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Hugh Hewitt delivers some excellent advice to Mr. Trump in the wake of his Morning Joe tweet fiasco in today’s Washington Post: Combative, but not cruel, Mr. President. He argues that most of Trumps tweets and media domination may have the effect of creating valuable space for the agencies to move forward with conservative reforms “without much organized opposition, as the left seems incapable or organizing anything except marches against the president.”
Hewitt gives special praise to “domestic policy stars” Tom Price (HHS) and Scott Pruitt (EPA), and Jim Mattis (Defense), John Kelly (Homeland Security), and Mike Pompeo (CIA). But (back to some of Trump’s tweets now) Hewitt articulates a strong case (will the advice be taken this time?) that combative is ok but cruel is not, and just impedes all the President’s efforts.
This exhausting battle is a giant diversion. But it does create space for major regulatory and agency reform and redirection. There is a limit, however, to how much good the president does by dominating media. The president reached and exceeded that limit with his escalation of this war with his tweets about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The tweets were wrong because they were cruel. They don’t energize the base, except at its far fringes. They shrink it.
“This is the business we’ve chosen” is a line Hyman Roth made famous in “The Godfather : Part II .” We in the journalism business must remind ourselves of that frequently when critics become so vulgar or profane that muting is the only option. But no one signed up for personal abuse from the Oval Office.
There is, or should be, a clear distinction between combativeness and cruelty. All five of the big Cabinet-level winners in the first almost-six months of the Trump years are combative; three of them were genuine warriors. All five are scrappy and not afraid to mix it up. Good. The center-right in this country is tired of getting rolled and eager to do battle on the policy differences that divide the parties. Trump secured the nomination in large part because of his authentic combativeness and willingness to break the glass and pull the alarm on so many subjects.
But every major stumble that plagued the Trump campaign came from failing to recognize when combativeness edged into cruelty. Conservatives generally, and especially faith-based conservatives, recoil from cruelty because rejection of cruelty is the essence of Scripture. The great norm of America is civilization built on civility.
We do love contact sports. We swoon for heated rhetoric. Talk-radio and cable-news slugfests get ratings that PBS will never achieve. But there is a line. The president ignores it at his political peril in 2018 and 2020, and in the decades of biographies ahead. If Trump can resolve to stay combative but back off cruel, it won’t matter whether he tweets once or 100 times a day.
But Trump’s repeated crossings of the line won’t ever be erased or forgotten. No president is indifferent to history, and history will be a harsh judge if the president loses his momentum and his policy objectives because of his failure to distinguish between the imperative to be combative and the folly of being cruel.
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.