Donald Trump’s tweets suggesting Joe Scarborough somehow murdered a young woman who died of natural causes nearly 20 years ago are reprehensible. This is in no way because these tweets defame Scarborough. It’s pretty hard to feel bad for a guy whose media presence enabled Trump’s political rise to the point he openly flirted with running as his vice president before making a comic heel turn against Trump. (In fact, back when Scarborough was playing footsie with Trump, left-wing blogs were trafficking in this repugnant conspiracy.) Trump’s tweets are awful because of how they have thrust the deceased girl’s memory and her family into the limelight.
This letter written by the dead woman’s husband asking Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to take down the offending Trump tweets is heart-wrenching. It’s exactly the kind of behavior I feared Trump was capable of in 2016 and loomed large in my mind when I made the decision not to vote for him.
So there’s your ritual malediction against Trump, necessary though it may be. Please don’t pretend to be outraged when now it must be explained, once more with feeling, why a torrent of new condemnations of Trump’s indefensible behavior will have no effect on his supporters or the political dynamic heading into November and beyond. And don’t confuse that with approval of Trump’s rhetoric or tweets.
The grim joke of the 20th century was that one death is a tragedy, 1 million is a statistic. Well, in the 21st century age of information warfare, one man’s libel is an outrage. When thousands do it, we call that “the news.”
A U.S. senator read into the congressional record accusations, wholly without evidence, that an honorable and accomplished man is a gang-rapist for no reason other than that fair democratic elections have rendered them politically impotent to stop his nomination to the Supreme Court. When this happens and, in turn, is enabled and cheered on by the media industrial complex, don’t expect Trump supporters to feel convicted or responsible for what Trump does or says.
When nearly every major news agency in the country is implicated in the vicious social media pile-on and physical threats directed at a Catholic high school kid for the crime of wearing a MAGA hat, to the point outlets such as CNN are quietly settling libel suits, you start to see why Trump voters are nonplussed right now.
When Trump is singled out for his outrageous comments, while Joe Biden gets portrayed as an avuncular goofball for decades of horrifying behavior, it starts to make sense why Trump voters can’t be bothered to care. In 2012, Biden told black voters Mitt Romney was going to “put y’all back in chains.” That’s about as vicious as it gets. Since Biden started running for president in 2020, he has actually threatened to hit another voter who questioned him about his campaign’s addled position on gun rights. He’s also called a voter fat and a liar, and challenged him to an IQ test because he had the audacity to ask Biden about his son’s suspect million-dollars-a-year at a dodgy Ukrainian gas company.
In case you’re wondering if there are any media double standards at work here when Biden gratuitously insults people, this is CNN: “In a human moment defending his son, Biden showed the authenticity, emotion and readiness for a fight that appeals to so many Democrats as they look for someone who can take on Trump.”
Beyond the damage these tweets are doing to this poor deceased woman’s family, are Trump supporters supposed to be outraged that the president is trafficking in a conspiracy theory? Trump-Russia dominated the news for years, the story was largely social media-driven, and the premise behind it was, by the way, completely wrong and rife with obvious factual problems from the outset. Just because the media establishment credulously marched in lockstep, that doesn’t make their reporting on the dominant news story of Trump’s presidency any less of a conspiracy theory. It enabled lawbreaking, dramatically undermined public trust in media and law enforcement, and destroyed lives in the process.
Is the problem that social media platforms aren’t enforcing policies against the president that would get other users banned? Somehow social media platforms have no trouble banning and censoring mainstream conservative outlets, to say nothing of how the mere mention of a Chinese propaganda agency causes Google to disappear your comments. The president getting a hall pass isn’t going to outrage anyone on Team Trump when you consider how social media platforms are generally perceived as having policies that are inconsistent, unfair, and cavalier about censorship.
Power vs. Principles
Obviously, there’s no shortage of institutional examples of egregious behavior that makes Trump’s vicious outburst look less like the unhinged ravings of an unstable individual and more like comments regrettably consistent with a political discourse that’s long been tolerant of destructive and offensive tactics.
Usually at this point in the argument, some opponent of Trump is likely to claim merely making note of this obvious reality is unfair and deflecting blame from the president — something, something, “whataboutism,” etc. The real argument that needs to be dealt with here is “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
To summarize recent political history from the perspective of Trump supporters: For a long time, those on the right, who ostensibly and conspicuously aligned themselves with public virtue, tried to hold themselves to a higher standard in the belief they would be rewarded. The left and their enablers in the media countered by suggesting every example of someone on the right failing to be virtuous was discrediting. This was always an illogical argument insofar as being hypocritical doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Morally, it’s better to profess the need for virtue and fail to be virtuous, than to reject the accountability that comes with a public embrace of virtue. Politically, however, public virtue is a tactical error if you’re willing to exploit it.
With Trump’s election, there was drastic and, yes, problematic unburdening of this strategic disadvantage public virtue presented. The quote that’s been in vogue on the right hails from sci-fi writer Frank Herbert: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.” At the same time, there’s little doubt the left consciously weaponized this insight long before Trump — see Saul Alinsky’s command to “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
We’ve now arrived at a point where each side is excusing their own immoral rhetorical excesses, while trying to hold the other accountable. However, that situation implies some kind of stalemate, when there’s a big imbalance of power. Even with Trump in the White House, there’s a not unreasonable perception that the media and other institutions ultimately have more power and influence and will outlast him. They continue to seek the safety of the herd, portraying their own inexcusable and vicious attacks on the portion of America that doesn’t share their center-left worldview as the product of reasonable consensus.
Return to Virtue
The media remain oblivious to complaints they regularly make generalizations and assume malicious intent among large swaths of voters. They then proceed to act as if millions of voters are the target, then no individual voter will be offended. If that didn’t anger Trump voters enough, the media have used the outrage over this gambit to assume the mantle of victimhood. They recast legitimate criticism as irrationally threatening, and disparage any colleagues in conservative media or who otherwise step out of line to question their groupthink.
To repeat, none of this is being explained to excuse Trump’s tweets cruelly exploiting the memory and reputation of an innocent young woman to go after a disingenuous cable news host. It’s not just about “the media” vs. Trump either. There’s a large complicated dynamic here, the problems are systemic, and we didn’t arrive at a situation where the leader of the free world could or would say these things out of the blue. If your first impulse is that you are not part of this problem, well, you most certainly are — even if it’s a result of what you’ve passively tolerated.
If we want a society where our leaders act virtuously, their critics need to be virtuous as well. The only way to really hold Trump accountable is to hold ourselves and our institutions to higher standards, so that when we reject mean-spiritedness we do it according to a set of principles we all agree on.
Trump merely exposed existing contradictions, where the decorum and civility of official Washington had already become fig leaves for wielding power in a way that ran roughshod over the desires of “deplorable” and “irredeemable” citizens. Until we all change our own behavior and treat each other with respect regardless of our disagreements, we’re going to continue to get the nasty discourse we deserve, regardless of who’s president or how much the media feels entitled to complain about their rhetoric.