Trump’s Wacky, Angry, and Extreme August
President Trump ended August as he began it, with a blast of angry tweets, ad-hominem insults, and bizarre fulminations that have become so standard that they no longer receive the attention they deserve—emanating, as they do, from the world’s most powerful leader. In between retweeting hurricane-preparation warnings, Trump spent the final day of the month attacking the “Disgusting and foul mouthed Omarosa” Manigault, his former adviser, who wrote a tell-all book about her short time in the Administration; the “Crooked Cop” James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, whom he fired; and the “even dumber” former C.I.A. director John Brennan. He bragged about low Labor Day gas prices, although they were actually lower on the Labor Day before he became President. He congratulated his friend Sean Hannity for the ratings on his Fox News “shoe.” A day earlier, he had tweeted what appeared to be a classified image from his intelligence briefing of “a catastrophic accident” at an Iranian missile-launch site, a Presidential leak of secret information on social media that would have been, needless to say, unthinkable in another Presidency.
All of this took place when Trump was supposed to be in Poland, for a sombre commemoration of the beginning of the Second World War. He cancelled the trip, however, citing the need to monitor the progress of Hurricane Dorian, which was threatening Florida. Instead, he watched Fox News; tweeted nearly two dozen times before noon on Saturday, August 31st; and then motorcaded to a Trump-branded golf course for his two hundred and twenty-sixth day on the links at one of his own properties since becoming President. (That statistic came from Kyle Griffin, an MSNBC producer who keeps track of this particular niche Trump metric.) The Poland trip wasn’t even the first foreign visit that Trump cancelled last month. He was supposed to have gone to Denmark earlier in August, but he refused, in a fit of pique, after the Danish government mocked his efforts to buy Greenland—which was, of course, another Oval Office antic that, had it occurred a few years ago, no one would have believed.
Trump not only makes us believe it now but, as we approach the three-year mark of his upset victory, in 2016, his project has succeeded in such a confounding way that it seems as though Americans will now believe anything—and nothing at all. Today there are few things too extreme not to have plausibly come out of the mouth, or the Twitter feed, of the forty-fifth President. In August, Trump called himself the “Chosen One” for his confrontation with China, grinned and flashed a thumbs-up during a photo op with the family of mass-shooting victims, accused Jews who voted for Democrats of “great disloyalty,” and called the chairman of the Federal Reserve an “enemy” of the United States. He cheered the robbery of a Democratic congressman’s home and labelled various critics “nasty and wrong,” “pathetic,” “highly unstable,” “wacko,” “psycho,” and “lunatic,” among other insults. The daily stream of invective was dizzying to keep track of, and so voluminous as to almost insure that no one could, in fact, do so.
The Trumpian extremes on display in the third August of his Presidency revived a debate about whether he is descending into even less Presidential behavior, shedding the remaining constraints imposed upon him by his office and the efforts of his ever-changing staff. If it seems as if Trump is wackier, angrier, more willing to lash out, and more desperately seeking attention, that is because he is. This, at least, is my conclusion after reviewing his Twitter feed from the past month, along with his public statements, remarks to the press, speeches, and rallies. To revisit a month in the life of this President was exhausting, a dark journey to a nasty and contentious place. And, while Trump’s performance raised many questions that we can’t answer about just what is going on in his head, it was also revelatory: the thirty-one days of August, 2019, turn out to be an extraordinary catalogue of Trump’s in-our-faces meltdown.
At first I wasn’t sure that anything about Trump’s frenetic August was really different. There had been many previous months of dysfunction. He has always courted controversy and trafficked in insults. But then I looked at August, 2017, during the first summer of his Presidency, which was one of the more shocking months of his early tenure. Back then, Trump warned of “fire and fury” against North Korea and spoke of good people on both sides of the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville that culminated in the killing of a peaceful counter-protester. And yet the Trump of two years ago was different—to a degree. He was provocative and insulting and fact-challenged, of course, but to a much lesser extent than he is today. Then and now, he was boastful and braggadocious. He picked fights. But there was much less of that behavior over all—the Trump Twitter archive records two hundred and eighty-seven Trump tweets and retweets in August, 2017, compared to six hundred and eighty in August, 2019—and the volume seems to have been turned up along with the frequency. Today’s Trump is not just more prone to misspeaking and stumbling, he is also more overtly confrontational more of the time, more immersed in a daily cycle of Presidential punditry, and more casually incendiary with his words and sentiments.
Is he finding it harder to break through? Does he simply have fewer meetings on his schedule and more free time? Maybe it is all of the above. Trump has such little confidence in his third and current chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, that he’s still not removed Mulvaney’s title of “acting” White House boss, more than eight months into his tenure. It’s also true that the outrage cycle that his Presidency has become requires more fuel than it did two years ago, when the wacky pronouncements and shrill insults emanating directly from the Oval Office were still seen as a shocking novelty. Sure enough, the anger and abuse have dramatically and notably increased. Two years ago, Trump used his feed to criticize, belittle, or humiliate specific targets fourteen times in the month of August. (Interestingly, many were Republican senators who were still offering him resistance, including “publicity-seeking Lindsey Graham,” who is now one of his most faithful public promoters, and the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, whom Trump disparaged as a “loser.”) In August of this year, the number shot up: the President made or shared fifty-two direct insults on his Twitter feed, by my count. Many were aimed at individual members of the media—from “Crazy Lawrence O’Donnell,” of MSNBC, to “Lunatic” Chris Cuomo, of CNN, to “Psycho” Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC, and “pathetic” Juan Williams, of Fox. Other targets who were singled out included “the Three Stooges running against me in the G.O.P. primary”; Denmark; NATO; the euro; “car company executives”; “Sleepy Joe Biden” (August 10th: “Does anybody really believe he is mentally fit to be President?”); Beto O’Rourke; liberal Hollywood, “the true racists”; the “anti-Semite” Representative Rashida Tlaib; the “nut job” Anthony Scaramucci, the former Trump White House communications director who finally broke with his former boss last month; and, in a retweet to start off the month, “the nipple-height mayor of Londonistan.”
Another frequent target was the Federal Reserve and its Trump-appointed chairman, Jerome Powell. For months, Trump has been crusading against Powell in what appears to be an unprecedented public-pressure campaign to turn the Fed into an arm of the President’s reëlection campaign. In August, Trump’s focus on the Fed dramatically escalated, as fears mounted about a slowing economy and the intensifying trade war with China. I counted thirty separate tweets by Trump in August criticizing Powell or the Fed in which the President variously referred to “clueless Jay Powell,” complained about Powell’s “horrendous lack of vision,” and, most strikingly, on August 23rd, blamed the Fed for China’s alleged currency manipulation. On that day, Trump tweeted, “My only question is who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?”
Of course, Trump’s biggest enemy and most frequent target, two years ago and today, remains what he called the “Corrupt and Fake News,” at 5:46 P.M. on August 27th, and the “Fake & Corrupt News,” three minutes later. All told, “#CROOKEDJOURNALISM,” as he called it on August 18th, was the subject of twenty-six complaining tweets in August, 2017—and eighty this August. This escalation seems to be by design, rather than the result of indiscipline or passing fits of anger, at least in the sense that, as Trump himself said in a tweet last month, he hopes his criticism of the media will be one of the lasting accomplishments of his tenure. “When the ‘Age of Trump’ is looked back on many years from now, I only hope that a big part of my legacy will be the exposing of massive dishonesty in the Fake News!” There is little doubt that Trump has also decided to explicitly attack the media as part of his reëlection campaign, a plan that he broadcast in an August 10th tweet, writing, “Never has the press been more inaccurate, unfair or corrupt! We are not fighting the Democrats, they are easy, we are fighting the seriously dishonest and unhinged Lamestream Media. They have gone totally CRAZY.”
At August’s G-7 summit, in Biarritz, France, Trump even claimed that other world leaders were commiserating with him about negative coverage by the American press. “The question I was asked most today by fellow World Leaders, who think the USA is doing so well and is stronger than ever before, happens to be, ‘Mr. President, why does the American media hate your Country so much? Why are they rooting for it to fail?’ ” None of those leaders stepped forward to validate Trump’s claim, although many were subject to another, perhaps surprising, aspect of his Twitter feed: the increasing tendency to use it as a vehicle not only for threats and critiques but also for blandishments and over-the-top praise. This, too, seems more purposeful, or at least more self-consciously executed, than many of Trump’s critics would allow. On Saturday, during his end-of-month social-media spree, he methodically ticked off a list of tweets and retweets individually praising most of the members of the Senate Republican Conference (including targets of his ire two Augusts ago, such as McConnell and Graham).
Like his insults, Trump’s praise has become more flamboyant, and the list of those whom he Twitter-flattered this August included populist nationalists, such as India’s Narendra Modi and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro; the “great leader” and “good man” Xi Jinping, of China; and the shambolic and duplicitous new pro-Brexit British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The naïveté of his praise is sometimes as alarming as the vitriol of his hatred. On August 15th, with fears rising of a Chinese crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong, Trump tweeted, “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!” On August 10th, he revealed a letter from Kim Jong Un in which the North Korean dictator “very nicely” asked for a meeting while offering a “small apology” for his latest missile tests and claimed that the tests would end when U.S.-South Korean military exercises did. (They did not.)
Two years ago, the President’s use of Twitter was still so unprecedented that his aides would warn journalists and foreign counterparts not to take it too seriously. But now, as the President’s online pronouncements and stream of daily commentary have almost subsumed regular policymaking, few dispute the significance of having an around-the-clock, unfiltered Presidential feed. It is, therefore, all the more striking that Trump’s major policy preoccupation this past August—his trade war with China—was the subject of his most contradictory, confusing, and hard-to-parse statements. I counted more than forty tweets mentioning China last month. They veered wildly, almost day to day and hour to hour, on whether a deal or a whole new round of tariffs was imminent. On August 23rd, Trump issued a decree that stands out as his most remarkable: at 10:59 A.M., he directed U.S. corporations, via Twitter, to shut down their business with China. “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China,” he wrote. Markets, as they did repeatedly throughout the month of confusing Presidential commentary, swooned.
But it seems that the markets have moved on. And so, probably, have you. We’re barely forty-eight hours into September, and the President has already claimed that he’s never heard of a Category 5 hurricane; got into a public spat with the star of the sitcom “Will & Grace”; congratulated Poland on the anniversary of the Nazi invasion, in 1939; and played more golf at a Trump resort. The election, if you are counting, is four hundred and twenty-six days away.