Words Matter: Trump, Spicer, and the Need for Accountability

Words Matter: Trump, Spicer, and the Need for Accountability

By J.D. Munch

Donald Trump and his Administration continue to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. The latest iteration comes courtesy of Sean Spicer, who in criticizing Syria, stated, “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who did not even sink to using chemical weapons.” The backlash came quickly, with everything from calls for Spicer’s ouster to a parade of memes mocking Spicer. The odds that Spicer will see the end of 2017 from the position of Press Secretary seem, at present, remote.

That Spicer made this statement seems ridiculous. The lesson that those in Washington still struggle to grasp is that, when it comes to Hitler, two rules should govern one’s analogies:

  1. No analogy comparing someone or something to Hitler or Nazi Germany is appropriate. Ever.
  2. If you are considering an analogy that compares someone or something to Hitler or Nazi Germany, refer back to rule 1, and stop.

Even so, calling out Spicer as the clear culprit and low-hanging fruit misses the point. Resisting Trump consistently means looking past the obstacles and distractions to what really matters. In this case, Spicer’s rhetoric and the flurry of coverage and ridicule it rightfully earned plays right into the Administration’s hands by allowing another distraction from the serious ethical issues surrounding Trump himself. The words coming out of the Administration matter, but we should be taking Trump himself to task for the continued wall of misinformation and obfuscation—and for the leadership failure that this kind of word salad represents.

The Administration Has Not Earned a Pass

The Trump apologists have already emerged, treating the focus on Spicer’s words as another example of the mainstream media attacking poor President Trump and preventing him from making America great again. They argue that Spicer is in no way anti-Semitic, that Trump himself is not anti-Semitic, and that this parsing of words, like every other example of people using Trump’s words against him, is just liberal hate. To hear the Limbaugh and Hannity crowd tell it, the media is ignoring everything else and waiting to pounce on an errant sentence.

But all of this presupposes an Administration that has proven itself to care about the groups of people that Trump and his spokespeople offend. The Trump White House has provided plenty of reason for suspicion in this regard. The White House issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that never mentioned Jews! It refused for weeks to condemn a series of anti-Semitic attacks, and even then made at best a tepid rebuke. And during his campaign, he made the stunning statement that he could not immediately disavow the endorsement of David Duke, because he was apparently the only person in politics who did not know who David Duke was.

Trump’s hesitation to respond to anti-Semitism is part of a broader theme of refusing to acknowledge attacks by whites and Christians as terrorist. His Administration removed white supremacist groups from those to be considered terrorists to focus exclusively on what he gleefully calls out as “radical Islamic terror.” He himself has demeaned women, African-Americans, the disabled, and just about everyone else who does not fall into the rich white male description. For him or his defenders to claim that he is being unjustly attacked by mean people reeks of hypocrisy and strains credulity to the breaking point. We must steadfastly resist any call to give Trump the benefit of the doubt regarding whether Spicer’s words reflect who Trump actually is.

Factual Accuracy Should Be a Minimum Expectation

Meanwhile, do you remember a quaint time in our nation’s history when we held politicians to a basic standard of getting objectively true statements correct? The resistance effort must never let go of that expectation, no matter how many body blows it takes from the Administration. Trump’s electoral college victory was mathematically not the biggest in the 21st century; one must go all the way back to the last one to find a bigger win. The Holocaust objectively occurred, with six million Jewish people murdered—many in gas chambers of concentration camps that did, in fact, exist. President Obama was objectively born in Hawaii, and did not tap (or “tapp”) Trump Tower. President Trump objectively goes golfing on the job far more than President Obama ever did.

The war on facts and the war on the media are one and the same, an effort to shape our understanding of factual information to whatever Trump wants to say it should be. His lies, half-truths, and misstatements have covered the gamut from the time he first began his campaign to the present, and will undoubtedly continue into the future. Our current president has demonstrated himself to be utterly untrustworthy, even on clearly verifiable information. This is not normal, and we should not accept it as such.

And it matters. Trump is ordering attacks on other nations. His constitutional right to do so comes from an understanding that the president functions to serve our country, and is positioned to know the information required to make the right decisions as Commander-in-Chief. If Trump disregards basic facts, or lives in a bubble in which the only information he trusts comes from Alex Jones, Breitbart, Drudge, and the most rightward elements of Fox News, how can we trust the decisions he will make? How can we trust the reasons he provides for these decisions? In short, how can responsible citizens not choose to resist?

Words Are Part of Leadership

The President of the United States has a terribly difficult job, even apart from the decisions required of the position every day. He (or someday, she) must lead a country in which divisions will always exist: divisions of gender, race, religion, sexuality, wealth, and myriad other layers of difference among us. Our connection to the nation’s leaders comes not through a Ruler/subjects relationship, but rather through the channels of communication and dissemination of information established. When Sean Spicer stands for a daily press conference, he is speaking on behalf of President Trump. He does not get to make up facts as he goes, because there is no such thing as an unofficial statement or an off the record moment in a White House Press Conference. He is speaking to the country, for the country. And if he makes a blanket misstatement that is inherently offensive to a part of that country, that is no trivial slip of the tongue.

And it is not only the country. The President is known, in this country and beyond, as the Leader of the Free World. Pause and let that sink in for a moment. The entire world is watching what the Administration has to say. Jewish people in Germany today hear about this. When Trump shoots from the hip about China, North Korea, Russia, Germany, or anyone else, the world hears about it. And foreign countries make decisions that take into account what Donald Trump has to say. Resisting the Administration’s efforts to create false narratives serves as an example not of cruelty, but of responsibility. If America is to lead the world, or even retain its allies over time, it cannot give misinformation and breed animosity as a matter of course. The White House must speak and act with integrity and honesty.

Going Beyond the Political Divide

This website, and indeed this author, exist with political leanings. Most people who think about politics form opinions, and speak from a place couched within those opinions. Thinking people can do this, honestly and responsibly, and can even disagree with each other while doing so. I have friends who are quite conservative politically, with whom I may not agree on a single major political issue. And I love them dearly.

This President and his Administration go outside of the realm of political disagreements. I would resist and fight many of Trump’s policy ideas regardless, out of an honest sense that there are better ways to achieve common goals. But the Administration has shown, over and over again, that it exists not to serve the country, but to aggregate and hold power. It hides facts—and indeed, hides from facts—when they do not suit President Trump’s ego. It lies and obscures and distracts every single day: from policies that will hurt the very working class voters who carried Trump to the second smallest electoral college victory since 1980 to the murky web of connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, Trump and his spokespeople jump between misdirection and outright falsehood, sometimes combining the two in one fell swoop. We cannot accept this as the new normal for our nation’s leadership.

Each day, we gain new opportunities to see the Trump two-step unfold: an untruth uttered, followed by a resistance to anything approximating an apology, followed then by lashing out at the media for not covering the “great things” Trump is doing. And in a sense, he is right. Words matter, and we must continue to insist they do. But we must resist the temptation to ignore the heart of the problem Trump represents: the words that ignore what really matters to people, just like the slogan “Make America Great Again,” function as a means to whitewash a political movement that seeks to decimate health care, fight against environmental protections, and reduce protections for workers, minorities, students, children, and the most vulnerable among us. Destroying rights and allowing the mighty to more efficiently trample the weak does not greatness make. More than ever, every day, we must resist.

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