How do we deal with the performance of this president, who says day is night and left is right? That is what BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs worries about as some fires get hotter in America, while others are ignored.
The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” On the other hand, just over a hundred years ago Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the Supreme Court that freedom of speech notwithstanding, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.
But President Trump couldn’t care less. He yells fire almost every day of the week. The “rigged” elections (where he says polling places will have to be “monitored,” which sends chills up my spine because I lived in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago). The threat to the flag (The American flag? The Confederate flag? Take your pick). The protestors in Portland, Austin, Seattle, and with more presidential provocations, coming soon to a city near you. Fires are burning and only he can put them out.
Millions of gullible Americans buy it. They are manufactured crises, but these people scream fire alongside the president. Which puts us all in peril.
Except when Trump’s trying to minimize a genuine crisis because it reflects abysmally on him (like, say, a pandemic he has mortally mismanaged). Then he tells us there is no fire, even though it’s raging out of control, more an inferno than the “embers” he claims it is. Of course the pathetic paradox from his lying lips is, there is no fire because he is putting it out.
Millions of gullible Americans buy that too. Which means, although in some places it’s burning hotter by the day, they pretend it’s not. Like their president. Which also puts us in peril.
Take Portland. Last week Trump called it “worse than Afghanistan, by far… worse than anything anyone’s ever seen.” No it’s not Mr. President. I’ve been in Afghanistan. Portland’s not worse. I’d say Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, maybe North Korea— the nation ruthlessly run by the dictator with whom Trump “fell in love”— have been worse than anything anyone’s ever seen. Not Portland.
Yes, there was despicable violent criminal behavior in the streets before Trump sent in the troops. And as former Senator Gary Hart knowingly wrote in The New York Times, a president can proclaim a “national emergency.” But Trump’s perverted perspective notwithstanding, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights isn’t a national emergency. Not even a hardcore corps of rioters is a national emergency. It was the president yelling fire that fanned the flames and turned Portland into the hotspot it is now. Even Tom Ridge, the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, condemned this president’s use of troops this way, contemptuously calling them Trump’s “personal militia.”
Ask yourself this: if you heard about camouflaged troops somewhere taking hold of a city’s streets against the will of local leaders— firing tear gas into crowds, arresting citizens without warrants, holding them without charges, even using batons against medics (who have red crosses on their clothing) while they treat an injured man, as if they are enemies of the state— where would you think it was happening: in Iran? Russia? Syria? Any of the above and more. But not in our democracy. Not in Portland.
At least not until now.
Maybe the satirical magazine The Onion framed it best: “Is it normal for citizens in a democracy to be taken from the street in unmarked cars without a warrant? Towards the end, it is.”
Over the course of my career, I’ve covered despots. Despots are the kinds of leaders who yell fire in a crowded theater because they believe they have absolute power over their people. Despots are the kinds of leaders who threaten to dispatch “50,000, 60,000” troops into their nation’s cities, before arbitrarily upping the number to “75,000,” as Trump did in a FoxNews interview last week. Despots are the kinds of leaders who say things about their leverage like, “The authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
What’s frightening is, if those were Hitler’s words, or Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, Kim Jong-un’s, you wouldn’t be surprised. But they weren’t. They were Trump’s.
Equally frightening is that sometimes, although there’s a fire burning and the nation needs a firm hand, Trump says there isn’t. A case in point: the ever-higher death toll from the pandemic, which makes America “Number One” but not in the way Trump wants. So he literally ignores the facts, ignores the fire, telling Chris Wallace in his famous “cognitive test” interview that his performance with the pandemic has made our country “the envy of the world.”
One can only say cynically, “Yeah, right.”
Hardly a word of mourning, by the way, for all who’ve suffered. Only words about testing, as if he can blame having more deaths on having more tests. He can’t… unless you consider an autopsy a test.
Another case in point: last week our president talked on the phone with Russia’s president. The White House says they discussed the coronavirus and arms control. But the intelligence community’s assessment that Russian hackers are trying to steal vaccine research from American labs, and also still influencing the upcoming elections? Not a word. And those bounties Russia reportedly has paid to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan to kill American troops? Not a word.
Nothing to see here folks, no fires are burning, you can return to your homes.
A lot was written last week about the president’s “shift in tone,” finally at least acknowledging the severity of the pandemic (in some places) and even the importance of masks. From an ethical president, this would be commendable. But if history is our guide, and especially from what Richard North Patterson described in The Bulwark as “a mentally disordered demagogue bereft of principles and starved for adulation,” we can expect his “shift” to have a very short half-life.
In fact as another writer put it, the bar is so low that “when Trump manages to read a scripted message without interjecting something especially bizarre, he is praised. There should be a gong, a buzzer, or an electric shock every time he lies.”
And he is lying, every time he says there is no fire when there is. And every time he screams “fire” when there isn’t. There is a cost to both. A cost to our democracy, a cost to our very lives. For some Americans, November’s election will be a test of their gullibility. For the rest of us, it will be a test of our tolerance.