Don't mess with Thanksgiving
The strange case of 'Dr. Trump' and 'Mr. Tweet'
In the fictional 1880s of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, London was confronted with the strange case of the affable, capable Dr. Henry Jekyll, who periodically used a potion to transform himself into Mr. Hyde, a beast whose personality expressed the good doctor's darkest instincts.
In nonfictional 2019, America is confronted with the strange case of "Dr. Trump" and "Mr. Tweet," a duality that creates ambivalence towards the president, even among his strongest supporters.
"Dr. Trump" unquestionably is capable. He has built successful businesses. It is hard to visit a corner of the Earth without finding a building topped with his name, in 10-foot letters. Not a little of the criticism of him comes from envy at his success, combined with a distaste for his endless bravado. This resentment was magnified hugely by his astounding success in coming from political nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and become president of the United States.
An objective assessment might conclude that he has built a better record of results in domestic and foreign policy in three years than his predecessors each achieved in eight years. Arguably, he has made America safer through a stronger defense and achieved real equality and civil rights progress through bringing down the unemployment rates of African American and Hispanic citizens. Women, too, have experienced more economic opportunity.
But, in the dark of night (or day), Trump often merges with that strange beast, "Mr. Tweet" - a reckless creature who goes well beyond self-congratulatory bravado. No, he careens far more to the dark side, issuing more than 45,000 tweets and associated pronouncements that often spew venom at targets across the world and societal spectrum.
One recent tweet-threat to apply his "great and unmatched wisdom" to "destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey" created yet another low standard in diplomacy and international political decorum. Politicians and diplomats across the political spectrum were quick to express puzzlement over his Syria/Turkey strategy and condemn or ridicule his language. Of course, the authoritarian regime of Turkey has taken a hard turn toward Russia, undermining NATO and compromising advanced military technology that the U.S. shared with it, and Trump is on firm ground in taking a tough line with Turkey - but that strategic positioning gets lost in his Twitter launch.
He aimed a similar Twitter-tornado at Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), calling out his fabricated account of Trump's Ukraine phone conversation, labeling Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as "traitors" and urging appropriate punishment. While a more thoughtful dissection of the facts might have supported Trump's case, the tweets again crossed the river Styx and took the country into social media hell.
Another recent hit was Trump's quote of a pastor's comment that impeachment might bring "civil war." While a significant portion of the country believes the Democrats' impeachment push is ill-founded and purely political, the tweet has become an issue of its own as a purported call for widespread violence.
Most presidents understand that everything from mean caricature to hostile criticism comes with the job and generally needs to be overlooked, or responded to with calm and reason. Even though the media have been more hostile to Trump than perhaps any president in recent history, most advisers would recommend patience and steadiness. Even the hypersensitive Presidents Clinton and Obama let a lot slide.
Trump, however, does not understand or accept any of that. The result, in this social media age, is the most complicated political calculus ever.
Trump has scored domestic and foreign policy successes, while his "Mr. Tweet" side has controlled the news cycle; many staunch Republicans are appalled but do not see a more attractive alternative for president. For Democrats, Trump's success in domestic policy has left little room for thoughtful moderates; advancing traditional liberal policies leaves them open to "it failed under Obama" or "we've already addressed and solved that problem," which the strong Trump economy actually has. Looking for air time, Democrats have been forced to the extremes, which may lead to political disaster with a centrist electorate.
Our new age of technology has bred some odd creatures in Silicon Valley and in Washington. To be effective, presidents need to embrace the newest approaches to control the political narrative and move public opinion. In that vein, perhaps history will not think of Trump's duality as strange at all, but simply as political Darwinism.
Grady Means is a writer and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and as a staff economist for Secretary Elliott Richardson of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Follow him on Twitter @GradyMeans.