Now that Donald Trump has decided that he wants to expand his terrifying use of unidentified shock troops in American cities beyond Portland -- a tactic that Professor Dorf has brilliantly (and accurately) likened to Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea -- people are finally feeling some sense of growing alarm about the lawless intent of this president and his enablers. One hopes that it is not too late.
Even in the midst of existential crises like this one, it continues to surprise me how important our word choices are. What we call things frames how we think about things (of course), and it is no mistake that demagogues and autocrats abuse language to minimize or maximize matters to their own purposes. Hence, Trump's dismissal of increases in reported coronavirus cases as merely "the sniffles" -- as if hospitals (already stretched to capacity) say, "Oh, a positive case with trivial symptoms; looks like we'd better expedite his admission papers!" -- is completely normal even for dimwitted politicians like him and is part of the drip drip drip of trying to get people not to blame him for being the failure that he is.
How do sloppy and misleading word choices make matters worse today? There are the typical Orwellian abuses of language for political ends ("Biden is a puppet of the radical left!"), but there are also inadvertent choices that end up weakening our responses and making Trump appear stronger than he is. This is a big problem, for multiple reasons.
In the case of Trump's embrace of disturbingly classic fascist tactics, I am worried to see his paramilitary goon squads being referred to simply as "feds." This authoritarian crisis is most definitely not a federalism question, at least not at its core. If Trump did not have the power to use Border Patrol agents for his political ends but did have the power to use state militias, the problem would be the same. Yes, state and local leaders are right to decry a federalization of the public safety response to isolated acts of violence or destruction within larger political protests, and I am glad that they are being vocal about it.
Even so, we would have a much less worrisome problem if the federally invoked personnel were acting according to the rule of law. If they were being used only to respond to identified and serious problems of public order; if they themselves were fully identified (since they do not need to work undercover for these purposes -- indeed, quite the opposite); if they were acting on probable cause or with valid warrants; if they were stopping and seizing people only after stating their reasons and where the suspects were being taken; if they kept records of seizures; and if they were not intimidating people into waiving their rights -- if all of those things were being handled appropriately, people would have less reason to worry that these were federal employees rather than non-federal ones.
There is reason to worry, of course, given that we do care about whether agencies that are supposed to enforce immigration laws are suddenly being used to deal with local issues -- even those local issues involving federal properties. Again, however, none of that would carry a heavy threat of incipient fascism. And when something becomes a federal issue simply because federal property is involved -- especially in the western half of the country, where "federal lands" encompass about half of total land area in many states -- this itself is a possible path to egregious overreach.
If the federal government is allowed to rampantly overreact to what amounts to minor property crimes against federal buildings, then we are one step closer to false-flag operations being used by Trump's supporters to create the pretext for lawless crackdowns. Historians are still unsure whether the Reichstag Fire was set by Nazis to justify jailing their political opponents, but the bottom line is that would-be dictators use such situations opportunistically. Trump has made it clear that his continued (and, if he has his way, ultimately absolute) power can be justified by pointing to "out of control" cities and the need to "dominate the battlespace."
So our real problem here is not that Trump sent in "the feds" or even "federal troops." Treating it that way trivializes the threat to the rule of law, and we should be clear that we are talking about Trump's abuse of presidential power to terrorize Americans who oppose him, potentially creating a United States-centered update of Argentina's and most infamously Chile's desaparecidos -- "the disappeared."
It is of the highest level of seriousness when we have even news and opinion sources who oppose Trump using cleansing and imprecise language when discussing his atrocious decisions and actions. Even short of that level of importance, however, it continues to be frustrating to see journalists misuse language and misapply professional standards in ways that are helpful to Trump.
To take a relatively blase example, a recently news article in The Washington Post addressed the important question of why wearing face coverings during the Covid-19 crisis became a politically divisive issue. The article began:
It is true that the Surgeon General's tweet began with the now-risible claim that masks "are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus." Even so, the remainder of that sentence was this: "but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!""By any measure, the United States has some of the top public health experts in the world. Yet as the novel coronavirus began to spread early this year, these U.S. experts repeatedly recommended against a simple tactic to prevent spreading the infection: face masks.
"But weeks later, the advice was reversed."
The Post's article makes it sound as though medical professionals in general were surprised that masks ended up being a good idea. The reality at the time, however, was that virtually all of the public statements about masks were couched as a matter of priorities: Don't start buying up masks that will do much more good if worn by health care workers. The advice was reversed when that unintended effect was no longer an issue, as it became obvious that people could make their own masks rather easily (or buy them cheaply) without competing for medical-grade masks.
This is a bit more than a matter of simple word choice, a la "the feds" rather than "unidentified Trump-directed thugs." Still, the point is that a news source that in no way should be seen as deliberately pro-Trump framed this important issue in a way that made it seem that one could reasonably have heard the medical community to be saying what Trump now says: "Masks are unneeded, so let people be free."
Even more than the inadvertently Trump-assisting framing through the use of true-but-not-truthful statements, however, I am constantly frustrated by the idea that Trump's actions are a matter of political "genius," or words to that effect. Even the lead editorial in today's Post, which appropriately and firmly criticized Trump's use of shock troops in U.S. cities, included this:
"The president is a master of distraction and misdirection; predictably, he has seized on the disorder in Portland to deflect attention from the pandemic and to exploit the country’s deepening tribal divisions, which have served his political purposes so well."But Trump is not a "master" of anything. Less than two weeks after he was inaugurated in 2017, I published "Trump Is No More a Political Genius Than Lottery Winners Are Financial Wizards," here on Dorf on Law. Back then, people were hailing him as an evil genius who masterfully manipulated his followers and beat the media through shrewdly crafted messaging. All of which was (and is) false.
As I described it back then, this is essentially a variation on the question of whether special men make history or history makes some men seem special. In Trump's case, he is the beneficiary of a political and media culture in which his particular pathologies and excesses ended up fitting perfectly into the moment (with big assists from Vladimir Putin and James Comey).
There is no evidence that Trump, for example, consciously uses anything to "deflect" people's attention from one thing or another. Some demagogues do indeed engage in such strategies, but Trump simply has shown no evidence that he is responding strategically to anything. He is a sociopath and a narcissist, and he seeks to create situations in which he can make himself feel personally validated. When frustrated, he lashes out and says something stupid or shocking, rather than actually making an argument. That stops the immediate pain for him, but that is not mastery of anything. That is merely stimulus and response.
Why does the difference matter? First, it makes people give Trump credit for being strategic, which implies that he is several moves ahead, which I will discuss in a moment. Second, however, is the much more important point that this difference is absolutely essential to correcting the Biden-style "Trump is the ultimate problem" description of our current reality.
If Trump is a "master of distraction" or a political genius of some sort, then getting rid of him solves our problem, at least to a significant degree (with some cleanup of collateral issues still to be done). But because Trump is a fool -- a dangerous fool, but still a fool -- it is important to understand why this particular fool is able to do what he does at this particular time.
Although the U.S. media have made important strides in reducing their reliance on false equivalence, and especially in changing their habit of refusing to call a lie a lie, the press's treatment of Trump is still a problem to this day. Much more importantly, treating Trump as a uniquely gifted political savant makes it easier to ignore that it was the Republican Party's generation-long descent into madness that made Trump not merely possible but almost inevitable.
This means that Trump simply did the non-genius things that he does, and he happened to fit into the opening that Republicans had created for a reality-denying bigot like him. He remains the rancid version of the sweet character Chauncy Gardener from the brilliant 1979 political satire "Being There," in which an innocent dolt said things that "worked" not because he knew what he was saying but because the empty things that he said happened to land in ways that people misunderstood and took seriously.
Trump has never adjusted his approach in a way that tracked with anything other than a short attention span and a desire to lash out at people who criticize him. Nonetheless, political commentators continue to peddle the "genius" line. For example, one of the guys on The Post's roster of puzzlingly underqualified op-ed columnists, David von Drehle, wrote a piece three months ago under the title: “Trump’s Handling of the Pandemic is a Political Master Class.” The evidence of mastery? Trump refused to take responsbility for the pandemic.
You might be asking: "Wait. What? It was politically masterful to refuse to take responsibility as president for a national crisis?" Well yes, said our intrepid pundit. Trump had first threatened to order governors to do something stupid, at which point the governors said that Trump did not have the power to order them to do so. Trump then said, "OK, you're on your own."
See? Even though the pundit admitted that Trump has no political understanding as we commonly think of it, we were assured that Trump is simply a natural -- like a brilliant musician with a great ear but who cannot even read music. He manipulated those traditionally trained political operators in governors' mansions like a puppet master, and they fell for it!! "Never was a man happier to be pronounced powerless." Right.
This was absurd at the time, because as always, there was no evidence that Trump was playing n-dimensional chess or outfoxing his opponents. He had tried to be a bully, and when called on it, he petulantly said that he never wanted the responsiblity in the first place. The idea that this would go well for him -- that a national disaster would not boomerang on the resident of the Oval Office -- was never serious. ("Oh, but he survived the 'Access Hollywood' tape." Yes, and 140,000 Americans had not been killed by an infectious disease.)
Still, one supposes that it was possible for von Drehle's drivel to be proved correct. Are people in the United States holding Trump harmless, blaming governors in every state for not coordinating what was necessary to stop a crisis that Trump downplayed? Of course not. The governors who have acted like Trump are now being vilified, but the others (regardless of party) are being applauded. Trump is most definitely not floating above the fray.
This past weekend, The New York Times published an important article explaining just how badly this has damaged Trump politically: "Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus," with a helpful subtitle: "The roots of the nation’s current inability to control the pandemic can be traced to mid-April, when the White House embraced overly rosy projections to proclaim victory and move on."
In the end, Trump's handling of the Portland stormtroopers situation is not evidence of political genius, and he is not able to intuit what political professionals fail to see in ways that help him politically. He has blundered into a political environment in which the Republican Party had spent decades assiduously plowing the political ground from which an ignorant, bigoted carnival barker could thrive.
Trump is what he appears to be: an insecure man who will stop at nothing to gain power and punish his enemies. We must never forget that that is true, because it does mean that one needs to be uniquely careful in responding to him. But ascribing genius where there is none -- indeed, imagining minimally intentioned action where there is nothing but brute instinct -- misunderstands the man and the moment.