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The Problem With Ignoring Donald Trump

The president’s tweets about Mika Brzezinski were odious and unworthy of our time. But can we really shut out Trump’s nastiness?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

Donald Trump likes to watch cable news. He does it most every morning, sometimes for hours on end; the segments seemingly make up a significant portion of the notoriously short-on-attention president’s media diet. As a result, Trump has an intense fascination with cable hosts and tends to take their critiques — like those of Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski — more than a little personally. So Trump did what he does when he’s upset, and fired back from his personal Twitter account:

There’s a lot that’s reprehensible here, to say nothing of radically divergent from the behavior we generally expect from our commanders-in-chief. There’s the name-calling: “low I.Q.,” “Crazy,” “Psycho.” And there’s the line about Brzezinski “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” an addition meant to diminish her as vain, desperate, fundamentally unsanitary. (I looked it up for my and your edification, and this Canadian with very nice hair and no wrinkles whatsoever says that only 3 percent of face-lifts bleed afterward. Also, yeah, no.)

Of course, this sort of rhetoric is part of who Trump is. He has spent decades criticizing some of the women around him as “crazy,” possessing of “bad complexion[s],” a “fat pig,” “nasty.” (The Telegraph keeps a running log of the remarks: “Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place.”) In 2015, he suggested that then–Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” He won the election anyway. You might have heard.

The result is that, just over two years after he declared his candidacy, Trump’s comments feel like one long barrage of hate. Not just hate: useless hate, in service to nothing but itself and its owner, a black hole from which nothing of value — no rhetorical insight, no practical discourse, no interesting or meaningful discussions with friends or coworkers or anybody — can escape. What is there to take from Trump’s comments about Brzezinski except that he is crude, thin-skinned, and mean-spirited? We knew those things already. Asked in Thursday’s press briefing if she thought Trump made a decent role model for her young children, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded that the only real role model is God. It can be tempting to look at the firehose of vitriol coming from the White House and decide you’d be better off by not hearing about any of it.

There’s a compelling case to be made for ignoring Donald Trump. His Twitter feed is an amalgamation of semi-grammatical insults and attacks, photo ops, vague promotion of Republican policies, responses to items on a given day’s cable segments, and self-assured conclusions that he has just accomplished something great. His real-life addresses are much the same: rambling, self-congratulatory, and quick to blame “fake news” or a “witch hunt” for everything he doesn’t like or agree with. He rarely offers details on any of his plans or policies on any platform. Similarly, his deputies — particularly Sanders and quasi-fired press secretary Sean Spicer, whose job it is to explain these detail-free things in detail to the press corps — seldom have anything to add, and often their attempts turn into outright gaffes. They spend much of their brief visits to the podium explaining that they haven’t yet had a chance to ask Trump about his position on X, Y, or Z. Five months into the Trump presidency, it seems clear that the lack of detail offered by just about anyone in the administration on just about any topic isn’t some sort of 17-dimensional chess. There’s silence because there’s no there there: No details are revealed because there are no details to reveal. Angry bluster is the beginning, middle, and end of it.

In terms of actually shaping how the country looks, Trump is about as irrelevant as any president has ever been. He has accomplished remarkably little on a policy level. Campaign promises like the wall at the Mexican border have gone untouched except by periodic, increasingly fanciful lip service that hasn’t remotely increased the project’s feasibility or odds of congressional funding. He is historically unpopular. He has ceded an unprecedented amount of control to Congress, which has readily worked to roll back policies advanced by the president, reaffirming the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter and moving forward on harsh sanctions against Russia. If Trump has noticed these contradictions and power shifts, he’s done next to nothing to stop them. His is a presidency characterized by ignorance, incompetence, and indifference. The man in charge has next to nothing of consequence to say, because he’s not actually steering the ship; Obamacare reform, which he championed throughout his campaign and has since handed off in every meaningful way to Republican leadership, is a case in point. Why bother listening to all of his nastiness if there’s not even anything to learn from it about where the country is headed?

Add to this the fact that he palpably wants our attention. He does not want to insult Brzezinski in private. He wants, surely, to hear the gasps on the left, the applause for his refusal to be “politically correct,” whatever that would mean here, on the right. It’s not so much a zero-sum game as a negative-sum game: If you listen, you lose.

You can’t totally block out the president of the United States — but you can probably do a pretty good job of it. You might block Trump on Twitter, obliterating his presence in your feed, tell Facebook to see fewer posts like this. You might avoid the cable-news programs where he’s discussed, where his most recent insults will be repeated ad nauseam. You might opt not to click on stories about his character, his latest narrative-jerking, his administration’s scuffles with reporters and bureaucrats and Congress and long-defeated foes. A lot of his day-to-day news is not just unpleasant but deeply unimportant, things that if you spent the next six months in a coma no one would even bother burdening you with when you woke up at the New Year. Things they might not even remember: shouts and barbs and vicious ugliness that steered no policy, that shaped no debates, that had no effect on the American people greater than darkening their Wednesday or Thursday. If he’s going to do nothing more consequential on Twitter than demean the office of the president — box: checked — then why listen to all the anger? Why give him the anguished retweets, the headlines he so badly wants, a place at your dinner table?

But he does have the nuclear football. He can steer policy, even if he’s scarcely managed to yet: His travel ban may be neutered and late, but grandparents who might otherwise have entered will be barred from this country now; deportations of immigrants have declined under Trump, but arrests by an emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement are up nearly 40 percent. Or else Trump might do other things: start or escalate a war or torpedo the stocks your retirement depends on. He could do these things with words — has already, in lesser forms — or he could do them with the many much fiercer tools he now has at his disposal. He could reshape the world if he set his mind to it; shouldn’t you keep an eye on his rudenesses to see if, or when, that’s coming?

Trump, ever a creature of tabloids and reality TV, designed his administration less for efficacy than for intrigue. Even as Spicer bumbled his way through his early briefings with untruths and shouting matches, Trump reportedly applauded him for bringing in impressive ratings. Did you ever watch the daily White House press briefing before January 23? How many of Barack Obama’s press secretaries can you name? Wasn’t it boring back then? Isn’t part of what’s happening now a reaction to the suddenly significant chance of a viral video or a take-launching scolding or a phrase like “Holocaust centers”?

Reports yell out "Sean" after Spicer leaves briefing without t...

Stunned white House reporters yell out after Sean Spicer bolts from the press briefing without taking any questions. READ MORE:

Posted by The Hill on Tuesday, May 2, 2017

It’s tempting to throw in the towel. An informed citizen should pay attention to those in power. But what do you do when the president himself is often blatantly and proudly uninformed, when all he seems able to inform his citizens of are his own seedy hatreds?

Brzezinski, for her part, responded with about as effective a retort as anyone has found: a physical jab of her own.

Perhaps pointing and laughing is a potent response; Brzezinski’s tens of thousands of retweets seem to suggest as much.

Yet it’s not clear what ignoring him would look like. Some shadows lifted from the lives of Americans, some bleeding by women he dislikes gone unimagined, some bizarre nicknames gone unheard. But Trump was ignored at his own inauguration and responded not with contemplation but with fury, false bluster, and insistence that untold — and nonexistent — millions had attended. He has, through force of will and outright denial, made himself impossible to ignore.