President Trump castigated his attorney general this week for the recent indictments of two Republican congressmen, complaining in a tweet that the actions may further imperil his party’s chances in the November election. In so doing, the president openly put partisan concerns above the nation’s laws he is sworn to enforce.
This latest evidence of the president’s remarkable disregard for the rule of law, episodes that may be used against him in an obstruction of justice case or impeachment proceedings, has been called “Nixonian” by critics. Yet unlike President Nixon’s private but recorded rants that led to his resignation, Trump’s words are said out loud, or blasted to his 54.2 million Twitter followers, brazenly intended for public consumption.
“Nixon actually respected the office of the presidency,” said John A. Farrell, a historian and the author of “Richard Nixon: The Life.” “He might have said damaging things but he knew to do it in private. Trump is in a class of his own.”
Trump’s blunt rhetoric and aversion to political correctness provokes strong reactions from supporters and detractors alike. Blurting out his actual thoughts and feelings is a central feature of this presidency that stands in stark contrast to each president who preceded him. The question is whether it will contribute to his undoing.
“The novelty of this situation is not that Trump is ignorant or in error, although he often is, but that he doesn't care,” said Elizabeth Markovits, a professor at Mt. Holyoke College who studies political rhetoric. “The regulative ideal of being correct and truthful, those ideals don't hold with him. The thing that holds is power.”
Even before he was president, in a July 2016 news conference before the extent of Russia’s election meddling had become known, Trump openly invited Russian intelligence services to hack Hillary Clinton’s email server and leak the contents to the media. “Russia, if you’re listening,” he began, effectively encouraging the kind of cyber-espionage by a foreign adversary that the government later determined was then taking place.
Telegraphing his sense of inviolability for his words and actions, candidate Trump also once claimed that, thanks to the unwavering support of his loyalists, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
More recently, Trump admitted in a tweet that he mainly kept fired White House advisor Omarosa Manigault Newman in her taxpayer-funded job “because she only said GREAT things about me.” Just this week, he signaled that, because of his business relationship with Nike, he would go easier on the company for its new ad campaign celebrating Colin Kaepernick than he has on the former football player and the NFL for African American players’ protests of racial injustice during pre-game anthems.
“Nike is a tenant of mine," Trump told the Daily Caller, a conservative website, on Tuesday. “They pay a lot of rent.”
Last week, while complaining about the media at a campaign rally in Evansville, Ind., Trump seemed to acknowledge his exaggerations and lies as he boasted about his dominance of the cable airwaves.
"When you get good ratings, you can say anything," he said. It was a statement with echoes of his infamous boast about sexually assaulting women — “When you’re a star they let you do it; you can do anything” — that was recorded before a 2005 “Access Hollywood” appearance and disclosed weeks before the election.
A day after the Evansville appearance, at an official event in Charlotte, N.C., the president prattled on about politics and attacked Democrats at an occasion ostensibly focused on an executive order he was signing to strengthen retirement security. Trump, who repeatedly has turned official functions into opportunities for partisan campaigning, in potential violation of federal law, acknowledged — with a boast — that he was using a taxpayer-funded event to push a primarily political agenda.
"It's like a political event," he said amid the ceremony. "And you don't even have to pay for it."
Especially on social media, observers have come up with a label for Trump’s distinctive behavior, describing his routine boasts about transgressive behavior and imperviousness to political or legal consequences as “saying the quiet part out loud.”
Yet Markovits, the scholar of rhetoric, said, “He's not saying the quiet thing out loud, he's flouting the norm and [suggesting] that he's not bound by facts, and isn't that a sign of how powerful he is.”
The president’s propensity to so often break the so-called fourth wall, cutting through the imagined divide between an actor and the audience to express what he’s really thinking, has some up side for Trump. It’s endeared him to many of his supporters.
A Pew survey released in late August showed that 60% of people who approved of Trump’s overall job performance cited his personality as the thing they liked most about him. Many of those respondents, according to the pollsters’ summary, “specifically said they appreciate how he speaks his mind and is not like a typical politician.”
Michael Caputo, a former political advisor to Trump, said, “Part of the reason why his base is so loyal is they see he actually enjoys aggravating the establishment class and they understand that's the champion they need, someone who’s strong enough to take the blowback.”
Trump’s legal team and White House aides privately grumble that his unfiltered comments often make their jobs harder.
According to “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue,” an academic study published earlier this year in the American Sociological Review, many of Trump’s supporters understand that he is often insincere and inconsiderate but they perceive as authenticity his willingness to bulldoze norms that they, too, view as illegitimate.
The president’s many detractors, however, see Trump’s statements as a chronic inability to suppress his own egotism and sense of entitlement, and they foresee long-term damage to the country’s political culture.
“How ironic that somebody who lies as consistently as he does is regarded as 'telling it like it is.' He has this reputation of telling blunt truths, but he distorts the truth so often,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative writer and former talk-radio host.
To Sykes, as alarming as Trump’s Monday tweet expressing an autocratic desire to politically manipulate law-enforcement decisions was the muted response it drew. The week’s news was dominated by a combative Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, salacious revelations of White House chaos in a new Bob Woodward book and a New York Times op-ed column by an anonymous senior official claiming a “resistance” inside the administration to counter an “amoral” Trump’s worst instincts.
“If we found out somehow in the course of investigations he was saying these things in private, they would be massive bombshells,” Sykes said. “But by saying them out loud and in public, he almost has the effect of normalizing the behavior. He keeps moving that window of acceptability and what is normal.”
“He's saying [to his base], ‘How far can I push you people? How far will you follow me?’ And we haven't found the answer yet.”
Bandy X. Lee, a Yale University forensic psychiatrist and the author of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President,” posits that Trump’s lack of impulse control and tendency to attack can hold appeal for others who feel deprived and vulnerable.
“To people who feel powerless, those comments will ring true and seem like the strength they need,” Lee said.
“Most people do not feel the need to say things that overly exaggerate strength or ability because they have a stable sense of self,” she said of Trump. “Those who are not grounded in this sense of self-worth can experience criticism or even a lack of approval as catastrophic — unless one constantly asserts and exaggerates power, it can seem like the self is jeopardized. Desperation leads one to say those things.”