I began writing this piece with trepidation, wondering if it would be fair to compare the president of the United States of America to a president in SyFy’s cult classic made-for-TV movie franchise “Sharknado.” Serious-sober journalistic analysis demands serious-sober analogies and illustrations, I told myself. The nuclear football follows Donald Trump everywhere he goes. His words can instantly affect billions of dollars of stock value. That’s nothing like a fictional president shooting fictional flying fish in a fictional White House yelling, “This is for America, baby!” for an audience laughing at itself for having laughed at such absurdity.
But before I could let the comparison go and finish the first draft, “demon sperm” began trending on Twitter.
Such is the dilemma of journalism in the Trump era. We have such a hard time accepting just how abnormal things are that we too often pull punches, inadvertently making it harder for our audiences to fully grasp what we are facing as a nation. Our default is to sand away the rough edges to make sense of things, though during times like these, it’s the rough edges where much of the truth lies.
This is not a normal presidency, but we’ve spent much of the past three-and-a-half years trying to fit it into journalistic norms that worked well for previous presidencies but not this one. It’s why no matter how many well-crafted news articles or in-depth investigative pieces we publish, none of it quite seems to capture the true essence of the moment.
Alas, in a 21st-century diversifying America, the president approvingly retweeted a video of a white man yelling “white power.” He did so during what has been aptly described as a racial reckoning in the wake of police killing George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. That’s not a policy issue, just more evidence of a man so narcissistic he will seek approval from whomever will supply it, no matter how fleeting or foolish. And that’s disturbing, dangerous, funny, and sad all at once, and we don’t know what to do with that.
He was acquitted during impeachment proceedings not because those who decided not to remove him from office believed him innocent, but because they decided his using the power of the presidency to bribe a desperate ally into launching a phony investigation against his political opponent was neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor. That’s about one of our major political parties willingly undermining this country’s checks and balances to follow Trump, even if it means undermining our democracy.
Before that, his presidential campaign welcomed the help of a hostile foreign power, lied about it numerous times, and hampered a special counsel investigation. In the past few weeks, we learned that country may have put bounties on the heads of American soldiers, that this president did nothing when he heard about that possibility, and has since made strategic moves — like removing nearly 12,000 troops from Germany — that hostile foreign power has long wanted.
He has told so many lies, has been so routinely and openly and boldly dishonest about things big and small that a prominent fact-checker had to create an entirely new category to describe just how unique his lying is even among untrustworthy politicians.
More than 150,000 Americans have been killed during one of the worst pandemics since the 1918 flu. In the early days of the outbreak, he suggested the media focused on it to hurt him politically. As the death toll on some days reached nearly 3,000, he refused to be seen in public wearing a face covering, one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the disease. By the time he decided to don one, he had gone on national TV suggesting the dangerous idea that putting disinfectant inside the body might be a cure.
The damage had already been done, with 34 percent of those in his party telling Quinnipiac they don’t believe masks are effective, compared to only 4 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Independents.
We should have seen that coming. Remember when he (probably) took a Sharpie to a hurricane map just to save face for a silly mistake he made on Twitter?
And still, when he decided, at a short-scripted coronavirus briefing, to finally urge his supporters to wear face masks, journalists once again wondered aloud if that was a real pivot while dissecting that new tone.
He spent time during a campaign rally proving he could raise a glass of water to his mouth with just one hand as his supporters cheered that great accomplishment.
He also used armed federal officials to attack a group of peaceful protesters so he could walk across the street for a staged photo-op — to hold up a Bible in front of a damaged church — while top Justice Department and military officials tagged along.
In the weeks leading up to the 2018 mid-terms, he deployed troops to our southern border to confront a caravan of immigrant women, children, and men and said they could respond with fatal force if rocks were hurled their way.
He recently sent federal agents to cities led by Democrats against the wishes of local officials, where tense protests predictably worsened at the sight of what seemed like an invading army.
None of it should have surprised. He is, after all, the president who kicked off his campaign saying most Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, wanted to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and used what amounted to state-sanctioned kidnapping of children as official U.S. policy to convince foreigners fleeing violence to not seek asylum.
In the past several days, he’s spent time bragging that he could remember the words “person, woman, man, camera, TV” in order. One of his nieces recently released a book detailing Trump’s mental health issues; journalists have largely avoided or tread lightly when discussing them. Most of us in media don’t hold doctorates in clinical psychology — but she does.
That’s why his decision to retweet a video — since removed from social media — of a woman who believes the government is controlled by reptilians and that “gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches” shouldn’t have surprised either. She claimed hydroxychloroquine is a cure for Covid-19. That’s all Trump needed to know about her — that she was saying something that might make him look good because he had latched onto that drug months ago, no matter the potential harm to the country or even his own supporters.
That’s who this president is. There is no other there there. His narcissism explains everything else. It’s time we start making that truth plain to our audiences, even if it means alluding to movies with chainsaw-wielding actors battling flying sharks and former professional baseball players batting them into baseball stadium scoreboards.