“The good man brings good things out of the good stored in his heart, and the evil man brings out evil things out of the evil stored in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks.” — Luke 6:45
They matter all the more so when they are uttered or tweeted by the President of the United States, who has more power than anyone else on earth to make sure that “what starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”
Trump’s lies and false claims, thousands of them, have been authoritatively documented. His ad hominem personal attacks on political rivals and people he hired and appointed — Michael Cohen is a “rat,” Jeff Sessions “weak and ineffective,” Rex Tillerson “dumb as a rock,” Jerome Powell has “no guts, no sense, no vision” — are no longer surprising. His tirades, taunts and threats, it should now be clear, are damaging our democracy.
Trump’s incitement of violence was evident during the presidential campaign of 2016. If Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE were to occupy the Oval Office — instead of being locked up — and then packed the courts with “her judges,” Trump declared, “Second Amendment People” (presumably packing some heat) could take action. At a campaign rally, he encouraged his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters in the audience, promising to cover their legal expenses if they were arrested.
In 2017, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE encouraged police officers to be less mindful of the safety of suspects they were taking into custody. His recommendation — “Please don’t be nice” — was condemned by many human rights groups and law enforcement organizations. The president also characterized some of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., as “very fine people.”
In the last few weeks, President Trump has ratcheted up his reckless rhetoric. At a private event for staff of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City, Trump said that whoever helped the whistleblower (whose complaint Trump’s own Inspector General deemed “credible” and “urgent”) was “close to a spy,” and continued: “You know what we used to do in the old days, when we were smart, right? The spies and treason? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
A president of the United States threatening a whistleblower and anyone who shared information with him or her with potential execution “in front of public servants, not to mention their young children, is a dangerous and damaging development,” a large group of former officials of the State Department and other agencies maintained, in a letter urging members of Congress in both parties to condemn the remarks. “Such a statement is not only illegal, it is immoral.”
Undeterred, Trump suggested a few days later that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffParis Hilton to visit Capitol Hill to advocate for bill on children's treatment centers Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' Schiff: McCarthy 'will do whatever Trump tells him' if GOP wins back House MORE (D-Calif.) could face “arrest for treason.” He then re-tweeted the warning of Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor, that impeachment would provoke a “civil war-like fracture in this nation from which the country will never heal.”
“I have never imagined such a quote to be repeated by a President,” said Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerKinzinger defends not supporting voting rights act: 'Democrats have to quit playing politics' Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Illinois Democrats propose new 'maximized' congressional map MORE (R-Ill.), a former Air Force pilot. “This is beyond repugnant.”
On Oct. 2, President Trump branded the impeachment inquiry “a coup.”
President Trump, it is worth noting, has used words in another, equally damaging way. Far more than any of his predecessors, Trump has insulated his administration from oversight and accountability by hiding information from Congress and the American people. The White House has acknowledged that transcripts of the president’s phone calls with leaders of several foreign countries, including Ukraine, have been moved to a secret server, to which only a very small number of officials have access.
And the administration has made dubious (and, one hopes, not precedent-setting) claims of executive privilege to prevent officials from testifying or producing documents to congressional committees, in what appears to be a strategy of running out of the clock (before the courts compel them to comply, as they almost surely will), secure in the knowledge, as Greg Sargent has put it, that “the right-wing media would lay down a covering fog of pro-Trump obfuscation and mainstream fact-checks got drowned out by the din, and their own both-sidesing instincts.”
Sunshine is, indeed, the best disinfectant. Without transparency, we cannot have well- informed citizens. But these days, alas, Republican officeholders and Trump’s base of voters shrug off and enable tirades, taunts, and threats and a stonewalling of Congress they would surely deem unacceptable in a Democratic administration.
Donald Trump has, indeed, succeeded in building a wall. The president and his apparatchiks — such as Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump sues Jan. 6 panel to block records Lawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell Book Trump signed for Giuliani fetches K at auction: 'I promise never to run against you' MORE, Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne ConwayEthics watchdog accuses Psaki of violating Hatch Act Biden administration competency doubts increase Cook Political Report shifts Virginia governor's race to 'toss-up' MORE, William BarrBill BarrBannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ Five takeaways: Report details Trump's election pressure campaign Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE, Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE, and fake newscaster Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityBiden giving stiff-arm to press interviews Graham says Brazilian immigrants arriving at border 'wearing designer clothes and Gucci bags' Judge: Request for Tucker Carlson personnel files is 'intrusive' MORE — are walling off the presidency from the checks and balances and the appropriate disclosure of information that are essential to a well-functioning democracy.
And they’re daring us to do something about it.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.