A frequent and sometimes challenging correspondent told me a couple of weeks ago that writing about Donald Trump’s foibles was pushing “essay candy.” Easy to do and no point to it, he said, because “politics in America is like the weather. Most will speak about it, but nobody seems able to do much about it.”
“Ahhh,” I responded, “I would dearly love never to write another word about the madman in the White House, but bullies and tyrants and their backers always interpret silence as assent, or at least acquiescence, and America cannot afford that.”
Some columnists and other observers of political life are often critical of Trump’s abuse of his office and power because, like many other people, we fear that such behavior, left uncondemned, will become normalized in the minds of Americans, particularly young ones just reaching political awareness.
That concern reached a new level Wednesday morning, when Trump recklessly threatened on Twitter to escalate the Syrian conflict into a full war in which Americans, Russians and Iranians would be killing each other. And he did it with typical seventh-grade braggadocio, writing: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ”
The foolish and unnecessary 3:57 a.m. threat apparently was delivered without consultation with his staff, his military leadership or potential allies; just another irresistible, middle-of-the-night impulse. It was quickly walked back by adults in the White House over the following two days.
Then, Friday night, more than 100 missiles were launched by U.S., French and British forces at chemical-weapon production and storage sites. The operation apparently accomplished its objectives with little collateral damage and no Russian military response.
It was a proper tactical move, but its necessity and success were clouded by Trump’s obsession with making himself the center of attention.
Why would a president act so irresponsibly?
Was it to feed some bizarre need to dominate every news cycle?
Was it done to deflect attention from the multiple investigations creeping closer to the White House and his personal affairs?
Was it an attempt to appear to play hardball with Vladimir Putin, his authoritarian role model and, more disturbingly, perhaps his patron?
Was it a digital age version of bread and circuses, more rhetorical red meat for domestic consumption by the stubbornly devoted minority of Americans who still support him?
All of the above?
The Twitter message was certainly not the act of a stable, responsible leader. Nor was it an act calculated to serve anyone but Donald Trump.
And yet from the gleaming capitol building where Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress came silence, the implied assent or at least acquiescence that cowardice awards to bullies and tyrants.
A few members murmured that perhaps the president should ask approval of Congress before setting the world afire, but that was the only resistance offered or offense implied by the majority. Of course, once the raid’s success became evident and his Tweet’s recklessness was muted by the lack of a Russian armed response, some rushed to declare him a bold and determined leader.
We remain suspended between the real world and the one inhabited by Trump’s Twitter muse. How much more of this must we tolerate?
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalism and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.