The bully who pulls the levers of Trump’s mind never learns
Some people never grow out of their inner bully. Some choose not to move on from victimizing behavior. And some are forever defined by insecurities that lead to the need to browbeat those who might outshine them. To be sure, many Americans have come to view former President Trump as such a bully.
Rather than argue a case on its merits or point out the missteps of a person’s actions or opinion, Trump often resorts to schoolyard name-calling. It’s a loathsome tactic by anyone trying to win an argument but particularly repugnant and demeaning coming from one who holds — or did hold — the nation’s highest office.
Trump recently put this knee-jerk reaction on display yet again when he went after three of his favorite targets: The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Woodward and Costa wrote about him in their book “Peril” and reported in that book that Milley called his counterpart in the People’s Republic of China to assure him there was no cause for alarm following the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol. (Milley has said the calls were “routine.”)
In a statement attacking the three men, Trump used words including “con man,” “lightweight lapdog assistant,” “craggy smug face” and “treason.”
When we encounter name-calling and bullying by a 7-year-old in the schoolyard, we tend to excuse it as the behavior of an underdeveloped mind. When we experience it from a 75-year-old man who was president of the United States — to paraphrase the late Stephen Sondheim — it’s time to “Send in the Therapists.”
Irresponsibly attempting to attach the word “treason” to a decorated military leader such as Milley brings to mind Trump’s criticisms of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Of McCain’s loss to former President Obama in 2008, Trump said, “He lost. He let us down. … I never liked him as much after that. … I don’t like losers.” When reminded that McCain was a war hero, Trump responded, “He is not a war hero. … He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
For those who may have forgotten, McCain served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. As he was flying his 23rd combat mission over North Vietnam, his A4E Skyhawk was shot down. He broke both arms and a leg and, once captured by the enemy, was beaten and bayoneted and forced into solitary confinement for two years. He refused early release for propaganda purposes unless his fellow American POWs also were released and was held prisoner for another five years. Trump’s indefensible comments remind us that he managed to avoid the Vietnam War and military service altogether.
Why would someone like Trump — who was hanging out in wealthy establishments in Manhattan while McCain was a prisoner of war — dare to besmirch the senator’s service? One possible explanation is that Trump simply can’t help himself. Even knowing he will inflict damage on his reputation or his cause, the bully in him is compelled to strike out. It’s likely one reason that Trump lost Arizona in the 2020 election.
And now Trump continues to shamefully attach the word “treason” to a four-star general. Milley has held multiple command and staff positions in eight divisions and special forces over 40 years and was deployed to — among other combat theaters — Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter for three tours).
Trump is within his rights to articulate concerns he might have regarding Milley’s policy positions or even to air personal disagreements the two had in private. Some believe that Milley was deeply embarrassed when, in June 2020, during the height of protests against the death of George Floyd, he joined Trump for a much-maligned photo op at Lafayette Square on the way to St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street, which had been targeted for arson by some anarchists. Surely Milley, and others who accompanied Trump, knew then that a serious public relations problem would ensue.
Some suspect that Milley may have talked about Trump in an effort to mend his own reputation and ingratiate himself with the Biden administration and Democratic leadership. If that’s the case, Trump should engage in a point-by-point rebuttal with the general. Our nation doesn’t need any military leader to favor one political party or ideology over the other.
But Trump certainly could have made his case without the name-calling and gutter-sniping. Sadly, the bully who pulls the levers of his mind seems determined to never allow that to happen.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.
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