Trump’s Twitter attack: cause or effect?
July 2, 2017 | Administrator
It was Aristotle who first ruminated over which came first, the chicken or the egg. “There could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds,” he declared, “or there would have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.”
Leaving aside how little Donald J. Trump resembles the “philosopher-kings” envisioned by Aristotle’s protégé Plato in “The Republic,” a similar question vexes us today. It, too, initially sounds frivolous, while actually carrying significant implications: In our modern republic, MSNBC’s audience leans left, while Fox News’ leans right. Here’s the question worth contemplating: Which came first, the partisan programming or the ideologically minded audience?
The answer helps us to understand President Trump’s latest self-inflicted controversy, his “Mean Girl”-style attacks Thursday on MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-hosts and power couple Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski:
I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
…to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2017
Trump’s critics zeroed in on his gross reference to Brzezinski’s cosmetic surgery. He invoked similar imagery, in an even less appropriate way, while sniping at debate moderator Megyn Kelly in 2015. Focusing on the sexist aspect of the attack made it easy for Trump’s enemies to ignore something pretty basic: Why did the president boil over in the first place?
The answer was not hard to find, and is known by every MSNBC viewer. Joe and Mika have called The Donald similar names for four months. The very format of their show consists of a daily barrage of insults directed at Trump from the hosts, who then solicit regular panelists and guests to rephrase these anti-Trump slurs — or add their own. I’ve never been on that program myself; perhaps my views are too nuanced to fit the format. But I watch it, with increasing discomfort.
The go-to topic is Trump’s mental health. A few other cable shows question it as well. Together it’s a sustained personal attack on a sitting U.S. president without precedent since the dawn of television. Does it excuse Trump’s un-presidential response? Not in my mind. But it helps explain it. Let’s go to the tape.
March 6: “I think we reached a new low this weekend,” Scarborough says in response to Trump’s claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped by the Obama administration.
“I had hope and an open mind and I have lost hope completely and my mind is closed,” Brzezinski adds. “This presidency is fake and failed.”
May 1: “Morning Joe” puts up a screenshot of a Scarborough tweet: “Though it seems impossible, this is getting worse by the day. Is the president spinning even more out of control?” The topic is Trump’s uninformed rambling about the Civil War and Andrew Jackson. Scarborough quoted historian Douglas Brinkley saying the president has had “a confused mental state.” Scarborough then adds, “My mother’s had dementia for 10 years. That sounds like the sort of thing my mother would say today.”
May 5: Guest Rob Reiner rips Scarborough and Brzezinski for going too easy on Trump during the 2016 primaries. “The words that have been flung out from his mouth are insane,” Reiner says. “If Donald Trump was not a celebrity, the words that come out of his mouth, you’d see a guy in a park. A lunatic in a park on a soap box, and you’d walk right by him.”
May 15: “There is not a sane, rational human being who would have tweeted what he tweeted yesterday,” intones Scarborough. “If any CEO, in a Fortune 500 company, was behaving this way, he or she would be removed immediately. … They would take him out, he would have psychiatric evaluation and he would no longer be the CEO.”
May 23: Referring to Trump allegedly passing sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian diplomats and then discussing it publicly, Scarborough calls Trump “stupid” and a “jackass.”
June 1: Brzezinski prompts Scarborough to share the metaphor he told her off-camera. He doesn’t seem to remember what he said until she reminds him: “Like a kid pooping their pants, and then saying I meant to do that!”
June 6: Characterizing Trump’s primary campaign strategy as “evil” and “cynical,” Scarborough says that at least Trump was doing things that were in his own interest, but that he no longer “think[s] rationally.” Joe throws it to guest Donny Deutsch, who doesn’t miss his cue. The “self-destructive” Trump “clearly has a personality disorder,” Deutsch says before adding the phrases “mental disorder,” “self-destructive personality disorder” and “borderline personality” disorder. “I’m not a clinician,” he allows, which is an almost comic understatement: He’s a marketing and branding expert.
“I kind of want to dispense with political correctness for a bit and just say what everyone is thinking,” chimes in guest commentator Elise Jordan: “This behavior is crazy. He needs to get a grip on it. He’s president of the United States, he’s commander-in-chief and he’s acting unhinged from the Oval Office.”
June 7: “Donald Trump, again, being a schmuck, thinking he can buy people’s integrity by inviting them over to the White House and wowing them,” Scarborough says when discussing a dinner party at the White House. “That’s how he thinks. I know that first-hand.”
June 8: “I think … it is possible that he’s mentally ill in a way” is Brzezinski’s take on this morning. “He’s not well. At the very least he’s … so narcissistic he does not believe the rules apply to him.”
June 28: Brzezinski: “Phony. A phony, fake, pathetic, made-up cover of Time magazine. That’s your boss. That’s needy. Nothing makes a man feel better than making a fake cover of a magazine about himself, lying every day and destroying the country.”
In her own “Mean Girl” voice, Mika then flashes an image of the magazine in question and squeals, “He’s covering his hands here because they’re teensy.”
This childish slur about Trump’s manhood is apparently what prompted his response. Obviously, he shouldn’t have taken the bait, but considering what set him off, MSNBC’s hand-wringing corporate response — that it’s a “sad day for America when the president spends his time bullying, lying and spewing petty personal attacks” — was disingenuous.
When the NBC suits join the on-air talent in such loaded characterizations, the rules of the game become clear: MSNBC bashes Donald Trump because it’s what their audience expects, and it’s good for ratings. As Salon magazine noted caustically in March when Mika pronounced a seven-week-old presidency “fake and failed,” it had taken “Morning Joe” some 45 days to “catch up to the audience of their show.” Salon didn’t mean this as a compliment.
Scarborough and Brzezinski gave a wink and a nod to this point in their Washington Post rebuttal to Trump’s Thursday tweet. It was a curious response. They accused Trump of lying when he said Mika had a facelift, before adding, “She did have a little skin under her chin tweaked.” They also beseeched Trump to stop watching “Morning Joe,” saying, “We are both certain that man is not mentally equipped” to keep watching it. Given its content, how could he be?
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.