We were bound to get here eventually, I guess. We’ve been circling the drain for the past eight days, ever since Trump first melted down Washington with tweets saying that a group of four freshman progressive lawmakers, all women of color, should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” before telling anyone how America should be run. When this move was widely decried as racist, Trump naturally doubled and tripled down using his ordinary playbook: What I did wasn’t so bad, and actually it’s my enemies who did that bad thing! Which is where we landed Monday, when Trump finally announced that, as luck would have it, it was the lawmakers he’d attacked who were the real racists.
The remark came just one day after GOP senator Ron Johnson, who apparently drew the short end of the stick at the caucus meetings, was trotted out to the Sunday shows to offer the mealy-mouthed “I-don’t-agree-but-it-wasn’t-racist” gloss that is rapidly becoming as central a plank in the GOP platform as tax cuts for the rich. Speaking for pretty much every lawmaker Trump holds hostage, Johnson told CNN’s Dana Bash that “That’s his opinion; I don’t agree with it.”
Johnson went on: “I would say in general the whole ‘America: Love it or leave it’ is not a new sentiment. You know, back in the ’60s that wasn’t considered racist. I just find it very unfortunate that so many parts of our public debate right now are getting immediately stuck inside a racial framework.”
This is nothing but a reprehensible whitewash: Johnson creating a fantasy version of what Trump said—or, more accurately, ignoring Trump’s original comments and focusing on the slightly less offensive ones he pivoted to later—because the initial ones are impossible to defend. There is a world of rhetorical difference between “If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave” and Trump’s plain-as-day assertion that elected women of color should be ignored here until they’d fixed the problems of their “own” countries over there. (Do we need to remind anyone at this point that three of the four women were born in the United States?) If Ron Johnson can’t (or won’t) tell the difference, perhaps nobody should trust him with any particularly important legislative decisions about the nation’s future.
But all this is tired stuff. The Trump presidency consists only of Trump dragging the nation into unbearably stupid slapfight after unbearably stupid slapfight. Nobody is surprised anymore when Republican officials cower and skulk and roll over to excuse the president’s latest bout of ludicrous behavior.
Given all this, one begins to understand why Trump’s defenders and opponents alike have begun to settle on a common narrative for why Trump picks these fights: Because, they argue, it plays to his political advantage, riling up his base, bludgeoning everyone else into a stupor, dragging the Democrats down to his level.
It’s easy to see why many of Trump’s #Resistance adversaries fall into this sort of thinking. After all, the Trump presidency has been a time during which things once thought unthinkable—my god, a racist president!—come to horrifying life before their eyes. Many of them thus tend to see him not only as a reprehensible leader, but also as a terrifyingly capable one: a cunning manipulator playing America’s darkest fears and desires like a musical instrument, bending us irresistibly to his dark purposes. This sort of thinking can best be seen in some of the wilder tin-hat corners of Trump-Russia conspiracy groups.
And, of course, it’s no secret why Trumpworld feels that Trump’s pugnaciousness redounds to his benefit—because, for that crowd, everything redounds to Trump’s benefit. He’s the master of 4-D chess!
I’m not so sure. One of the most fascinating things about watching Trump navigate controversies like this is the way in which his incendiary statements, with enough repetition, seem to collapse for him into a sort of involuntary tic. If you watch for it, you can trace the trajectory day by day: First, some one-off tweet or rally ad-lib sparks a ruckus. This kicks a sort of rapidly decaying feedback loop: The TV yakkers can’t stop talking about the ruckus, which means Trump, a media creature who often picks his daily crises from the morning news, can’t stop pugilistically defending himself, which gives the yakkers more to talk about, and so on.
After a few days of this, the controversy being discussed has irretrievably ossified in some high-traffic area of the president’s increasingly cluttered brain, such that from then on he seems to have difficulty discussing any subject in the neighborhood of the controversy without wading in again. (This also happens with smaller, more innocuous things—say, Trump’s regular mini-monologue about how he was the genius who named the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, or his regular and suspiciously similar “Sir” stories, or his repeated insistences that the eventual Mexican border wall be “see-through,” so that nobody gets crushed unexpectedly by the bags of drugs cartels hurl over.)
If you’re a reluctant Trump supporter—say, a man like Ron Johnson—the idea that Trump is wielding his little spats and fights as a political weapon is likely a source of comfort to you. After all, the alternative—that there is no master plan, that Trump decides to pick fights like a dog decides to chase cars, that we are currently presided over by a man in thrall to every sharp-elbowed impulse of his media-addled mind—is a very grim thought indeed.