The Washington Post headline would have passed me by had it not been regurgitated by the news aggregator on my phone. Instead it showed up like Cousin Eddie crashing Christmas vacation: “Trump lashes out at impeachment inquiry in fiery news conference,” it said.
We have a pugnacious president, but something about that phrasing sounded more familiar than it should have. Sure enough, an October 4 search on the string “Trump lashes out” yielded what Google called “about 7,330,000 results.” That’s an astounding number that might give people unfamiliar with groupthink in the mass media reason to wonder if the president ever makes time for anything other than “lashing out.” For the sake of context, I also ran a search on the phrase “Obama lashes out” and found only “about 5,750 results.” The gulf in outcomes between those searches explains lazy partisanship among the courtier class as much as any single data point can.
There are obvious temperamental differences between Barack Hussein Obama and Donald John Trump, but both men are egotistical. Appeals to the “No Drama Obama” persona that cloaked as ideologically driven a manager as has ever occupied the Oval Office don’t by themselves explain why Obama was so seldom infantilized in headlines. (If you think about it, “lashing out” is what toddlers do, because they haven’t yet learned how to keep their emotions in check.)
On the other side of the coin, Donald Trump’s admirers cannot explain the phrasing preferred by the press simply by saying that Trump is a “counter-puncher” and pretending that his blunt speech is chronically mischaracterized by journalists who do not understand sarcasm or negotiation.
Journalists manipulate words for a living. They know full well that “lashes out” is not the only verb in town, but they’re so busy fantasizing about walking into the O.K. Corral with their hands on that trusty formulation that they miss the stable full of synonyms next door. It never occurs to them to suggest that Trump responds, answers, ridicules, parries, challenges, criticizes, or rebuts their preferred narrative, not least because those kinds of actions are ascribed to adults. Beguiled by the one-two punch of their own biases and stalker-like attention to the President’s Twitter feed, many journalists are convinced that Trump is either a fascist genius or the world’s biggest toddler. Re-acquainting themselves with a thesaurus might relieve their anxiety, but we’re coming up on an election year and there are axes to grind, so that won’t happen.
“The words of a president matter,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) reminds us, but in her quest to have Donald Trump robbed of a public platform while neutering debate until it surrenders to socialist-scented “safe space,” Harris forgets to add that words about a president also matter. So long as Harris wants to be the Democrat nominee for president, her concern for what the children of our Republic hear from Donald Trump seems as sincere as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s very public prayers for the disruptive politician she thinks should be jailed.
Shall we look again at the double standard in news coverage between Obama and Trump? Given the rarity with which Obama’s peevishness was characterized as “lashing out,” you might think he was more of a happy-go-lucky fellow than a thin-skinned politician cunning enough early in his career to vote “Present” in the Illinois state Legislature whenever a “Yes” or “No” vote might have been problematic. If you believed Obama’s press clippings, you might wonder why his signature legislative achievement, the misnamed “Affordable Care Act,” passed without a single Republican vote. You might also wonder why he felt the need to brag that he had “a pen and a phone” as tools for, among other questionable things, bringing federal pressure to bear on the Little Sisters of the Poor and making end-runs around Congress to the tune of 276 executive orders.
Putting personalities aside for a minute, is an executive who counter-punches necessarily more vile than an executive who does not? Perhaps the one virtue of counter-punching from a moral point of view is that it happens openly. For all of its preening about being “scandal-free” (because there was allegedly nothing to see in weaponized IRS audits, in Benghazi, or with “Fast and Furious”), the Obama administration had a penchant for secrecy. You can argue that the Trump administration is not much for transparency, either (except when it functions as a clarifying fire), but one important difference between them is that Obama’s acolytes pretend to be holier-than-thou while palming their shivs, in much the same way that Hillary Clinton, in a hall-of-fame instance of psychological projection, once worried about whether Donald Trump would accept the results of an election she thought he would lose.
Words matter, and not just in the political sphere. Sadly, Pope Francis is notorious for calling the conservative Catholics with whom he disagrees “rigid,” because rigidity is frowned upon wherever moral flexibility is mistaken for evidence of freedom, but I’m reminded of the Groucho Marx quip to the effect of “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.” The people whom the pope dismisses as “rigid” prefer to think of themselves as steadfast in faith.
It’s not just words that matter, it’s the repetition of them. Next time you hear of Donald Trump lashing out, ask yourself whether or not that description actually fits the situation. More often than not, it won’t.