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For our Divider-In-Chief, it’s all about the ratings

For our Divider-In-Chief, it’s all about the ratings
© Stefani Reynolds

Why is this president different from all other presidents? Because Donald Trump governs as a divider. 

No other president has done that. Not even Abraham Lincoln, who took office when the country was a lot more divided than it is now. Lincoln fought to preserve the union.  He said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive to bind up the nation's wounds.”  A few weeks later, he was assassinated.

The president is expected to speak for the entire country – not just his “base.'” 

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“No one sets the tone more than the president of the United States,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said. “There is no escaping the tone that he sets.” The tone that he sets is angry and accusatory, especially towards critics who argue that he bears responsibility for the incendiary rhetoric tearing the country apart. He endorses baseless conspiracy theories that Democrats and “the left” are behind the political violence and the caravan of migrants from Central America. 

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Graham backs bill to protect Mueller Denham loses GOP seat in California MORE called himself a “nationalist,” he intended it as a rejection of “globalism,”   the view that global interests should have priority over national interests  (Trump: “A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. . . . We can't have that.”)  But many on the far right took it as an endorsement of “white nationalism,” a label they prefer to “white supremacy.”

President Trump is the divider-in-chief. “He's done nothing but stoke the type of fear and hatred that led to this,” a protester in Pittsburgh told The Washington Post. “And he's coming here for a photo op and to check it off his list. But we know he's not part of the solution.” Not part of the solution?  That's a terrible thing to say about the president of the United States. 

Trump's people insist that both sides are to blame for polarizing the country. “People on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences,” Vice President Mike Pence said on NBC News. Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN, “The White House would say, ‘Well, listen. It's on both sides , and the president's just hitting back.’  And I understand that.” 

That may be true, but it ignores a central fact: Trump is president, and he has a unique responsibility to be above the fray. Instead, he characterizes Democrats as an “angry, ruthless, unhinged mob determined to get power by any means necessary.” He denounces the press in even harsher terms, calling the media “so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.” 

Trump does not seem to understand the constitutional role of the press. Constitutional? Yes, because the press is the only private institution mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. It's right there in the First Amendment, next to freedom of speech. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, but it does make the press the official watchdog on government. It is part of our institutional order for the press to act as a check on government power.

That does not sit well with Trump, who does not want to be watched. He treats press criticism as partisan disloyalty. Melania Trump warned during the 2016 campaign, “When you punch him, he will punch back ten times harder.”

The White House blames the press for the country's bitter partisan division. “You guys have a huge responsibility [for] the divisive nature in this country,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week. Lesley Stahl of CBS News reported that when she asked Trump about his attacks on the press in 2016, he responded, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

So much for the Constitution.

The president has been losing control of the agenda. He is accustomed to being the one who sets the media agenda, an important skill particularly in the run-up to the election. But the stories about mail bombs and anti-Semitic violence have diverted attention from the story that Trump wants to tell. That would be the story about his heroic commitment to defend the country against a caravan of impoverished Central American migrants who, the president says, threaten national security.

The immigration issue was key to Trump's getting elected in 2016, and he wants to make it work for Republicans again this year. But recently, he complained, “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘bomb stuff’ happens [the discovery of pipe bombs sent to Trump critics by a Trump supporter] and the momentum greatly slows.”

The president is clearly trying to regain the momentum by dispatching 5,200 active duty troops to the border to fend off what he calls “an invasion of our country.”

The president revealed his true motives at a recent campaign rally in West Virginia. Trump gave his answer to those urging him to be more presidential: “It's so easy to be presidential,” he said, “but instead of having ten thousand people outside trying to get into this packed arena, we'd have about 200 people.” 

For Trump, a former reality television star, it's all about the ratings.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).