How to Talk about President Trump?

By Eric Segall

No President in my lifetime (probably ever) has caused as much consternation and soaring negative rhetoric as Donald Trump (and for good reason). Sure, I remember my parents' friends saying that if “Tricky Dick” wins they were going to move out of the country, but times were different then (no cable television or social media). I also do not think either President George W. Bush or President Obama (though it is an intuition not a conclusion based on data) triggered the same level of nasty, name-calling among folks as does Trump (leaving out the fringe right for Obama).

Professor Laurence Tribe, perhaps the leading constitutional scholar of our generation, has repeatedly leveled personal insults at Trump on Twitter. He has called him "the violator-in-chief," said Trump has had a "criminal career," and labeled him "a putz." Last Friday, on the Bill Maher show, my close friend and radio host Pete Dominick called Trump a motherf#cker. There has been no controversy about the remark, and Pete’s timing and the context triggered laughter and applause from the overwhelmingly liberal audience. I have also resorted to vulgar name calling both on the radio and in print.

Yet, as much as I despise Trump, there is something unsettling about possibly disrespecting the office of the Presidency this way. How should we talk about a President as awful as Trump? I have no answers, but a few preliminary thoughts.

It is possible that Trump’s behavior is so uniquely beyond the pale that normal rules do not apply. His tweets, insults, and erratic decision-making provide a license for a certain form of rhetoric that heretofore would have been unacceptable. In other words, this is a one-time-only pass because Trump is so coarse, unfit, and unqualified to be President.

There are plausible objections, however, to those justifications. First, millions of Americans disagree with that assessment. Are we disrespecting them by using such extreme and personal rhetoric? 

Second, no matter how awful the person is who holds the office, isn't the office the same? Is there a line beyond which reasonable people should not cross simply because of the nature of the Office? 

Third, there may be no going back. Future Presidents will of course engender great opposition. Do we want to legitimize the type of nasty and personal name-calling that we see on a daily basis from Trump opponents?

Finally, and this point is somewhat separate, do personal attacks actually help our societal debate about the Presidency? Does Pete's use of mother#cker on Bill Maher damage his credibility to opine in the future about real policy questions raised by the President? For better or for worse, I think Tribe's reputation has, for some law professors on Twitter, been damaged by his relentless personal attacks on the President. At the same time, perhaps Tribe's standing with others has been enhanced by his willingness to put his own scholarly reputation on the line to combat a unique threat to constitutional democracy in the United States. I am not taking sides, just making an observation.

I don't have good answers to any of these questions. My intuition is that for many of us, we have turned personal as a coping mechanism. I wake up every morning in stunned disbelief that this man is the President, and that he is uniquely awful when it comes to the 45 men who have been Presidents of the United States. He is indeed deserving of the harsh personal rhetoric, and if using such language gets us through the day, that is on him not us.

But I am not sure.