THE HARM TRUMP DOES
By Frank Bruni Opinion Columnist
A confession: If it weren’t my job to stay on top of all things Trump, I’d take periodic breaks from the news, retreating for days on end.
It’s all too much. It’s all too wearying. The president’s provocations are ceaseless. The media’s coverage of them can be indiscriminate. The plot is oh so convoluted and ridiculously crowded: Which witness is George Kent and which is William Taylor and what happened to that Sondland character and is Vindman a colonel or a lieutenant or both or neither? Help!
I recently read about a poll that showed that the more an American thinks and talks about politics, the angrier he or she is likely to be. Is it any wonder, then, that many Americans try not to think or talk about politics and do their best to purge their consciousness of Donald Trump? I often wish I could join them.
But today is the beginning of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings, and it really is time to snap to attention. It really does matter. What Trump is accused of is no piddling transgression, and it’s the culmination of so much bad behavior — and such rank dishonesty — that you can’t turn away from it. That’s an abdication of responsible citizenship. That’s an insult to the democracy that we’re privileged to live in.
Do Democrats sometimes go overboard in their negative obsession with Trump? Maybe. Do we in the media? Probably. But no president in my adult lifetime has so grossly insulted the office and so unabashedly modeled a kind of behavior that no parent would permit in his or her child. No president has been so flamboyantly unethical and so reckless in his realignment of America’s allegiances. No president has been so poised to squelch dissent and stack the deck in favor of consolidating and perpetuating his power.
But beyond and regardless of all of that, the discrete case on which the impeachment inquiry focuses is galling: A president who was just emerging from an investigation into whether he encouraged foreign interference in the 2016 election actively encouraged foreign interference in the 2020 election, using hundreds of millions of dollars of crucial military aid as leverage to try to get a needy government to smear a potential Democratic rival. That’s what the facts so far have shown.
Or at least that’s how I read them. You can come to your own conclusion. Scratch that: You must come to your own conclusion, because the present juncture is too important to take a pass on, too consequential to tune out. (The Times has a guide to today’s hearing that you can find here.)
Trump’s assault on your senses over the course of his presidency has been designed to numb you to a moment like this one and have you looking the other way when he finally crossed one line too many.
Don’t let him get away with it.
The Age of Self-PromotionThere’s a common contention that we get the presidents we deserve, but for all our faults as a country, I refuse to accept that we deserved Trump. Be that as it may, he’s indisputably a mirror for much of American life in the era of his ascent. Specifically, he epitomizes the age of self-promotion.
There were hucksters long before him and braggarts going back to the beginning of time. American history is rife with similarly slippery operators. But he takes image management, personal advertising and media dominance to a whole new level, at least in the context of the presidency. That befits the amplified influence of the internet in general and social media in particular, which have abetted not only the manipulation of truth but also the contriving of the face you show the world. In a country increasingly populated by marketers instead of makers, each of us is a brand, under the rule of a president whose own brand is everything to him.
And therein lies a problem, which I touch on in my midweek column. The dictates of self-promotion exist in tension with the dictates of professionalism, an absence of which defines the Trump administration and explains its devolution into this current mess, by which I mean the impeachment inquiry. Self-promotion and professionalism aren’t wholly incompatible, but to be too invested in the former is to jeopardize the latter.
Self-promotion doesn’t come with a code of ethics. Professionalism does. Self-promotion encourages exaggeration. Professionalism doesn’t. The goal of self-promotion is attention. The goal of professionalism is accomplishment. Humility is the enemy of self-promotion. Humility — some degree of it — is crucial to professionalism. Professionalism acknowledges an aggregate wisdom deeper than any individual revelation, a shared code more important than any singular cunning. Self-promotion emphasizes me, me, me.
If you’re focused overwhelmingly on self-promotion, you don’t ask whether you’re genuinely up to a task. You ask whether you can convince others that you are. You don’t ask whether you deserve the prize. You ask only if you can lay claim to it. And if you’re a salesman to boot — if, say, you’re Trump — you’re concerned less with reality than with illusion, and confidence matters infinitely more than competence.
So, as I noted in the column, you unhesitatingly claim that you know more about the Islamic State than the military generals tasked with combating it. Trump did that. He also said: “I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most.”
Oh, and there was the time when he told The Associated Press that his “natural instinct for science” gave him a perspective on climate change that serious scientists didn’t have, empowering him to see through their political bias.
Fake it ‘til you make it: That credo has been mentioned incessantly over the past decade, but I didn’t hear it nearly as often before that. I explored that shift in this column from last March. I wrote that with Trump’s rise, America had become not just “the land of the fraud but the home of the knave.” I suppose that was another way of saying that we’re in thrall — and hostage — to the masters of self-promotion.