The Trump Outrage Trap
President Donald Trump ignited another firestorm over offensive comments early Tuesday morning. In yet another example of his insensitivity to the history of racial oppression, Trump argued that the impeachment inquiry he currently faces was akin to a lynching. The comment touched off the expected anger among many liberals and centrists on Twitter and elsewhere. “I’m going to have a stroke,” Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times tweeted along with a story about the quote. A wide variety of Democrats joined together with Bouie in denouncing the hateful comment, one that ignored the thousands of African American men and women brutalized by white mobs throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These Democrats were met by the usual cadre of Trump defenders releasing formulaic talking points: arguing that lynching is a race neutral term, or asserting that Trump really did not mean “lynching” when he said lynching.
More than likely, this controversy will die down over the next few days. The news cycle will be reinvigorated by another hateful Trump comment, or the ignoring of a subpoena, or another arrest of a Rudy Giuliani crony. But in the meantime, Trump critics should take a close look at the Trump outrage news cycle and how they may one day escape from it.
Trump makes incendiary comments for two reasons. The primary reason is to deliver a certain message to his followers both on Twitter and elsewhere. Trump wants to instruct them on how to think about an event in the world or a story he recently saw on cable news. He presents his spin — in this case, that he’s being treated unfairly — and then counts on it being reported as newsworthy by both conservative and mainstream outlets. In that way, Trump believes he can bolster his poll numbers and use his support to scare Republicans into submission with the implicit threat of a primary challenge.
But Trump also clearly makes incendiary comments because it annoys liberals. Many liberals believe that this desire to “own the libs” is an end in itself, a purely cathartic act to improve his self-esteem by putting others down. This is not the full story, however. Rather, garnering a strong response from the nation’s liberals also helps the president prove the loyalty of his supporters. Trump likes forcing Republicans to twist themselves in knots supporting his comments. Every hateful statement therefore becomes a litmus test that can help the president decide whom to support or lash out against at a later date.
Liberals and other anti-Trump Americans often know that such comments are made to bait and anger them. Nonetheless, it is difficult to do anything about them. The considerate person has practically no choice but to respond with hurt and outrage when Donald Trump says that a milquetoast investigation is exactly the same as a brutal lynching. They can only deflect and pivot to kitchen-table topics so much. At a fundamental level, men and women in politics, online, and in everyday society have to respond to Trump’s comments, which means that his defenders have to respond in kind, and so on. It is a vicious cycle that the president has trapped the country in ever since he rode down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his campaign.
Obviously, defeating Donald Trump in the next election is the clearest way to stop this process. No major news outlet will devote more than an occasional segment to the rantings of a powerless ex-president. But until then, Democrats have to try and fill the national media with as many grounded anti-Trump stories as possible. They need to find the stories that stick, such as the corrupt call with Ukraine, and hammer them from every angle possible. Democrats also need to place massive pressure on any powerful committee chairman who refuses to adequately investigate the president. When asked about his antics, they need to acknowledge how hurtful and insensitive Trump’s comments are to the American people. But then, they need to get back to showing why else Donald Trump is truly unfit to govern.