Jill: When was the last time one of your elderly uncles went on a tear about a longtime nemesis, and you realized he was talking about someone who had been dead for seven months? Maybe never, right? But if it did happen, you might gently point out the person had passed away or try a diversionary tactic to move the conversation along in a more constructive, less offensive direction. You might try especially hard if the person in question was generally considered a hero, unlike your uncle, who was generally considered a crank.
Unfortunately, nobody can do that when the elderly ranter is the U.S. president letting loose on Twitter.
A lot of people are debating whether President Donald Trump’s behavior and language are getting worse, by which they mean more unhinged and increasingly indistinguishable from those long lists of psychological behaviors suggesting one diagnosis or another. If you’re doing this, this and this, you might be a narcissist. Or an old person who has lost his fastball.
The real question isn’t whether Trump is getting worse. It’s how many times a nation can be shocked, outraged and at wit’s end. And a couple of follow-ups: How long can we force ourselves to pay attention, and dare we stop?
David: I don’t know, Jill. I went through the weekend’s 50 or so tweets, and I just see the same old Trump being Trump. Sure it is off-key for a president to be attacking a dead senator, but when has Trump not been off key? And let’s face it, when McCain ran on repealing and replacing Obamacare and then voted to keep it alive, he was playing the establishment game of bait and switch that has given us Trump. The electorate didn’t get angry all by itself.
And some of what Trump has written since Friday was plenty presidential. He tweeted his support for New Zealand after the terror attack there. He reached out to the people of South Dakota and Iowa facing big floods.
The only thing that shocked me is a subtle sign that Trump’s not being loyal to his friends at Fox News. Twice he used the hashtag OANN. What’s that? One America News Network – a smaller Fox News clone for those who think Fox has too much unbiased reporting and not enough right-leaning commentary. Could those be subtle hints to Rupert Murdoch that he’d better protect Judge Jeanine and Tucker Carlson? That may be. Bill O’Reilly is already regularly appearing on OANN’s air. Maybe the judge and Tucker will jump ship and take the president’s loyalty with them.
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Jill: I agree with you, Trump is not getting worse. That’s the problem. He’s been this bad forever, since long before his campaign.
It is simply hard to become accustomed to a president who, after tweeting his support for New Zealand in the wake of the mosque shootings, airs his grievances about Judge Jeanine — who was recently suspended from Fox News after she suggested a Muslim congresswoman might not support the U.S. Constitution.
For every bit of appropriate presidential boilerplate, there are multiple Trump-era outrages that go by virtually unnoticed at this point. Just in the last couple of days, lobs at not only the “Fake News Media” but the “Corrupt Media” (“the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself!”), a false claim of “Democrats trying to steal a presidential election,” references to “low-IQ” Joe Biden and “total loser” “Mr. Kellyanne Conway” (that would be the White House counselor’s husband George, who has been warning about Trump’s mental state).
And have I mentioned how much I miss presidential boilerplate? I’d give anything for those empty clichés conveying comfort to those who need it and pride in American diversity, business, media and law enforcement. Heck, I’d give anything for a president who followed even the most basic etiquette that you try to teach your kids. Like for instance, “Don’t speak ill of the dead. Even if you didn’t like them or agree with them.”
David: I have a prediction for you. In many years, when Donald Trump dies a peaceful, natural death, there will be plenty of speaking ill of the dead. Why’s that? Because the good rules of the establishment somehow always seem to have an exception. An exception that allows the John McCain’s of the world to lie when they run for office without tainting his reputation as an honorable teller of hard truths. And an exception that allows the Donald Trumps of the world to be trashed when they have assumed room temperature because, well, he deserves it.
Trump’s Twitter ranting — as distasteful and crazy as it is — works for him and fires up his base because he and his base share a collection of resentments that have some truth at their core. It may be preposterous for Trump to tweet that the press is the “enemy of the people,” but the press sure is the enemy of Trump’s political movement. Joe Biden may have an average or better IQ, but he sure does have a propensity to tangle his words. There may not be a “National Emergency at the Southern Border” but something bad sure is going on. George Conway may not be a total loser, but you sure have to wonder why he doesn’t have something better to do than play armchair psychiatrist.
We’d all like the president to stop with his Twitter ranting. I wish I could go back in time and stop the invention of Twitter. Either way, the country would be better off. But the fact is Trump is going to keep using Twitter as he sees fit and periodically, we’re going to have explosions of concern that finally Trump has lost it. I’m not going to be concerned as long as he keeps tweeting. If Trump suddenly goes silent, that’s when I’ll worry.
David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, is the deputy editor of USA TODAY’s editorial page. Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence