Those who work for Donald Trump have developed a few strategies for holding on to their jobs, like telling him what he wants to hear and showering him with praise. They’ve also learned that when they go on TV or speak to reporters, advocating cruel policies isn’t enough; they also have to act as much like Trump as possible.
The most pathetic and hilarious example of this strategy was offered by Vice President Mike Pence, who was sitting at a meeting next to Trump recently when, for no apparent reason, the president took the bottle of water on the table in front of him and placed it on the floor. Seeing this, Pence immediately grabbed his own bottle and placed it on the floor as well.
But there are only so many opportunities for that kind of “Simon Says” lickspittlery. More often you can ape Trump’s rhetoric, as trade adviser Peter Navarro did on Sunday. Knowing that the president was perturbed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s insistence that Canada would respond in kind to any tariffs the U.S. places on Canadian goods, Navarro went on television and said, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.”
A special place in hell. For the Canadians. Just don’t ask Navarro what he thinks about Mr. Rogers.
After getting roundly criticized for the remark, Navarro apologized Tuesday. “My job was to send a signal of strength,” he said at a conference. “The problem was that in conveying that message I used language that was inappropriate. I own that, that was my mistake, those were my words.”
The words may have been his, but the sentiment was clearly that of his boss, who regularly hurls insults at America’s closest allies when they’re insufficiently deferential to him.
It’s not just Navarro. Brad Parscale, who is running Trump’s re-election campaign, said Tuesday that CNN reporter Jim Acosta “should immediately have his press credentials suspended” because Acosta asked the president a question about the content of the agreement he and Kim Jong Un were signing. Imagine — a reporter, asking a question! Meanwhile, there are literal neo-Nazis running for office as Republicans, and other GOP candidates are saying things like “In my view, the best way to bring diversity to the Republican Party is for Republicans to openly say that the whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap and un-American.”
Which leads me to recall one of the key events in this rapid moral and rhetorical degradation, in which Republicans act more and more Trumpian all the time. Last May, Greg Gianforte, then a candidate in a special House election in Montana, reacted to a question from reporter Ben Jacobs about health care policy by grabbing Jacobs and slamming him to the ground. Gianforte then lied to police about it, claiming that Jacobs had grabbed him and slipped; he later admitted that was false. Nobody could remember anything like it.
But what was most disturbing about that incident wasn’t just that a congressional candidate had assaulted a reporter with no provocation, but that he was celebrated for it by conservatives. The reporter, said a Fox News contributor, “got a little bit of Montana justice.” Others mocked Jacobs as insufficiently manly. “Politicians always need to keep their cool. But what would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?” Laura Ingraham tweeted, adding, “Did anyone get his lunch money stolen today and then run to tell the recess monitor?” “What kind of a wuss files charges over broken glasses?” said another conservative columnist.
As much as we can blame Trump for the Troglodytic behavior of those who surround him — and we should — he didn’t create this slide into thuggishness so much as he unleashed it. These people aren’t saying anything they don’t believe; just as Trump did for his voters, he has given them permission to give voice to whatever ugliness lies in their hearts. The liberals imposed their political correctness on you before, but in Trump’s America you can let your jerk flag fly.
When this presidency is over, every Republican and conservative is going to have to measure their own culpability. What did they assent to? What did they excuse? What did they enthusiastically embrace? And what did they become? Did Trump turn them into the worst version of themselves? For all too many, the answers aren’t going to be pleasant.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog.