President Trump is bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘Bully Pulpit’
Referring to the contents of a speech he was about to deliver, President Theodore Roosevelt told reporters, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit.” For Roosevelt, “bully” meant “superb” or “awesome.”
In his “Political Dictionary,” William Safire — New York Times columnist, lexicographer and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan — defined bully pulpit as “the active use of a president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.”
President Donald Trump has returned the “bully” in “bully pulpit” to its more familiar meaning: “a blustering or browbeating person… habitually cruel, insulting or threatening to those who are weaker, smaller or in some way vulnerable.”
Following the police death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests against police violence, Trump used a phrase first popularized by arch segregationists — including Alabama governor George Wallace — who encouraged police violence against blacks in the 1960s: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
It prompted Twitter to flag the president’s post for violating the platform’s rules against “glorifying violence.”
If protesters breached the White House perimeter, he promised to greet them “with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” In a phone call with governors, Trump chastised them for not “dominating” the streets, and his Secretary of Defense followed his lead, referring to American city streets as “the battlespace,” eliciting rebukes from former military leaders, including Retired Gen. Tony Thomas and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey.
On June 1, White House security forces unleashed what looked and acted like tear gas as well as rubber bullets on peaceful protesters to clear the way for the president to walk to a church (but not enter it) and hold up a Bible (without reading it) in a “photo op.”
As military units were called to the outskirts of Washington, in case the president decides he wants to use them against American citizens, the fact Trump wields incredible power but does not understand or care how it should properly be used has never been more obvious.
“I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” said Trump’s long-silent former Defense Secretary, Retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who’d finally seen enough. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstances to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Mattis’s full statement is worth reading. He doesn’t mince words.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
The general is right.
And like all bullies, Trump traffics in personal insults and group stereotypes. He began calling immigrants “rapists,” complained about “shithole countries,” mocked a reporter with disabilities, said the Speaker of the House has “mental problems,” said four American congresswomen of color should “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came.” He’s peddled the racist idea that immigration is an “invasion,” and retweeted the claim that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” He responded to the #MeToo movement, by declaring “It’s a very scary time for young men in America.” He spread a phony conspiracy theory that Joe Scarborough murdered Lori Klausutis, a congressional aide, in 2001.
That’s just a highlight reel — more examples are easy to find.
Like most bullies Trump is obsessed with himself. Between April 6 and April 24, as pandemic fatalities spiked, Trump spent a combined 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, two hours attacking other people, and less than five minutes offering sympathy to victims and their families.
And this bully is the nation’s liar-in-chief.
“I think my rhetoric brings people together,” Trump has claimed. Many Americans, I suspect, will respond with an eight-letter word that also begins with bull, and, in November send him a message that bullies – and reality TV hosts – like to give but not get: “You’re fired.”
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.
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