The congressional hearings for Amy Coney Barrett have set off another round of whining from Trump supporters about the unfairness of it all. Not the unfairness of the treatment of Judge Barrett—who has handled the hearings well enough that she is likely to be rapidly confirmed—but the unfairness of their treatment at the hands of the irrelevant Never Trumpers who they can’t seem to stop talking about.
The specific argument we’re hearing is that, in exchange for getting good results like conservative justices on the Supreme Court, all we have to do is put up with some dumb presidential tweets that we can easily ignore.
So why can’t we just do that?
This is a bit of an evasion to begin with. The objections to Trump are more numerous and substantive than just his tweets or his manners. You may consult pretty much everything I’ve written, plus the latest numbers on the deficit, the national debt, and the coronavirus death toll.
But let’s only consider those dumb tweets, which are easy to ignore—unless, of course, they happen to include the commander-in-chief promoting a conspiracy theory about major military and foreign policy issues that are vital to national security.
Which is what happened last week.
First, let’s have no illusions: Trump’s tweets and his role as Internet-troll-in-chief are actually a key selling point for many of his supporters. Yet let’s posit, for the sake of argument, that there is a cohort of genteel Trump supporters who really are only here for the policy substance and view his tweets as a cause for embarrassment.
What happens if the tweets say something alarming about the substance? What if the words the president taps out with his thumbs into the little blue box have implications for his policy in the area where he has the most direct and unilateral control?
Consider just one example from the past week: Donald Trump retweeting an insane QAnon-derived conspiracy theory.
The idea, I guess, is that Osama bin Laden is still alive, Barack Obama made a secret deal with Iran to have the SEALs kill a body double, and then either Obama or Biden ordered the murder of a whole SEAL team to cover up the scheme. There is, of course, no basis for any of this. It is the ravings of a bunch of obscure conspiracy theorists ranting on the Internet, which would be nothing new, except that these obscure conspiracy theorists have the ear of the president of the United States.
In our insane news cycle, where one outrageous absurdity is quickly followed by another—precisely because of Trump—it is easy for this story to get lost. But what does it say about the man who is responsible for shaping and implementing America’s foreign policy, the man who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces? What is he going to do if he is susceptible to strange beliefs about imaginary international plots, or if he suspects that the entire military chain of command is lying to him?
That’s why I don’t buy any of the complacency about Trump’s tweeting. From the beginning, his supporters’ whole case in favor of Trump’s tweets was that his uncouth style of expression shows that he is genuine and not just mouthing carefully rehearsed lies to cover up what he really thinks.
If this is even remotely true, then the man with the gravest responsibilities for our national security is off his rocker.
Are we supposed to just ignore that?
Are we supposed to ignore it because of a good Supreme Court appointment? Trump’s role in helping to shape the judiciary is shared with Congress—while his responsibility for national security is more direct, immediate, and unchecked. In his exercise of that responsibility, we can see exactly the chaos we would expect if we don’t ignore his tweets.
Consider President Trump’s recent announcement—by tweet, obviously—that he will withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The point is not whether this is a good idea (it isn’t), but whether Trump has actually thought it through or has any process for doing so.
No sooner did the president announce this than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disavowed the whole thing, while diplomats in Afghanistan described how Trump was undermining negotiations with the Taliban.
This has been par for the course for Trump’s foreign policy, which is frequently made (and unmade) by tweet, with no process of consultation or even any warning to the military and diplomatic officials he himself selected. Foreign policy and military affairs are areas where the president has unusually broad authority. But it is also a very big and demanding job, which requires him to gather information from experts and coordinate many different competing priorities. Trump has routinely abandoned that responsibility in favor of capricious rule by Twitter decree.
It is exactly what you would expect from the kind of guy who wastes his time toying around with crackpot theories on the Internet.
People who want to ignore Trump’s tweets and “just focus on policy” are only fooling themselves. His tweets are not just a personal embarrassment. They are the public evidence of an unstable and incontinent mind, one prone to exaggeration, confabulation, mood swings, and random whims. That in itself is a profound and direct national security danger.
It is revealing to see how this has shaped the presidential race. The most effective argument against Joe Biden is the fear that he won’t really be in charge, that he will just be the figurehead for an administration actually run by left-wing radicals.
The most effective argument against Trump is that he will be in charge, unmoderated by his advisors—and that those irrelevant, easy-to-ignore tweets really do reflect his genuine self.