We have always taken pains to judge our political leaders through a lens that is part partisan affiliation and part deep-seated values.
These values include consistency and truth-telling. We generally don’t tolerate being deceived or lied to, even if the deceiver shares our political stripes. “Flip-flopping” is anathema in our political world. Consequently, when a politician does change their mind, they feel the necessity of explaining why to a skeptical populace.
These rules seemingly do NOT apply to President Trump. He has dramatically “flip flopped” on so many issues that it’s difficult to know exactly where he stands.
To highlight just a few:
1) He originally called the Electoral College “a disaster for democracy” until it saved his election, whereupon it became “genius.” He has said so many different things regarding H-1B visas and the minimum wage that your guess is as good as mine as to what his policy would be today.
2) President Trump had said, “The Republicans who want to cut Social Security and Medicaid are wrong.” In his announcement speech, he made his position clear (or so we thought): “Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Have to do it.” Now, the president has backed the House Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with a plan that would change the financing of Medicaid to a block-grant system inevitably reducing the funding dramatically. We have yet to see if Social Security is on the chopping block as well.
3) Trump, during the campaign, consistently derided the robust stock market under his predecessor as illusory: “We have a very false economy…The only thing that is strong is the artificial stock market.” Now that he is the president, he points to its upward rise as proof of his success.
4) On the campaign trail he was asked about the positive unemployment numbers that were being reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rather than concede that the Obama Administration had succeeded in reducing unemployment, he instead attacked the messenger’s “phony employment numbers.”
He suggested that the rate of unemployment, reported at 5 percent, “was really 22 percent” or even “42 percent.” He wouldn’t stop there, however. He went on to label the unemployment rate “one of the biggest hoaxes in modern American politics.” On several other occasions he characterized the figures calculated by career economists as “phony.”
Recently, President Trump received the February jobs report, which continued the positive trends of the Obama years. Since it’s during his watch, all is forgiven with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and now Trump claims their reports are accurate and solid proof of the validity of his economic policies. What about his earlier statements? When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked, he responded, “I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly. ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.’”
If we have learned anything during the brief time that Donald Trump has been president, it is that he is unlike any other. He is not about truth-telling and consistency but rather dwells in a different universe. Last fall, Sen. Marco Rubio called him a Twitter troll and later was called “our troll in chief,” to which Mr. Trump replied “a great compliment.”
Troll culture has been evolving through the internet for the past 20 odd years. Political reporter Amanda Hess recently described exactly what is involved in trolling: “Trolling describes an ethos. The troll is a figure who skips across the web, saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in his wake and feasting on the attention, good or bad.”
So, when he calls for a 2,000-mile wall or suggests banning an entire religion from entering the country, most of his supporters understand his rants as exactly that, rather than actual plans. But there is a dark side to the world of trolling that President Trump now inhabits. As Ms. Hess points out, “Trolls work by exploiting the gap between the virtual and the real. They float…across the web, then reach out and rattle people who are pinned down by fixed ideologies, moral codes, and human emotions.”
“Trolls” are typically outsiders who rebel against the dominant groups and generally terrorize the status quo from the sidelines. The election of Mr. Trump has made “our troll in chief” the consummate insider. The end result is extremely alarming for many of us in that the troll sensibility now dominates our political landscape. The fox is now in charge of the hen house. Forget our old litmus tests of truth-telling, consistency, ideology, moral codes, principles and empathy; all that matters now is raw power, disruption and planned chaos.
Many people I have talked to are at a loss on how to navigate this new world of outrageous presidential rants and Tweets. Liberal television commentator Rachel Maddow, recognizing perhaps more than most what exactly is going on, has decided to ignore Mr. Trump’s Tweets and focus on policy. She has embraced as her litmus test our old-fashioned standards of consistency and truth-telling.
Perhaps we should follow her lead.