Reaching for verbs to describe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final moments, President Donald Trump grabbed hold of “crying,” “screaming” and “whimpering.”
Reaching for nouns, he said that al-Baghdadi died “like a dog.”
I wasn’t aware that canines expired in a signature fashion, but Trump knows best, even if he doesn’t know so very many words. About a week later, when he took characteristically nasty note of Beto O’Rourke’s decision to abandon the presidential race, he said that O’Rourke quit “like a dog.”
Some similes demand repetition.
This wasn’t one of them.
But a lack of verbal ingenuity never stopped Trump. And an animus toward a certain animal has long, well, hounded him.
In his boundless unoriginality, he has likened women he dislikes to dogs. In his infinite incoherence, he has repeatedly tweeted of people being fired like dogs. I personally haven’t met all that many gainfully employed pooches, unless digging holes in the backyard is a profession, and when those excavators received orders to desist, none of them got a pink slip and a referral to career counseling.
Trump did recently make the acquaintance — from a distance — of a dog with a bona fide job. He’s a Belgian Malinois named Conan. And his job, brilliantly executed, was to find, chase and corner al-Baghdadi. Trump called Conan “a beautiful dog, a talented dog,” making him so famous that The New York Post put his picture on its front page, along with the headline “Zero Bark Thirty.” Trump also tweeted a Photoshopped image in which he draped a medal around Conan’s neck.
So this Malinois warrants decoration while “a dog” gets derision? Or is it just that every dog has its day? I used to believe that adage until Trump came along. He has had more than 1,000 days in the presidency, even as the White House goes to the dogs.
Journalists with many news organizations (The Washington Post, New York magazine, Slate and more) have had a field day with Trump’s dogged use of “dog” as an all-purpose put-down. When it comes to “like a dog,” he’s like a dog with a bone.
You’re no one until he’s divined the flea-bitten mongrel within you — and you’ve joined a dog pound that includes the likes of Mitt Romney, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Bill Maher, Steve Bannon, George Will, Omarosa Manigault Newman, my fellow Times columnist Gail Collins and many more.
Fun doggy factoids cling to him like so much Samoyed fur. He’s the first president in more than a century who doesn’t have a dog. According to the Chinese zodiac, he was born in the year of the dog. According to Ivana Trump, he provoked growls from her dog, Chappy, a poodle who could suss out a peacock. The media’s nickname for his first defense secretary, James Mattis, was “mad dog.” And from the forehead up, he’s a dead ringer for a distressed Pomeranian.
But no one has definitively solved the riddle of what seems like a rabid case of canine contempt. I have my own theories, but first I have the more erudite insights of Justin Frank, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the author of the book “Trump on the Couch.”
Frank noted that Trump is “phobic about germs” and no doubt sees dogs as four-legged germ factories. He probably also thinks “dogs are stupid because they obey,” Frank said. Disobedience is Trump’s preferred posture, at least for himself, although he broke with that to become, in Frank’s words, “Putin’s lap dog.” Disobedience, that is, and distemper.
Frank raised another issue that the president might well have with dogs: When they’re around, they often steal attention, becoming the objects of people’s oohing and cooing. Trump likes the oohing all to himself.
My own sense? For Trump, all relationships are transactional and God’s creatures possess value only in accordance with their ability to elevate and enrich him. His affection for Kellyanne Conway hinges on her superhuman power not to break into laughter or spontaneously combust when she puts the most ludicrously adulatory spin on his most transparently execrable deeds. If border collies performed that trick, he would keep a kennel of them at Mar-a-Loco.
His regard for Rudy Giuliani depends on the hunched henchman’s openness to unscrupulous errands. If Doberman pinschers could pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, Trump would repurpose Camp David as a dog run and turn Ivanka’s pumps into chew toys.
But they can’t, just as Siberian huskies can’t hack Democrats’ emails — for that, a husky Siberian is handier — and golden retrievers can’t retrieve gold. Dogs are useless to Trump, at least by the criteria he cares about.
There’s no money in most of them, no votes in any of them, and they can’t play golf with him and tell him along the way what a manly drive and graceful putt he has. That’s lucky for Lindsey Graham, who would otherwise be swapped out for a Labradoodle lickety-split.
Conan passed muster only because for a moment in time, he was a proxy for Trump’s own imagined machismo. Maybe Chappy was merely yappy. Like a Donald.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.