President Donald Trump is truly a different breed of American politician. The billionaire with zero public sector experience bulled his way through the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and pulled off an amazing upset, dispatching several experienced and well-known congressional and gubernatorial rivals to claim the nomination. In November, he scored another come-from-behind win, surprising the world with an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote by a record margin. Throughout, he remained aggressive, provocative, and blundering… and the crowds loved it.
Trump’s unorthodox path to the White House saw him insult and belittle just about everyone aside from white, heterosexual Christian males. Heck, the real estate mogul even took a swipe at respected 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the outspoken U.S. Senator from Arizona. Conservative voters, astoundingly, forgave Trump’s every gaffe, even the 2005 video recording of him explaining how he used his wealth and fame to, essentially, commit sexual assault.
Everyone thought that Trump would tone it down come January 20, when he was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States. Many voters, undoubtedly, assumed that Trump’s braggadocio on the campaign trail was strictly for show, part of his reality TV strategy. Underneath, there had to be a wiser, more moderate leader, right? It has turned many stomachs to realize that there is no wiser, more moderate Trump. What we saw in 2016 was the real Trump.
Unfortunately, Trump’s loud buffoonery shrouds dangerous calculation. Recently, he entered unprecedented presidential territory for the umpteenth time by publicly accusing his predecessor, Barack Obama, of wiretapping his phones prior to the 2016 election. Even Republicans were shocked, and everyone demanded that Trump present evidence of such an alarming claim. Congressional investigators wanted evidence by Monday, March 13. When Monday came, however, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained that Trump had been…joking.
Spicer went on to say that Americans can trust the president when he is not joking. As expected, Trump’s designated spokesman did not elaborate on when the president was joking, or how to tell whether or not the commander-in-chief was joking. The public must not accept this state of affairs: We cannot allow our nation’s highest leader to get away with heinous lies and accusations by pretending that he had been “joking” every time he gets caught. We also cannot allow him to condemn objective data as false and then, when the numbers suddenly fit his narrative, embrace the same data as true.
Despots, tyrants, and dictators use these tactics in the beginning. They begin amassing greater amounts of power and authority, but try to gaslight their critics when called out on it. Eventually, however, they reach the point where denial is no longer needed: Their power is too great. At some point, we reach the tipping point, and we cannot turn back the clock. The president becomes a dictator.
Trump’s bold accusation of wiretapping was no joke. He was trying to invigorate his supporters and tarnish the reputation of his predecessor, who was from the other political party. Whether he thought he could get away with the accusation, or whether he was simply testing the waters of his support with the public and his Republican colleagues in Congress, he clearly was not joking when he tweeted about the wiretapping. Donald Trump was making a power play.
If Trump is not sufficiently condemned or punished for his baseless accusation against Barack Obama, he will do it again. He will pick another Democrat, or liberal figure, and lob an accusation. He may do it just to see how much damage he can inflict.
But remember, this is less than two months into the new presidential administration. If Trump is not checked swiftly, how many of his opponents will be subject to his accusation machine by the end of two years? Three years? Since Trump did not hesitate to attack his relatively popular predecessor, would he fail to attack the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee? As the president, and not as a candidate seeking re-election, Donald Trump could try to manipulate the 2020 election by using his position of chief executive to accuse his rivals of crimes.
We must not let Trump and his team de-escalate his attacks after the fact by claiming that he was speaking “in general.” Outrageously, Trump’s minions have tried to smooth over the president’s accusation of illegal wiretapping by insisting that the man was only talking about generalized electronic surveillance. His former campaign manager tried to sidestep the need to present hard evidence by claiming that Obama’s intelligence agencies could have spied on Donald Trump through virtually any electronic device, including his microwave.
Letting the bully laugh off his misbehavior by claiming that he was “just joking” only encourages him to try again. Remember, it’s always just a joke… until it’s not. Bullies and tyrants are always joking right up until the moment they do not need to pretend it’s a joke anymore. When they have enough power, they can dispense with the theater that their jabs and accusations were simply in jest.