Today, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, posted a GIF based on old footage of the day he took part in the show at the World Wrestling Federation. In the original footage he is shown body slamming a guy in a suit (people who pay closer attention to such entertainments can probably name him).
This GIF has the CNN log superimposed on the face of the original slammee so that Trump is metaphorically “taking down” the network he so dislikes. I haven’t seen anyone do so yet, but it’s only a matter of time before Trump or one of his surrogates claims that it was only meant as metaphor and no reasonable person would take it as a literal threat against the network or any of its employees. “They’re overreacting,” they’ll say, and under other circumstances, I might even agree with them. But here are a few reasons why I don’t.
- What about the unreasonable? I would argue that none of Trump’s support is reasonable, but even discounting that, surely everyone knows that there are unreasonable people out there. We have footage of people at his rallies, whipped up into violence against fellow attendees at the urging of candidate Trump. It is not a stretch to imagine an aggrieved person with access to weapons heading to Atlanta to follow the “instructions” of his commander-in-chief. Heck, quite a few people were quick to jump to the conclusion that the shooter of Rep. Steve Scalise was goaded on by Kathy Griffin, and other intemperate (to put it mildly) left-leaning celebrities. Anyone who took that position mere weeks ago in that shooting should not be defending Donald Trump now.
- Greg Gianforte. This GIF is a pretty good match for the descriptions of Montana Representative Greg Gianforte’s attack on a journalist who just wanted to ask him a question. I don’t blame people for missing the metaphor when there is literally a real-life example in recent headlines of exactly what is depicted here.
- Even the metaphor is troubling. Even if we are not talking about a threat of literal personal violence, a threat to the right of the people to a free press by the leader of the free world is nothing to be blase about. As President he wields a lot of power, especially if you ascribe to the theory of the unitary executive as Republicans tend to do. Tax audits, litigation, prosecution are just the actions contemplated by the Nixon Administration. Add in the surveillance technology of the CIA and NSA revealed by Edward Snowden and you have a scary spectrum of ways Trump could abuse the power of his office if he decided to “take down” CNN or any other news organization.
That said, while I do think the concern is reasonable, I also think this tweet is more an impotent lashing out from someone who never really learned how to deal with criticism. It’s akin to the revenge fantasies of bullied kids who feel powerless against the disapproval of their peers. If a teen or pre-teen posted something like this, school officials would rightly express concern and perhaps get counseling for the youth.
Okay, grains of salt. I only have my personal experience and one semester of beginning psychology to draw from here, plus whatever pop-psychology has been published since Columbine. I don’t know if he’s acting like this because he honestly thinks he can’t be wrong, or because he can’t believe he’s right and so constantly needs re-affirmation from those who he has chosen as his preferred in-group. Either way, whatever contempt I have for the man is mixed with a great deal of pity.