox, "the main reason he had had such a wild and successful life was that he never really understood the significance of anything he did."

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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