Editor’s Note: Michael Weiss is a national security analyst for CNN and author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” The opinions in this article are his own.
Michael Weiss says it's wrong to say there shouldn't be discussion of the President's fitness to serve
Weiss: Surely his mental health is a newsworthy subject?
It was in the course of falsely arguing that in his denigration of women as creatures best suited to the barnyard and kennel he was only referring to Rosie O’Donnell that then-candidate Donald Trump explained the central cultural plank of his campaign. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
Perhaps sensing this response did not entirely satisfy debate moderator Megyn Kelly, whose menstrual cycle he would later invoke as a reason for her aggressive line of questioning, Trump added that his criticisms were all in good fun, a form of release in the face of so many mean-spirited enemies.
“Take him seriously, not literally,” was the most seriously taken justification for Trump’s broad appeal and his campaign’s infinite supply of lifeboats from Titanic scandals of mocking the disabled, prisoners of war, Gold Star parents and Mexicans. Two variations on this theme of rationalization were: “Relax, he doesn’t really mean it.” Or: “Well, maybe he means it a little, but at least this is straight talk, not the verbose gobbledygook of the professional Washington swamp-dweller.”
No doubt the President does not always mean what he says or even understand what he says. But his loyalists, who share in his mistrust and hatred of the US press corps, have got a point when they argue that a too easily mortified and euphemistic class of pundit failed to appreciate just how well the language of the bar stool and the barracks went down with the American electorate in 2016.
A curious thing has happened, however, in the course of making America great again, or possibly as a result of it. Total political correctness has returned as a priority, only now the hanky-clutching arbiters of what is kosher to pronounce in public inhabit the right and earnestly turn up whenever they believe someone has gone too far in criticizing or belittling their anti-PC president. A populist movement born of tolerating no controversial subject – from illegal immigration to Islamist terror to Hillary Clinton’s medical history – has suddenly discovered its safe space: protecting a fragile and easily offended commander in chief.
This is no more apparent than in discussion of the urgent matter of Trump’s mental and emotional well-being, currently an anxious pastime of many Americans, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, which found that nearly 70% of those canvassed do not find Trump “levelheaded.” (Antonyms of that evocative term include “excitable” and “unstable” — “nuts,” you might say.)
Surely then his mental health is a newsworthy subject?
No, say Trump loyalists, who have transformed themselves into Berkeley college speech police when it comes to any mention of the topic, or even a discussion that it is indeed a topic. On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out the simple fact that journalists often sound like human beings when their microphones are turned off or their copy has gone to bed. They ask themselves: “Is the President of the United States a racist? Is he suffering from some kind of illness? Is he fit for office? And if he’s unfit, then what?”
All of which are sober and necessary questions at a time when the President professes to believe that white supremacist and neo-Nazi rallies contain “some very fine people” but that the US intelligence community, in interrogating Russian interference in the last US election, behave as actual Nazis and that journalists who report critically on government are “sick” and “don’t like our country.”
Fox News wasted no time in declaring Stelter’s disclosure a venial sin for a media critic. One former talk show host, who surely knows about asking questions that most journalists are too intelligent or career-minded to ask, suddenly likened those wondering if Trump hadn’t quite taken leave of his senses to would-be John Wilkes Booths.
“As disgusting as the @realDonaldTrump Must-be-Crazy crowd,” Geraldo Rivera tweeted, rushing for his safe space, “are their fellow travelers rooting for his assassination. See where this is going?”
Straight into Al Capone’s vault.
Questioning a president’s sanity is by no means in league with giving license to murder him. If this were the case, then James Clapper, a veteran spy and patriot who has served in several US administrations, would be guilty of high treason for asserting on “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon in the early hours of Wednesday morning, after Trump’s fugal speech in Phoenix, “I really question his ability to — his fitness to be in this office … [T]his behavior and this divisiveness and the complete intellectual, moral and ethical void that the President of the United States exhibits … how much longer does the country have to, to borrow a phrase, endure this nightmare?”
Clapper then added that having such a person in charge of America’s atomic arsenal caused him some concern. Put into appropriate context, the former director of national intelligence was comparing the President of the United States to an irrational dictator of a nuclear rogue state, about whom a former director of national intelligence might nervously be briefing the president of the United States under normal circumstances.
On the same late-night program CNN Contributor Mike Shields tried his very best to bring our troubled national discourse back to a level of civility it has absolutely no right to enjoy.
Objecting to Lemon’s characterization of Trump as an “unhinged” liar, Shields argued, somewhat cleverly, that such chatter was only a gift to Trump and his backers. “He’s not fit for office takes us, veers us, into a place where it allows people that want to criticize media, when you want to push back on them and say the President shouldn’t criticize us and that’s crazy for him to do that, when we turn and say he’s actually insane, you’re doing the work of the President and the people that want to criticize the media.”
Somehow I think the media will be doing the work of the President and the people who want to criticize the media no matter what. He will also selectively praise it when it suits him. See, for instance, Sean Hannity’s cultivation of the conspiracy theory about the death of DNC employee Seth Rich, the seed of which was planted by Julian Assange, a man who often sounds as if he is ready at any moment to declare himself a poached egg.
This noxious myth, possibly even encouraged by the White House, has outlasted the Rich family’s imploring Hannity to cease and desist. The Fox presenter’s punishment for spreading fake news? Trump’s approbation in Phoenix as a “great guy,” an “honest guy.”
Not that pro-Trump conservatives are arguing the media has got to fall in behind a disturbed and unpopular leader. The President’s miserable handling of the Charlottesville atrocity was, according to Shields, a “legitimate conversation.”
‘Culture of Complaint’
Twenty-five years ago, a remarkable book was published entitled “Culture of Complaint: A Passionate Look into the Ailing Heart of America,” by the celebrated art critic Robert Hughes. Hughes was, in no order of priority, a recovering Catholic, recovering Marxist, and recovering Australian and he had an abiding and by no means condescending fascination with this country.
His thesis was that the extremes of the left and the right had come to rely upon each other for their reasons for being and in so doing had come to resemble each other not only in style but sometimes also in substance. (Feminists seeking to ban pornography were thus welcomed as strange bedfellows, as it were, on the evangelical circuit.)
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The dressed-up and easily lampooned terminology of the hard left had, under certain conditions, been taken up by the free-market and militarist right. Hence, as against “vertically challenged” or “differently abled” people, conservatives had what Hughes called “Patriotic Correctness,” which masked unpleasant realities as corporate management-speak. “Equity retreat” was how to sugar-coat the 1987 stock market implosion; “corporate rightsiding” was a pretty phrase for the mass sacking of employees.
Re-reading Hughes today is like reading a postcard from the present. “Radical academic and cultural conservatives are now locked in a full-blown, mutually sustaining folie a deux,” he wrote about the age of Reagan, “and the only person each dislikes more than the other is the one who tells both to lighten up.”