Noted media critic Donald Trump complained this morning that a Washington Post headline framed his defiance in a misleadling way. Today’s top right headline of the Post‘s print edition reads “Trump Defiant as China adds trade penalties.” I should probably be grateful that the president is supporting Jeff Bezos by subscribing to the print edition, but I digress. He, Trump, like him or not, knows exactly how headlines about “defiance” ought to be presented. Trump possesses agency, others are mere instruments of his will. Trump is the subject, everybody else is the object. In his world, it’s “Trump Defiant as U.S. Adds Trade Penalties, Will End Barriers And Massive I.P. Theft.” I could quibble that his rewritten headline is a terribly run-on sentence; also why capitalize every single word except “as,” or I could be more charitable and say that as a president, the president is a pretty terrific copy editor.
Does it even make any sense, moreover, to speak of a U.S. president as “defiant”? Not if we are the world’s only superpower and the president is really in charge of the executive branch. That Trump did not dispute the framing that he could be “defiant” at all is telling. Trump wants to cash in on what he gains from being seen as a “defiant” outsider toiling heroically to drain the swamp. A lot of us are not convinced, to say the least, but Trump is determined to hold onto the loyalty of his camp followers, so “defiant” is still very useful, as if Hillary is somehow calling shots and taking away jobs and failing to prevent mayhem–and Donald Trump is still the “defiant” swamp-draining champion of the forgotten man.
What are the odds, by the way, that Xi Jinping will be gaslit by Trump? Or that Trump’s manly addition of yet more “trade penalties” will result in ending trade barriers? Some people say that President-for-Life Xi is not likely to bow down to the mighty Trump. Who is in a better position to impose real pain on their citizens? Probably the country where the people are not really citizens–that would be, for the time being, China. To whip up his political base, Trump is turning to not-easily-won trade wars and not-easily-funded-by-Mexico border walls. He probably won’t have great success unless he is willing to risk big failure by actually fabricating an emergency, the shape of which we can imagine in outline if not in detail. Carl Schmitt wrote almost a hundred years ago that he who can create “the exception” is sovereign. Trump’s feelings seem in sync with Schmitt’s theories of politics, but our president has so far taken only half-measures. If he feels truly “unchained” and “unleashed” and goes all in on the “exception” and emergency, who or what will stop him? I wouldn’t want to bet much on the courage of Republican majorities in Congress or on the Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Kennedy-Gorsuch majority on the Supreme Court. I do hope that Trump’s own strong aversion to being blamed for anything will restrain him. If he felt he could gaslight enough of us to evade blame, though, he might do almost anything.