Eight days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump placed a call to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The call begins amicably, with Trump asking Turnbull about a mutual friend and Turnbull congratulating Trump on taking office. But things quickly escalate as the president confronts the prime minister about an Obama-era negotiation pertaining to refugees in Australia.
“I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad…They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.”
The “bad” people in question are economic refugees who reached Australia by boat, originally from different parts of Asia and Africa. Turnbull explains that refugees of any nation are not permitted to enter Australia via boat, a policy designed to decrease drownings and curb business for illegal smugglers. He reiterates that the refugees have been interviewed and vetted by Australian authorities, and per their deal, the United States can also refuse entry to any of them.
Still, Trump insists that the refugees are of unknown origin and will threaten the security of the United States: “Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they going to become the Boston bomber in five years? Or two years? Who are these people?”
Turnbull makes several more attempts to appease Trump, reminding him that in exchange for US support, Australia has agreed to accept refugees from US detention centers in Central America. Yet Trump continues to claim that this deal makes the US vulnerable to terrorists: “I do not want to have more San Bernadinos or World Trade Centers. I could name 30 others, but I do not have enough time…”
Much more interesting than Trump’s ability to name incidences of terrorism in the US is his apparent insecurity about how this deal affects his reputation. Throughout the call, Trump expresses fear of something that scares him even more than would-be terrorists: “I am going to get killed on this thing…I will be seen as a weak and ineffective leader in my first week by these people. This is killer.”
Turnbull feebly attempts to salvage the talk by changing the subject to Syria and North Korea, but Trump has already lost interest, and he abruptly ends the call with a “thank you, Malcolm.”
Whether he’s on the phone with a fellow world leader or giving a speech in front of thousands of people, it is not uncommon for Trump to be unprepared for the subject at hand. Indeed, two years into his presidency, we have a proverbial canon of carelessly written Tweets, mishandled press conferences, and empty speeches. And while we’ve all grown accustomed to communication from the president that lacks clarity or substance, there is one thing you can almost always count on Trump to deliver: an attitude of toughness.
Strong-man posturing has been the norm throughout Trump’s political career. It began on the campaign trail, when, after minor outbreaks of violence at his rallies, he encouraged supporters to harm protestors: “If you see someone getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them would you?”
“Weak” is also the ultimate insult for political colleagues who have wronged him, such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he recused himself from the Russia investigation, or Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen after he pled guilty to lying to Congress. Trump was quick to describe Sessions and Cohen as spineless, in both interviews and Tweets. In contrast, Montana congressman Greg Gianforte recently earned a Trump compliment for assaulting a reporter. With a tone similar to his praising of aggressive rally attendants, Trump described Gianforte to a cheering crowd: “Any guy that can do a body slam is my kind of guy.”
Comments like this are troubling, but they are nothing compared to Trump’s remarkably casual approval of violent dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un. Jung-Un has a reputation for killing any government or military official that challenges him; indeed, hundreds of executions, some of them public, have been documented. In a recent interview with Fox New’s Bret Baier, Baier described Kim Jung-Un as a “killer,” and Trump said this in response:
He’s a tough guy. When you take over a country, tough country, tough people, and you’re taking over from your father, I don’t care who you are, how much of an advantage you
have,if you can do that at 27 years old…I mean that’s one in ten thousand that can do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator.
Harmless Insecurity or Dangerous Incitement?
Two years into this haunted hayride of a presidency, psychological analyses of Trump’s many insecurities are not novel, but his particular brand of toughness has an idiosyncratic quality that merits further scrutiny. Whether he’s encouraging rowdy supporters or praising a deadly tyrant, Trump has an eerie way of keeping his own cool. He shrugs. He casually pauses. He maintains a slightly smug but mostly neutral face that leaves one wondering if he understands, on any level, the implications of what he’s just said.
Many are quick to ascribe Trump’s calm praising of harsh and aggressive behavior as a service to his desired image as president, a crafted projection of strength meant to hide his lack of qualification for the office. But contentious rhetoric from such a powerful figure, even when he himself seems unaffected by it, is never without consequence.
Whether carried out by a zealous fan at a campaign rally or a paranoid dictator, violence is an occurrence of emotional excess. It is characterized by a loss of control, an unrestrained emotional fervor. So what does it mean when such behavior is calmly suggested, when it is praised by someone who would likely never do such things himself? What are the ramifications of an aggressive but strangely nonchalant attitude, projected as an acceptable form of leadership from the most powerful political office in the world?
Hate in America
One concerning trend, suspiciously correlated with the Trump presidency, is the national rise in hate crime. According to the California Department of Justice, hate crimes in the state increased 17.4 percent from 2016 to 2017. Similar trends have been reported across the country, with documented rises in hate crime in the ten largest cities in America. African Americans, gay men, and members of the Jewish faith were among the most frequently targeted.
One such event occurred on October 27th, 2018, when a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, murdering eleven people and wounding six others. The motive of the killer has not yet been proven, although he is suspected of yelling anti-Semitic slurs before shooting. Forty-four days later, another man named was arrested in Ohio for planning a similar attack, after discussing details of his plan with an undercover FBI agent and saying that he “admired” what happened in Pittsburgh.
President Trump’s response to this incident demonstrates this continued theme of toughness. Though he did offer sympathies and denounced anti-Semitism, Trump also commented that an armed guard in the synagogue could have stopped the killer, and that people who commit such crimes should get the death penalty.
In August of last year, the President received tremendous criticism due to the tone and content of his response, after a man drove his car into a group of counterprotestors at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a young woman named Heather Hyer. Dozens more were injured, and two state troopers were also killed in a helicopter crash after responding to the incident.
President Trump made multiple statements that both sides were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Though he never said directly that the murder and assaults were justified, such is implied when he described the counterprotestors, among them Heather Hyer, as “alt-left” groups that were “very very violent.” He also continually downplayed the nefarious nature of the initial group that gathered to protest, of which the killer was a part: “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists and the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
As our country copes with events like these—troubling reminders that bigotry is alive and well in the US—deciphering the President’s meaning and motives behind such statements becomes another psychological hurdle. What are we to make of messaging like this? It would appear that the President, who is supposedly appalled by anti-Semitism, thinks neo-Nazism is no big deal. He denounces violence, but he’s more understanding if the violence aligns in some ways with his political leanings. From the office that is supposed to give us reassurance and moral grounding, we instead hear self-serving messages that are completely tone-deaf to the public moment and offer nothing to help us make sense of tragedy.
Who Is to Blame?
Is it legitimate to imply that Trump is the cause of all of this, that his presidency has directly resulted in the most violent national mood in recent memory? After all, in the course of Obama’s presidency, the candidate who won on a platform of hopeful change delivered remarks about mass shootings eighteen times, including the horrific massacre of twenty children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He also led the country during eight years of what is now the longest running military conflict in United States history, the War in Afghanistan. The deadliest year of the war was 2010, with 499 American soldiers among 711 total coalition forces killed in action. Additionally, the hate crime statistics cited earlier in this article document upward trends beginning in 2014, two years before Trump was elected. To say that the tumultuous Trump years were preceded by an era of peace is markedly false.
And yet, the Trump era has unsettled the American psyche in ways the Obama era never did. Since the genesis of his rise to power, dissidents and countermovements have compared Trump to Hitler. A cursory understanding of the twentieth century’s most notorious monster reveals this to be a dubious analogy, but dissecting this myth is instructive: Trump’s calm employment of harsh rhetoric and his cool approval of violence occurs not in the service of racist, calculated empire building, but in thoughtless, juvenile protection of his own ego.
Unraveling Our Moral Fabric
It is the complex and dynamic nature of the American presidency to both reflect and direct the national mood. We elect people in whom we see ourselves, but also in whom we see someone we hope to become. That Trump should hold either place in the national heart, when he seeks nothing but his own superficial gain, should give us all cause to reflect.
Yes, the moral fabric of America may have already been fraying before his rise to power. But Trump is pulling at the strings like an impulsive child. By the time we move on to president number forty-six, and Trump hangs up the oval office phone for the last time, who knows what damage will be done.
It remains to be seen whether history evaluates Trump to be the cause or consequence of the troubling state of affairs. Still, of
Erin is an administrator and instructor at the University of Utah, holding degrees in sociology and international affairs. She writes about gender, religion, art, and history, exploring how individuals exist within and fight against social systems. Her essays have been published in The Exponent and Young Mormon Feminists.