There are two primary ways to criticize Donald Trump’s presidency right now. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re at odds. And both are showing up in the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers.
The common way for editorial pages to find fault with Trump can be seen in the lead editorial in Friday’s Chicago Tribune: “Mr. President, don’t build that wall”. The Tribune called Trump “impulsive and often reckless with his words,” but limited itself to challenging the president on a matter of policy—that governing our relationship with Mexico.
On the other hand, the lead New York Times editorial the same day also addressed Trump and Mexico, but its headline dipped a toe in the alternative case to be made against the new presidency: “Donald Trump’s Mexico Tantrum.”
Some critics argue that Trump’s opponents play into his hands when they focus on his tweets and obsessions; in the long run it’s his appointments and edicts—greased by a docile Congress—that matter. Others allow that Trump won the election and to the victor go the spoils, and the reason they’ve been living in a nightmare since November isn’t what he’s doing but what he is: someone temperamentally—and perhaps psychologically—unfit to be president, someone whose impulses put not just our democracy but the whole world at risk.
Consider Trump’s insistence that the only reason he lost the popular vote in November is that millions of votes for Hillary Clinton were illegally cast. He demands a full investigation. Some see this as a golden example of a president ruled by vanity and delusion. Others warn that he’s giving cover to Republicans who want to rewrite voting laws and disenfranchise a big chunk of the Democratic electorate. My own view is that whichever argument is true—or truer—we do Trump a favor he’s done nothing to earn by construing any idea that pops out of his head as shrewd, or even coherent.
A more interesting question to me is whether we construe the falsehoods Trump doubles down on as mere lies or as delusions. The other day, the Times’s Charles Blow sounded undecided. “Some have suggested,” wrote Blow, “that we in the media should focus a bit less on [Trump’s] lies—some of them issued in tweets and some in interviews or news conferences—and focus more on policies, particularly the ineptitude of the gathering cabinet and the raft of executive orders that Trump himself is signing.” But to Blow the lies are the point: Trump is fighting a “running war with the truth” in which “he corrupts and corrodes the absoluteness of truth, facts and science.”
“We all have to adjust to this unprecedented assault on the truth and stand ready to vigilantly defend against it,” Blow continued, “because without truth, what’s left? Our president is a pathological liar. Say it. Write it. Never become inured to it. And dispense with the terms of art to describe it. A lie by any other name portends the same.”
The Friday Tribune carried an op-ed column by Charles Krauthammer—no progressive he—who judged Trump on policy grounds and sounded almost as alarmed as Blow. Krauthammer denounced not just the specifics but the sweep of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy, which Krauthammer considers profoundly ignorant of American history, principles, and interests. He noted that last year the prime minister of Singapore warned Senator John McCain that if the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, “you’ll be finished in Asia.”
Now Trump’s pulling us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Do even Americans who voted for Trump because he promised to bring jobs home want America to be “finished in Asia”?
Individual op-ed columnists already say what the more decorous editorial pages seem unwilling to. I wonder if and when the shift will come—from the media objecting institutionally to individual policy positions, to their objecting to the broad sweep and authoritarian tone of the Trump administration, to their declaring Trump a menace in office who needs to be removed.
Trump aide Steve Bannon let it be known that “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut.” That won’t happen. I expect the media to speak back loudly. The question is what they’ll be willing to say.