Sally Quinn, the Washington Post journalist and author, is a voracious reader of political opinion columns, and she has noticed a trend. Columnists keep listing President Trump’s myriad offenses and failings, but few offer any solutions.
In an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Quinn, the widow of the late famed Post editor Ben Bradlee, spoke of a capital occupied by a president few of its residents voted for and a place where the political commentary has been reduced to a collective moan about Trump’s boorishness and his dangerous lack of knowledge among other things.
Quinn told Rose, “One of the problems that journalists have, and I see this every day in the paper, and you do, too, when you read the columns and read all of that, is everyone is sort of reduced to listing the atrocities. He did this, he threw toilet paper – or paper towels – to the people in Puerto Rico, and he put down the woman mayor, and he mocked the disabled person. They just keep piling up and piling up and after a while it’s just all noise because it doesn’t matter to the people who really like him. So journalists are reduced to listing.”
Quinn noted that a lengthy New York Times opinion piece was literally a list of Trump’s lies. She concluded, “One of the things about opinion writers is ... I don’t see many people trying to figure out an antidote to this or how to fix the problem.”
Some readers complain that the national columns published on The News & Observer’s opinion pages are too often critical of Trump. But it is hard to find national columns praising him. Sure, liberal columnists turned up the volume of their criticism. But once reliably conservative writers such as The Times’ David Brooks and The Post’s George Will and Charles Krauthammer are often critical of the president, too. Trump is not only the least popular president of modern times. He also attacks and dismisses the media. It’s not a combination that produces positive commentary about Trump as a person or a president.
But the bigger issue about political columns is the lack Quinn noted. There’s a lot of angst, but not a lot of antidote.
That may partly be because Trump has knocked the establishment – including the media establishment – off balance. Pundits who had all the answers were left speechless by Trump’s victory and have been overwhelmed by his nonstop breaking of decorum, traditions and taboos. For ways to deal with Trump, most have been reduced to discussing extreme and unlikely measures such as impeachment, or removing the president as mentally unfit under the 25th Amendment, or hoping special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will drive Trump from office. Not many suggest ways to engage or encourage the president to do what’s good for the nation. Perhaps that’s because changing or channeling Trump is impossible.
Columnists are hardly the only ones who lack answers for how to respond to Trump. Politicians – even powerful members of Trump’s party – are exasperated. Last week two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, gave courageous voice to that frustration, calling out Trump for his bullying and untruthfulness. Both of them have decided not to seek re-election next year. Now even those Republicans who will face re-election should stand up to Trump.
Trump has launched juvenile Twitter attacks on the 5-foot-6 senator he’s dubbed “liddle Bob Corker.” Corker has responded that the White House has become an adult day care center. Corker, who has questioned Trump’s mental stability, said the president will be most remembered for the “debasement of our nation.”
Flake tried to move beyond complaining about the president to suggesting what to do about him. In a Senate speech announcing his retirement, Flake said it is time for the Republican majority to put political calculations aside and condemn Trump’s coarseness and divisiveness and restore a way of governing based on respect for the nation’s values and for fellow members of Congress.
Allen Frances, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, has tried to advance the national conversation about Trump in a new book, “The Twilight of American Sanity.” Frances, who wrote the definition of a narcissistic personality disorder for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is frequently asked if Trump is mentally ill. He says Trump isn’t, but the nation is acting irrationally.
Frances writes, “Medicalizing Trump’s bad behavior underestimates him and distracts attention from the dangers of his policies. Trump is a political problem, not meat for psychoanalysis. Instead of focusing on Trump’s motivations, we must counter his behaviors with political tools.”
The doctor may have the best antidote for Trump syndrome: reflect and act. That means people will have to speak about Trump not with exasperation, but in a way too many didn’t in 2016. The “political tool” best at our disposal is the vote.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org