Thanks to the shroud of anonymity, the country may never know if President Donald Trump called World War I soldiers killed in battle “losers” and “suckers.” Thanks to ratings-driven media in an election year, the issue hasn’t left the public square. And thanks to the cancer of contempt, none of it will make an ounce of difference.
And that’s the problem.
Anyone trying to make sense of America in 2020 need only review the past seven days. On Thursday, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg dropped a bombshell report alleging Trump disparaged American Marines while on a trip to a military cemetery near Paris in 2018, calling some 1,800 war dead “suckers” for getting killed. In a separate conversation, he purportedly asked, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”
Goldberg was relying on four unnamed sources for the story. They also tell him Trump canceled a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, not because the helicopter couldn’t fly in the rain, as Trump suggests, but because the president worried what the weather would do to his hair.
By Thursday afternoon, the White House lashed out, calling the article a “disgrace.” “Just another anonymously sourced story meant to tear down a Commander-in-Chief who loves our military and has delivered on the promises he’s made,” tweeted White House spokesman Judd Deere.
Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, said late Friday his take on the Atlantic story was simple: “I don’t believe it, not for a moment.” Stewart has been with the president and heard his views on the military firsthand.
A top correspondent at Fox News (among others) said she confirmed parts of the Atlantic story. Her two sources maintain Goldberg got it right about canceling the trip for reasons of vanity and that the president denigrated American soldiers, though she stopped short of corroborating the “losers” and “suckers” comments.
“The president would say about American veterans ‘what’s in it for them? They don’t make any money,’” correspondent Jennifer Griffin told Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer. “The source said it was a character flaw of the president. He could not understand why someone would die for their country.”
Then the president came for Griffin, a top-notch journalist by any standard, and called for her job. Some Fox News employees sided with him, some sided with Griffin — a truly bizarre rift in the relationship between Trump and his favorite news outlet. He seems to have settled on breaking up, declaring, “Fox News is gone.”
And by Tuesday, former national security adviser John Bolton, who was with the president in Paris, denied The Atlantic’s claims and said the decision to cancel the helicopter trip was a “very straight weather call.” Retired Maj. Gen. William Matz, who hosted the event in France, called Goldberg’s story a “false and despicable article.” Matz asserts, “No one has done more for our veterans than President Trump.”
There. That’s as straight as I can give it to you, but it won’t matter. It likely won’t affect the way you vote or impact the president’s reelection campaign — nothing ever has. Anyone following the headlines had their mind made up before the ink was dry.
With unwavering certainty, Trump supporters vilify a monolithic “left” for exhausting every effort to blow up the president and tear him down. The president’s detractors shout with equal volumes of vigor, “Why can’t you see this man is morally bankrupt?”
There are exceptions. Excerpts from venerated journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” is based on not only interviews with insiders, but 18 on-the-record interviews with President Trump himself. It allows for objective assessment by the reader, if they can leave contempt behind.
But what happens when contempt is left to fester? When neighbors no longer see neighbors but enemies, when opponents no longer disagree but defame, the object of the game shifts from collaborating to winning. And in government and policy, winning is losing.
The nation loses when the competition, the other side, gets destroyed. As social scientist and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks reminds, “Competition lies behind democracy in politics and markets in the economy, which — bounded by the rule of law and morality — bring about excellence.”
The opposite — winning at all costs by eliminating competition — is unfair, unprincipled and unhealthy. Contempt literally makes us sicker human beings. And it looks a lot like the country’s behavior right now.
Here’s the thing: Setting aside whether Trump actually said “losers” and “suckers,” the balance of Goldberg’s Atlantic article is astute. It captures the psychology of a president with razor thin relationships who hasn’t yet penetrated deep levels of emotional intelligence. That much is easily corroborated by dozens of on-the-record outbursts — from his spats with Sen. John McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) to his deep-seated misogyny (“When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything”).
Shouldn’t a presidential candidate’s public-facing character be open for debate? Wouldn’t you like to have a thorough discussion of a man’s leadership abilities before appointing him the head of your PTA or your congregation?
On the other side, too many of the president’s critics don’t give his supporters the time of day, dismissing them as ignorant, idiotic or deluded — a contemptuous act if ever there was one. One Seattle councilmember stood up in a city meeting and proclaimed she had no Republican friends. The crowd cheered.
Wouldn’t you like to feel understood before being judged? Wouldn’t you like to freely share your beliefs and motives with the promise of feeling heard? Ignoring such was the error of pundits ahead of the 2016 election, and it’s unclear they’ve learned their lesson.
Until the pendulum swings away from contempt, the healthy competition of ideas and credible, important reporting is shouted down. Hit jobs and smears — alleged or otherwise — will dominate the news cycle. If you don’t see that as an issue, that might be the problem.