Taunting Trump: How the campaign to not ‘normalize’ the president is driving him bonkers
“Resistance” comes in many forms. In discussions about how to deal with the fear and alarm ignited by Donald Trump, no word has been used more frequently than “normalize.” Democrats and progressives engage in almost daily protest rallies to defy Trump’s agenda. But perhaps the most successful component of the anti-Trump movement has been its willingness to challenge his legitimacy. The popular slogan and hashtag “#Not My President” doesn’t mean that people think the November election results were rigged, but that Trump’s Electoral Vote majority doesn’t translate into a popular mandate and that his views and policies don’t reflect the popular will. The anti-Trump movement refuses to “normalize” a president whom they view as an authoritarian, even a neo-fascist, who violates that basic norms of democracy and the rule of law. By poking fun at Trump and exposing his narcissism, conflicts-of-interest, and pathological lies, his opponents are undermining his credibility and destabilizing his presidency as much as any marches and demonstrations.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted February 18-22 found that Trump’s job approval rating stood at just 44 percent — a record low for a newly inaugurated president. Only 34 percent of Americans considered Trump to be honest and trustworthy. Just 18 percent said Trump had the proper temperament to be president, while 55 percent ranked his temperament as poor. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted March 16-21 found that Trump’s approval rating had dipped even further – to just 37 percent. Particularly worrying for Trump is that is support among his base is slipping. In the past two weeks – in the midst of controversies over Trump’s ties to Russia and his claim that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower — approval among Republicans dropped from 91 to 81 percent. Among white voters it declined from 49 to 44 percent. The support among men dropped from 49 to 43 per cent.
The effort to not normalize Trump isn’t a conspiracy. It involves separate but overlapping components that, when viewed together, reflect a powerful effort to withhold from Trump the things he craves most: public approval and esteem.
Entertainment: Five nights a week, CBS “Late Night” host Stephen Colbert mocks Trump with jokes that depict him as a bumbling buffoon. Comedians Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver taunt Trump on a weekly basis, with no pretense to be even-handed. “Saturday Night Live’s” sketches eviscerate Trump each week, none more than Alec Baldwin’s uncanny impersonation and acerbic barbs directed at the Trump.
Trump can’t stand the stings. In December, Trump tweeted: “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.” In January, five days before his inauguration, Trump still couldn’t contain himself, tweeting: [email protected] is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!” These reactions expose his inability to laugh at himself, a characteristic of all narcissists.
This year’s Golden Globes, Grammy, and Oscar award shows included fusillades of scorn directed at the 45th president. Meryl Streep’s six minute condemnation of the president at the Sunday night Golden Globe ceremony—without once mentioning his name—so got under Trump’s skin that in a series of tweets before dawn Monday, he called Streep, who has more Academy Award nominations than any other actor in history, “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood”— a gesture that revealed the magnitude of his vanity and the thinness of his skin.
At the Grammy awards, several artists used their time on stage to rebuke Trump. Pop star Katy Perry, not known as a political performer, debuted a new song, “Chained to the Rhythm,” wearing a white pants suit (in honor of Hillary Clinton) and an armband with the word “Persist” on it (in honor of Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced by Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell), while telling the audience “No hate!” The hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest performed “We the People” while Busta Rhymes said, “I just want to thank President Agent Orange for perpetuating all of the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States. I want to thank President Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban.” While a sign saying “No Wall No Ban” flashed in the background, rapper Q-Tip joined them on stage holding the hand of a young woman wearing a hijab – a straightforward attack on Trump’s anti-Muslim policies.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, the rock band Green Day released its music video for their “Troubled Times.” It features an animated Trump-like figure wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat while spewing hateful rhetoric, images of the Ku Klux Klan, scenes from the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, and contemporary protesters holding signs that read “Make America Hate Again” and “No Border Wall.” The video ends when someone pushes a red button and the screen morphs into a mushroom cloud.
The Media: In his previous gig as the host of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central, Colbert coined the word “truthiness” not only to mock Fox News’ claim to be “fair and balanced” but also to jab at the mainstream media for trying its traditional “he said/she said” approach to reporting in which all claims are given equal weight, regardless of their validity.
Since Trump took office, the mainstream media have become bolder about calling out his lies and distortions. Now, the media is prepared to challenge Trump’s comments that are outright falsehoods. Rather than simply report what Trump says—making journalists little more than transcribers—the media have increasingly questioned the veracity of president’s statements, starting with his claim that the crowds at his inauguration were the largest in history.
After Trump said (during a January 11 press conference) that the public doesn’t care about his tax records, the media reported on a new Pew poll revealing that two-thirds of Americans want the president to release his returns. When Trump claimed that he had received more electoral votes than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, the media quickly reported that he was wrong.
On January 23, following Trump’s claims that he would have won the popular vote if three million people hadn’t voted illegally, the headline on the New York Times front-page story read: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” In the past, the Times might have headed the article “Trump Repeats Assertion” or “Trump Repeats Claim” but in an unprecedented move, it called a lie a lie. Having broken that barrier, the Times headline writers were free to tell the unmitigated truth. In March, after Trump tweeted that Obama had ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower, the headline in the next day’s Times read “Trump, Offering No Evidence, Says Obama Tapped His Phones.” The Washington Post headlined its story, “Trump, citing no evidence, accuses Obama of ‘Nixon/Watergate’ plot to wiretap Trump Tower.”
After the nation’s two leading papers changed the norms of journalism, other news outlets felt more comfortable doing so.
The Chicago Tribune and Washington Post have each initiated regular columns devoted to fact-checking Trump’s statements and exposing his lies. The media watchdog site Politifact has been working overtime to keep track of the validity of Trump’s assertions. It has discovered that through mid-March, 70 percent  of Trump’s statements were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” outright lies.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the media has ratcheted up its investigative reporting about Trump’s business empire, his ties to Russia, and the right-wing affiliations, regulatory abuses, and outlandish views of many of his cabinet nominees and advisors. NPR, for example, created a team devoted to covering Trump’s conflicts of interest. Media coverage of Trump’s links to Putin and Russian businesses has put the president on the defensive since he took the oath of office.
At a March 13 press briefing, NBC’s Pete Alexander got into a heated exchange with Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer, raising questions about Trump tweeting things without proof “When should Americans trust the president?” Alexander asked Spicer. “Should they trust the president, is it phony or real when he says President Obama was wiretapping him?”
Trump’s twitter tirades reveal that by doing its job, the media are getting under his thin skin. At 6:40 am on February 15, for example, Trump tweeted: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!” Forty minutes later, he was back on twitter, proclaiming: “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.” Two days later he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” The following week he was still fulminating on the same topic: “FAKE NEWS media knowingly doesn’t tell the truth. A great danger to our country. The failing @nytimes has become a joke. Likewise @CNN. Sad!”
Sports: But it isn’t only the liberal entertainment and media institutions that are challenging Trump’s legitimacy. In February six members of the New England Patriots said they wouldn’t accompany their teammates to the White House later this year, where the Super Bowl champions will be honored by Trump. Also in February, Baltimore Orioles Vice President John Angelos announced that he would refuse to allow Trump to throw out the opening game ball.
This year’s Super Bowl featured commercials promoting diversity and tolerance – a not very subtle criticism of Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, and others. Budweiser’s commercial eulogized its founder, Adolphus Busch, an immigrant from Germany, who was told, upon reaching this country, that he was “not wanted here.” Coca-Cola’s ad revealed a montage of young Americans singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages, with the tagline,. “Together Is Beautiful.” The ad for 84 Lumber, a little-known construction supplies firm, showed a Hispanic mother and daughter making their way north to the U.S. border, where they encountered a large wall. It’s A 10, a hair-product company, warned viewers that we’re “in for four years of awful hair.”
Consumer Boycotts: Some activist groups are directly going after Trump’s corporate allies and even trying to undermine Trump’s own business empire. Last year Color of Change initiated a campaign to persuade corporations not to sponsor the Republican convention. A number of the big firms – including Coca Cola and Microsoft – backed out in response to the pressure campaign.
This year, Color of Change, MoveOn and several other groups launched an anti-Trump social media campaign, #GrabYourWallet, which is urging consumers to boycott corporations with ties to the Trump. Its website listed companies owned by the Trumps or that are actively supporting or doing business with the Trump family. It not only targeted Trump’s golf courses and hotels, but also stores that stocked Trump-branded merchandise, including Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and shoes and companies that advertise on the Celebrity Apprentice television show, that Trump is still executive producer of. This boycott list includes Amazon, Bed Bath and Beyond, Zappos, Bloomingdales, Bon-Ton, Burlington Coat Factory, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Dillards, Neiman Marcus, Sears and T.J. Maxx.
The #GrabYourWallet activists have also targeted the CEOs who sit on Trump’s business advisory council. The first domino to fall was Uber. A separate online petition sponsored by the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents nearly 50,000 Uber drivers in New York City, called on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to resign, saying that Uber was built on a “foundation of hard work by immigrant workers.” In early February, for the first time in its history, downloads of Uber’s app on iOS were surpassed by those of its chief competitor, Lyft. A few days later, Kalanick resigned from the president’s business advisory council. The group’s next targets include Disney, Tesla, Wal-Mart, and Pepsi, whose CEOs also sit on Trump’s business group.
Yale students, alumni, and faculty are currently pressuring the university to give back a $150 million gift from alumnus Stephen Schwarzman, chair of the private-equity Blackstone Group, who is serving as chair of Trump’s business advisory group.
A new online group, Sleeping Giant, targeted consumer-oriented companies that advertised on Breitbart News, the right-wing white supremacist website run, until last year, by Steve Bannon, who chaired Trump’s campaign and is now his chief political advisor. The tech-savvy Sleeping Giant activists created a Twitter account that allowed consumers to send screenshots to companies who might have been unaware that their ads were appearing next to Breitbart’s offensive content.
Over 1,000 companies – including Allstate, Kellogs, Air Canada, and Nike — dropped their ads on the Breitbart site. So did AARP, Duke University and other advertisers that unwittingly found that their brand was being promoted on the toxic propaganda site.
Closer to Trump’s home, Nordstrom – the nationwide department store – told his daughter Ivanka that it would no longer sell her clothing line. The company claimed that it did so because the brand wasn’t selling, not make a political statement, but the president wasn’t buying it.
“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” Trump tweeted in February. “She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
Mental Health Professionals: The comedians’ ridicule, the Super Bowl ads, the criticism by sports figures, and the attacks on Trump’s corporate allies and his daughter’s own business operation not only contribute to Trump’s declining favorability, polls show, but also drives Trump crazy.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the constant ridicule directed at Trump brings to the surface or deepens his existing mental instability. In fact, a growing number of major news outlets, as well as the Columbia Journalism Review, have run columns, new stories, and broadcast segments interviewing psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who raise questions about Trump’s emotional health, sanity, and fitness to serve as president.
In 1964, opponents of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater mocked his slogan, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” with a slogan of their own, “”In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.” That year, a magazine called Fact published a poll of 2,417 psychiatrists, the majority of whom said that Goldwater was “psychologically unfit” to be president. In addition to the survey, the magazine published 38 pages of psychiatrists’ comments, which including calling Goldwater a dangerous lunatic,” “paranoid” a “counterfeit figure,” and “emotionally too unstable,” as well as saying that he had an “impulsive quality” and a “Godlike self-image.”
In response, the American Psychiatric Association revised its code of ethics, saying that it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures they have not examined in person. It became known ever since as the “Goldwater rule.”
Since then, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have been wary of diagnosing presidential candidates and presidents. But this year, many of them decided to break the Goldwater rule and talk publicly about the condition of Trump’s mind.
Last month, for example, 33 prominent mental health experts signed an open letter to the New York Times warning that Trump’s mental state “makes him incapable of serving safely as president.” Trump’s “words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize,” they wrote. They noted his tendency to “distort reality” to fit his “personal myth of greatness.” The added that “Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions.” Their letter warns that Trump’s “grave emotional instability” makes him “incapable of serving safely as president.”
Explaining why they decided to break from the Goldwater rule, the mental health professions explained that “This silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.”
The letter to the Times reflects the growing willingness of mental health professionals to make public statements, including interviews with the news media, about Trump’s psychological condition and his fitness to be president.
Of course, it is impossible to assess the impact of all this ridicule and lampooning of Trump on public opinion. The accumulation of mockery may simply reinforce existing views of the president rather than change minds. Trump haters enjoy the scorn because it confirms their assessment. Trump supporters ignore the taunts or view them as evidence of the condescension of the bi-coastal liberal elite. But for Americans in the middle, the constant bombardment of anti-Trump satire, investigate reporting about his business failings and corruption, and the exposure of his penchant for lying can only serve to lead them to question Trump’s fitness for the job.
One challenge for the anti-Trump resistance movement is to raise the political costs for Republicans who remain loyal to the president and his unpopular policies. Typically, when a president’s poll numbers plummet, members of his party in Congress seek to distance themselves from his agenda.
In normal times, Trump’s sinking credibility would undermine his ability to advance his policy ideas and inflict harm on Republicans in the House and Senate running for re-election next year. But, as we’re learning about Trump, nothing about him is normal.
Peter Dreier is a professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).