Another week, another “Donald Trump said” controversy. During a meeting on immigration reform with Senate leaders last week, Trump was alleged to have wondered aloud why people from “[expletive deleted]-hole countries” are coming into the country. I say alleged because there is some reason to doubt that Trump made this comment, or at least made it in this way. The source for the quote was Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, and political partisans are not notorious for their rigid attachment to accurate reporting. Republican senators, who admittedly have no more reason to be unbiased than Democrats, have denied that Trump used the phrase in question. Regardless of this all-too-common rendition of “he said, he said,” it’s the type of thing that Trump could have said, so Durbin’s story has been widely accepted as truth.
As soon as the comment was reported, the predictable cavalcade of outrage lined up in front of cameras, microphones and keyboards to voice their disgust with the president. Also predictable was the overwrought emotionalism that accompanied these pronouncements. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was brought nearly to tears while delivering his commentary on Trump’s statement. He and others decried the comments as racist and not a few commentators reiterated their belief that Trump is unfit for the presidency.
To borrow a phrase from the self-proclaimed opposition, welcome to Donald Trump’s America. No, I’m not talking about the comment he’s alleged to have made (which, be it noted, I am not defending). Rather, Trump’s America is most characterized by the increasingly absurd gap between how people react to words and how they react to actions. Americans in 2018 reverse the old cliche in the apparent belief that sticks and stones can’t break our bones, but words will always hurt us.
For all their offense-taking, nearly none of the commentators who expressed horror that Trump would use vulgarities to describe another country said anything when President Obama drone-bombed weddings and hospitals in the Middle East and aided Saudia Arabia in its burgeoning genocide in Yemen, where a legitimate human rights catastrophe is ongoing. A sizable majority of the outraged pundits supported Hillary Clinton, whose horrific reign as Secretary of State led to the rise of radical Islamists in countries like Libya, where African slaves are now openly sold in the havoc that has followed the ousting and killing of Muammar Gaddafi (over which Clinton was downright giddy).
But despite this, we’re evidently supposed to pine for the good ol’ days of Obama or fantasize about the wonders a Clinton presidency would have brought, for no reason other than that Donald Trump says mean words. Americans apparently prefer the president to be oh so respectable as he’s obliterating life in other countries. “Bomb, kill and destroy foreign peoples,” the outrage mongers say, “but don’t you dare talk bad about them.”
Larger than Trump’s comments – which, if he said them, are truly problematic – is the problem that opposing Trump has become such a cottage industry that a large and growing number of Americans have severed the last remaining thread that connected them to reality. It’s one thing to expect the president to be articulate and diplomatic. It’s quite another to act like the worst thing a president does is say mean words.
Rationality rarely accompanies partisanship, especially not the amped-up partisan spirit in Trump’s America. The uniquely irrational atmosphere of Trump’s presidency was apparent even before his inauguration, when his opponents predicted that minorities of all types would immediately be put in concentration camps upon the upon his ascension to the Oval Office. That these dire predictions failed to come true – just as the right’s apocalyptic prophesies about Obama’s presidency failed to materialize – has not tempered Americans’ fascination with casting him as the second-coming of Hitler.
The danger of the current political climate is that focusing on the terrible things that Donald Trump says obfuscates the terrible things that he and his predecessors have done. Pretending that Trump is the most morally abominable person to ever occupy the White House, and that his most unforgivable sins are thoughts and words, overlooks the truly awful things that the president, and the rest of the American government, do. But Americans are always reliable in their ability to focus on the wrong thing. Poetically, as Americans rose in outrage over reported comments by the president, the House of Representatives bipartisanly voted to continue the federal government’s unconstitutional and immoral program of spying on them.
None of this is to say that words aren’t important, nor is it a defense of Donald Trump or what he says. Rather, this is a plea for Americans to be outraged at the right things. It’s entirely possible to oppose what a president does and what he says. But if you’re going to pick one, America, oppose all the immoral things that all the presidents do.