The Politics of Mean

By Eric Segall

The President of the United States is one of the few democratically elected leaders in the world who is both the administrative leader of the government and the symbolic head of the Country. In many nations, these roles are divided between a President and a Prime Minister or even a Prime Minister and royalty with no official governmental responsibilities. This dual capacity of our Chief Executive makes it imperative that the President carry out his duties with class and character because his behavior has a role-model quality that affects not just our youth but our entire national character. This is why I thought Bill Clinton should have resigned the Presidency after we found out that he lied under oath about having sexual relations with a White House intern. His basic defense, that having oral intimacy is not “having sex,” I believe, had negative consequences for a generation of young Americans, and his obvious lying and truth-cutting was not the kind of behavior we want from an American President.

The hallmark of President Trump’s Presidency, so far, is the politics of mean. Trump’s behavior strongly suggests that it is okay to respond to the professional with the personal. Over the last couple of days, Trump used Twitter to repeat his campaign nickname for the former Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and First Lady, “Crooked Hilary.” He also called congressman Adam Schiff “sleazy.” Of course, these insults are just the tip of the iceberg.

As the New York Times documented last week (or more accurately updated), Trump insults his political and other opponents so regularly that we have almost become numb to his misbehavior. He has said among many other things, that he ran “Lindsey Graham out of the race like a little boy”; that Mitt Romney was “a disaster candidate who had no guts and choked”; that Glen Beck is “dumb as a rock”; that Jeb Bush is a “disaster to himself and his family”; that Rick Perry, now his Secretary of Energy, “should be forced to take an IQ test”; and that Rand Paul “reminds me of a spoiled brat without a proper functioning brain.” As the New York Times summary shows, Trump uses the same type of rhetoric for non-political figures, labor unions, companies he doesn’t like, and even the American people.

Reasonable people can disagree over many of the policy choices Trump favors and even whether his longstanding Russian partners and investors in his businesses pose a security risk to the United States. Law professors are currently disagreeing over many legal issues surrounding Trump, such as whether he is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause by keeping the profits from his businesses, whether he can be indicted while holding Office, and the nature and extent of the pardon power. But I can’t imagine any responsible person thinking that Trump’s politics of vicious name calling and character assassination is appropriate behavior for the President of the United States. Is this how we want politics conducted at the local and state levels? Is this how we want our children and young adults to interact with people they disagree with? Is this how we want the rest of the world to see our politics? Trump’s aggressive and offensive insults might have played well during his stint as a reality television star who took joy in firing people, but it is simply a horrific management style for the President of the United States.

So, what to do? By all accounts, Trump listens most to his family. I’d like to believe that at least his wife and maybe Ivanka don’t like their husband and father respectively acting like an angry twelve-year-old bully who responds to every disagreement with the intellectual equivalent of “I’m rubber, your glue, and everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” If they already have tried, and failed, then those around him need to take more immediate action.

It is also hard to believe that many in his Cabinet or the Vice-President approve of this playground behavior. Are they just so scared of Trump that they can’t point out how harmful his insulting tweets are to our nation’s discourse. My guess is that Trump goes out of his way to appeal to the narrowest part of his base defined by hate and prejudice. This makes his rhetoric even more divisive and dangerous. Don’t any of advisers understand, out of self-interest if nothing else, that the insults do not advance and almost certainly hurt the causes they care most about? Isn’t there someone who will stand up and say, “Enough, Mr. President, enough.”

The President has a new Communications Director named Anthony Scarramucci. It turns out that his cousin Jimmy grew up three houses from me. I didn’t know Anthony well but I played sports with Jimmy, who was a very good athlete. Jimmy also understood and practiced the ideals and benefits of friendly competition. Trump is almost certainly the kind of person who would cheat at sports, be a classless winner, and an even worse sore loser. Jimmy would have hated all that (at least as a child). 

Maybe the New Communications Director, who says he “loves’ the President, can do the country (and the President) a huge favor by showing some tough love. Belittling and shaming others is not good politics for the local city councilperson much less for the leader of the free world. Trump’s rhetoric of mean is contagious, dangerous, and unnecessary. The country needs an intervention, and it needs it fast.