Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.
International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly
- abandon allies like the Kurds;
- we honor war criminals; we
- slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
- after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
Republicans and Democrats spar again in the second public impeachment hearing. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing on President Trump. Reaction and analysis on “The Five.’
The House should consider the president’s incendiary rhetoric as a separate offense, worthy of its own article of impeachment, as it was in 1868.
Over the weekend, in a rage over impeachment, President Trump accused Representative Adam Schiff of “treason,” promised “Big Consequences” for the whistle-blower who sounded the alarm about his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and shared a warning — from a Baptist pastor in Dallas — that impeachment “will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
We’re already on to the next news cycle, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened with those tweets. The president was using the power and influence of his office to intimidate a witness and threaten a member of Congress with prosecution (of a crime still punishable by death), before raising the specter of large-scale political violence should lawmakers hold him responsible for his actions. If he had said this anywhere besides Twitter — in the Rose Garden or at a campaign stop — we would see it as a clear and unacceptable abuse of presidential rhetoric, his authoritarian instincts at work.
The House impeachment inquiry will almost certainly focus on Trump’s attempt to solicit foreign intervention in the 2020 election. If it goes beyond that, it might also include the president’s corruption and self-dealing. But in whichever direction the investigation goes, the House should consider Trump’s violent rhetoric as a separate offense, worthy of its own article of impeachment.There’s precedent for making transgressive presidential speech a “high crime or misdemeanor.” The 10th article of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868 was about his language and conduct over the course of his term. Two years earlier, Johnson had taken a tour of Northern cities to campaign against Radical Republicans in Congress and build support for his lenient policies toward the defeated South.
At first, it was a success, with large crowds cheering the president during events in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. But his fortunes turned in Cleveland, where the stubborn and taciturn Johnson unraveled in the face of hecklers. “The president was frequently interrupted by cheers, by hisses and by cries, apparently from those opposed to him in the crowd,” William Hudson, a reporter for The Cleveland Leader, wrote. When a heckler yelled, “Hang Jeff Davis!” — referring to the former leader of the Confederacy, then held at Fort Monroe in Virginia — Johnson replied, “Why don’t you hang him?” When another shouted, “Thad Stevens” — the chief Radical Republican in the House of Representatives — a now angry Johnson responded with “Why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” Phillips had been a leading abolitionist.
Johnson continued to speak, struggling to gain the upper hand with the crowd. By the end, however, the president was unhinged. “Come out where I can see you,” he said to one heckler. “If you ever shoot a man, you will do it in the dark and pull the trigger when no one else is by to see.” After witnessing this disastrous performance, an aide urged the president to consider the dignity of the office. Johnson was dismissive. “I don’t care about my dignity,” he reportedly said.
The tour didn’t improve. In St. Louis, as in Cleveland, hecklers yelled “New Orleans” in reference to a massacre that summer in which white Democrats, most of them ex-Confederates, attacked a large gathering of black Republican marchers, killing nearly 50 people. In response, Johnson said the “riot at New Orleans was substantially planned.” But he blamed Radical Republicans who, he said, encouraged the city’s “black population to arm themselves and prepare for the shedding of blood.” At this point, someone in the crowd called him a “traitor,” which — as Garry Boulard recounts in “The Swing Around the Circle: Andrew Johnson and the Train Ride That Destroyed a Presidency” — Johnson angrily denounced with one of the strangest tirades of the tour: “I have been traduced! I have been slandered. I have been maligned. I have been called Judas — Judas Iscariot and all of that.”
By the time it was over, Johnson had been humiliated and his reputation was in tatters. In The Atlantic Monthly, the essayist Edwin Percy Whipple summarized elite opinion of Johnson’s tour:
Never before did the first office in the gift of the people appear so poor an object of human ambition as when Andrew Johnson made it an eminence on which to exhibit inability to behave and incapacity to reason. His low cunning conspired with his devouring egoism to make him throw off all the restraints of official decorum, in the expectation that he would find duplicates of himself in the crowds he addressed and that mob diffused would heartily sympathize with Mob impersonated. Never was a blustering demagogue led by a distempered sense of self-importance into a more fatal error.
All of this would resurface in 1868, when the House adopted its 11 articles of impeachment against the president. Among them was a reference to his summer swing through the North — to the idea that Johnson had sullied the office of the presidency with dangerous, demagogic rhetoric. In its 10th article of impeachment, the House of Representatives accused Johnson of being “unmindful of the high duties of his office and the dignity and proprieties thereof.” His behavior, they argued, was an “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach the Congress of the United States” and to “impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress and the legislative power thereof.”Article 10 was divisive. Not necessarily because the Congress or its Republican majority had any love for Johnson, but because it raised difficult political and constitutional questions. How could anyone actually prove that Johnson meant to “impair and destroy” the regard of Congress? And while it’s true the president has unique duties, it’s also true that the president is entitled to the same freedom of speech that any other citizen has. His rhetoric was offensive, but was it impeachable?
Johnson’s opponents in the Senate opted not to test the case. They tried the president on just three articles of impeachment. And if not for the last-minute (and arguably self-interested) defection of Senator Edmund Ross of Kansas, Johnson would have been cast from office, the first president to be impeached and removed.
This is all to say that Trump easily meets the Andrew Johnson standard for impeachable rhetoric. For nearly three years, he has used the presidency to stir anger and incite hatred. He has rallied crowds with racist demagogy and threatened opponents with violence from his supporters. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people,” Trump said in an interview with Breitbart in March. “But they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” On Tuesday, he accused his Democratic opponents of orchestrating a coup.
If impeachment is about a pattern of behavior — if it’s about the sum total of a transgressive, unethical and unlawful presidency — then this rhetoric must be part of the final account. And it is a difficult case; we don’t want to criminalize speech. But presidential rhetoric isn’t just speech — it is a form of power, and like most of his other powers, Trump has been abusing it.
>> IT SEEMS THEY HAVE HAD A RETURN TO CAP, CONFUSE, ATTACK,
RETURN TO CAP, CONFUSE, ATTACK, AND POINT THE FINGER.
AND POINT THE FINGER. THAT IS WHAT THE PRESIDENT AND
THAT IS WHAT THE PRESIDENT AND OTHERS DID AROUND THE MUELLER
OTHERS DID AROUND THE MUELLER REPORT, AND I WOULD SAY THEY
REPORT, AND I WOULD SAY THEY WERE HAPPY WITH HOW THAT HE
WERE HAPPY WITH HOW THAT HE NEEDSED UP, IS THAT WHAT
NEEDSED UP, IS THAT WHAT HAPPENED AGAIN?
HAPPENED AGAIN? >> THAT IS EXACTLY RIGHT,
THAT IS EXACTLY RIGHT, THEY’RE RETURNING TO THIS
THEY’RE RETURNING TO THIS FAMILIAR PLAY BOOK TRYING TO
FAMILIAR PLAY BOOK TRYING TO DISTRACT BY BRINGING UP THE
DISTRACT BY BRINGING UP THE BIDEN’S AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY,
BIDEN’S AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY, AND JUST TRYING TO RIDE OUT THIS
AND JUST TRYING TO RIDE OUT THIS STORM, BUT THE PROBLEM THAT THE
STORM, BUT THE PROBLEM THAT THE WHITE HOUSE FACES RIGHT NOW IS
WHITE HOUSE FACES RIGHT NOW IS THAT THERE IS A SET OF FACTS
THAT THERE IS A SET OF FACTS THAT ARE JUST DAMAGING FOR THE
THAT ARE JUST DAMAGING FOR THE PRESIDENT, NO OTHER WAY TO PUT
PRESIDENT, NO OTHER WAY TO PUT THAT, AND YOU’RE SEEING THE
THAT, AND YOU’RE SEEING THE PRESIDENT’S REPUBLICAN ALLIES
PRESIDENT’S REPUBLICAN ALLIES ARE GIVING THESE TALKING POINTS
ARE GIVING THESE TALKING POINTS THAT SORT OF LACK INTELLECTUAL
THAT SORT OF LACK INTELLECTUAL CONSISTENCY, AND KEVIN McCAR
CONSISTENCY, AND KEVIN McCAR THINK GOT A LOT OF CRITICISM FOR
THINK GOT A LOT OF CRITICISM FOR THE INTERVIEW HE GAVE OVER THE
THE INTERVIEW HE GAVE OVER THE WEEKEND WHERE HE COULD NOT PUT
WEEKEND WHERE HE COULD NOT PUT TOGETHER A FORCEFUL AND STRONG
TOGETHER A FORCEFUL AND STRONG AND BELIEVABLE DEFENSE OF THE
AND BELIEVABLE DEFENSE OF THE GOVERNMENT.
GOVERNMENT. AT I AT THE WHITE HOUSE THEY’RE
AT I AT THE WHITE HOUSE THEY’RE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO
TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO NAVIGATE ALL OF THIS.