Saturday put the lie to a common whine of the so-called alt right — the loose movement of anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and freelance bigots emboldened by President Trump’s election — that they are somehow deprived of their free speech rights. Nonsense. If being mocked, booed, and heckled is the alt-right’s idea of censorship, it may be time to rethink who gets labeled a “snowflake” in today’s political environment.
The fears of “antifa” violence directed at conservatives also turned out to be overblown. A few counterprotesters in black outfits showed up, made some noise, and then went home. Sorry, but left-wing cosplay isn’t a security threat comparable to neo-Nazi violence.
I’m starting to see efforts by the right to transform antifa (for “anti-fascist”) activists into a massive, violent force determined to stamp out free speech and supported by everyone to the left of, say, Hillary Clinton. The reality is that they’re the new New Black Panther Party, a bogeyman trotted out to frighten viewers of Fox News but not especially visible anywhere else. Don’t be fooled.
It feels like events are accelerating and spinning out of control, and that whatever we’ve been going through with Trump is about to come to an end. I’m specifically not wording this as meaning the end of the Trump presidency, though I’m not ruling it out. My prediction that he’d somehow be gone by Labor Day may yet be on target. These are very strange, ugly, scary days.
I’ve been trying to find the right context for President Trump’s repugnant response to the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. To say that he failed the moral test of being president doesn’t quite get at it, because he’s failed every moral test ever put in front of him. But this was by far his most important test, so it’s much worse than his previous failures, even if his actual words were no different from what he’s said and hasn’t said before.
His performance Saturday was deliberate and perverse. The most plausible explanation is that he was consciously, specifically trying not to alienate the ignorant racists and white supremacists who comprise a large part of his base. I’m glad that other Republicans, including Ted Cruz, gave evil its proper name. But will they take action against Trump? Not likely.
Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020.
I think the key to understanding President Trump’s ban on transgender troops is contained within a much-discussed Politico story. According to the article, by Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey, Trump was trying to appease right-wing House members who wanted Trump to rescind funding of transgender-related medical treatment for military personnel. In return, those House members would support funding for the wall that Mexico is not going to pay for.
Now, refusing to pay for medical care is bad enough. But Trump went much further than anyone expected by banning transgender people from the military altogether. Here is the key excerpt from Bade and Dawsey’s story:
“This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” a senior House Republican aide said in an email. The source said that although GOP leaders asked the White House for help on the taxpayer matter specifically, they weren’t expecting — and got no heads up on — Trump’s far-reaching directive.
So what happened? My guess is that Trump, raging at the world and lacking any understanding of the issues, didn’t realize that right-wingers for the most part were not asking him to ban trans troops. As you can see from this Washington Post analysis by James Hohmann, the most conservative Republicans from the most conservative parts of the country are speaking out against the ban. Trump literally didn’t know what he was doing.
And it wouldn’t be the first time. During the campaign, you may recall, Trump said that women who undergo abortion should face “some form of punishment,” as CNN reported. Leaders of the anti-abortion-rights movement freaked out, waving their arms frantically and insisting that they don’t say things like that anymore. Trump backed down. To use a word that is quickly becoming overused, Trump is strictly transactional. He made his comments not out of any deeply felt sense that abortion is always wrong but to cement his ties to the religious right. And he tweaked his position once he realized he was off-key.
So it is, I suspect, with the transgender ban. This was not deeply thought-out; by all accounts, it wasn’t thought-out at all. It was Trump on Twitter, doing what he does. He blundered into going much further than anyone other than Tony Perkins (New York Times article) was asking him to go, and now he — and all of us — have to live with it.
Let me close on a less what-does-it-mean-politically note. Wednesday turned out to be one of the worst days of the Trump presidency — perhaps the worst since he announced the first version of his ban on Muslims trying to enter the country. We should all feel sick and appalled at Trump’s casual cruelty and his willingness to indulge hatred if he thinks it will give him some momentary advantage.
Note: On Thursday, July 27, the BSA’s chief scout executive, Mike Surbaugh, issued a strong statement about Trump’s speech that said in part, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.” Read the whole thing here.
Donald Trump contaminates everything he touches. So no one should have been surprised when his speech at the Boy Scouts’ national jamboree took a nasty turn into partisan politics. After all, it’s always about him.
But there is a larger issue at stake here: the fate of the Boy Scouts of America, which has been slowly evolving out of its discriminatory past. As an Eagle scout, a former scoutmaster, and the father of an Eagle scout, I really care about the future of the organization. And I’m concerned that President Trump’s toxic rhetoric will stain a movement already seen by many as anachronistic.
… And you can listen to the results on SoundCloud. Thank you to Jeff Semon and Ed Lyons for inviting me onto “The Lincoln Review.” We talked for more than an hour about media and politics. But it was OK, because we were all drinking. You can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes. I understand that video will be up in a few days as well. God help us.