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Thursday, 27 July 2017 06:45

Trump Gives a New Meaning to the Presidential "Bully Pulpit"

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dtrump333Trump uses cyberbullying to achieve strategic objectives and redirect the media. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Melania Trump indicated that, if her husband were elected, she would commit herself to trying to stop cyberbullying as First Lady. However, given that her husband employs cyberbullying as a key strategy in his presidency, Melania Trump does not seem to have made online intimidation her project thus far.

In fact, Fortune noted that the president's wife defended his appalling Twitter attacks on Mika Brzezinski:

First Lady Melania Trump, who has said she wants to make a campaign against cyberbullying a key part of her time in the White House, is defending President Donald Trump's widely-condemned Twitter attack against Morning Joe co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, in which he specifically called out Brzezinski's appearance.

"As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder," Melania Trump's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

In a pair of Twitter posts on Thursday morning, the President referred to the two as "low I.Q. Crazy Mika" and "Psycho Joe," and described an encounter in which he said they wanted to join him at Mar-A-Lago and Brzezinski was "bleeding badly from a face-lift."

On July 26, Andy Borowitz, in the New Yorker, satirized the first lady's proposed campaign in the context of her husband's recent cyberbullying and shaming of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions:

Saying that the problem “is far worse than I imagined,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday urged First Lady Melania Trump to intensify her campaign against cyberbullying.

Speaking to reporters from his office at the Justice Department, Sessions said that, whatever Mrs. Trump had done to eliminate the scourge of cyberbullying, “It clearly has not been enough.”

“From my perspective, cyberbullying is very much a growing problem,” he said. “And with every passing day it gets worse and worse.”

That is not to say the egregiously regressive and unjust policies of Sessions make him worthy of sympathy. He has shown himself to be an inveterate upholder of bigoted and dangerous positions on a wide range of issues, including policing, race, LGBTQ rights, drug use and discriminatory voting standards, to name just a few examples. That Donald Trump is publicly humiliating Sessions doesn't make the attorney general any less reprehensible.

What Trump's cyberbullying evidences is his unprecedented use of the so-called presidential "bully pulpit" to humiliate and demean people. Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides this historical context for the term:

Bully pulpit comes from the 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt, who observed that the White House was a bully pulpit. For Roosevelt, bully was an adjective meaning "excellent" or "first-rate"—not the noun bully ("a blustering, browbeating person") that's so common today. Roosevelt understood the modern presidency's power of persuasion and recognized that it gave the incumbent the opportunity to exhort, instruct, or inspire. He took full advantage of his bully pulpit, speaking out about the danger of monopolies, the nation's growing role as a world power, and other issues important to him. Since the 1970s, bully pulpit has been used as a term for an office -- especially a political office -- that provides one with the opportunity to share one's views.

Trump's employment of the bully pulpit of Twitter is the opposite of exhorting, instructing or inspiring. His objective is to invoke humiliation and fear. He is the "blustering, browbeating person" who embodies the opposite of Roosevelt's use of the presidency to motivate change.

Indeed, journalist Ron Elving provides more background in a July 4 NPR article on the origins of the phrase:

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt had a habit of inviting journalists to the White House to share some of his thoughts. In one such chat he coined a phrase that has been part of our political language ever since.

"Half a dozen of us were with the President in his library," recalled one participant. "He was sitting at his desk reading to us his forthcoming message. He had just finished reading a paragraph of a distinctly ethical character when he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair and said 'I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!' "

The participant who first repeated that phrase knew something of words with a "distinctly ethical character," and something of preaching as well. He was Lyman Abbott, a former Congregationalist minister who became a liberal theologian and editor of The Outlook, a magazine of the Progressive era.

Trump also uses the "bully pulpit" to attract media attention. He understands that media outlets are attracted like moths to a flame to his outrageous bluster and disparagement of anyone he deems his enemy, and this distracts the mainstream press from focusing on his extremist and bigoted policies and gaffes.

For instance, Trump's ignorance of details of foreign policy was on display again during the latest round of tweet salvos harshly criticizing Sessions. As The Huffington Post describes a news conference Trump had with the Lebanese prime minister this week,

President Donald Trump used a White House press conference with a crucial Middle East partner on Wednesday to misrepresent the actions of the U.S. military and his own political positions, as well as demonstrate his cluelessness about the region.

Standing next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a member of one of the savviest political families in the Middle East, Trump trotted out two lies in quick succession -- perhaps because he believed no one would cotton on, or more likely just because he can....

The two falsehoods on Tuesday were so striking that they partially overshadowed Trump’s other foreign affairs flub. The president was asked about Hezbollah, the armed Lebanon-based group that is tied to Iran and seen as an enemy of the U.S. Trump first said he believed Lebanon was fighting Hezbollah -- actually it forms part of Hariri’s government -- and then declared he would be making a decision on proposed U.S. sanctions against it by Wednesday. In fact, Congress hasn’t even begun to consider those sanctions yet.

Although there was some mainstream corporate media coverage of Trump's lies and lack of knowledge about the Middle East, the story got buried in the media scrum over Trump's derogatory tweets about his own attorney general. Even though Trump is largely trying to protect his own interests in suppressing the Mueller investigation with his blasts against Sessions, he is also aware that he is leading the media away from prominent scrutiny of his reactionary foreign and domestic policies and political appointments. Thus, Trump's "bully pulpit" is also used as a means of manipulating media coverage of his administration. 

Trump may be impetuous in appearing to be governing by tweets, but don't underestimate the strong possibility that he uses cyberbullying strategically.