In 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, the columnist Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to refer to some of the president’s more unhinged critics. It was funny, and given Krauthammer’s background — he was a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry — it had the ring of truth.
Now, the nation is in the fourth year of Trump Derangement Syndrome. And there are plenty of indications that the condition, already acute, has been made worse by the coronavirus crisis. Just Google “Trump” and “blood on his hands.”
But among some in the media and politics, Trump derangement is more than a syndrome. It is a business — show business. It is a way to expand one’s audience and gain influence. That’s not to say it is insincere — many in the media and politics really do detest the president — but there is a flamboyance to it that keeps the audience entertained.
For example, there seems to be a new vogue of media figures directly addressing the president. The most recent came Sunday night, when CNN’s Don Lemon marveled at the “leadership” and “compassion” of former President Barack Obama and then spoke to President Trump, seemingly one-to-one.
“By the way, what is it about President Obama that really gets under your skin?” Lemon asked Trump. “Is it because he’s smarter than you? Better educated? Made it on his own, didn’t need daddy’s help? Wife is more accomplished, better looking? I don’t know — what is it? What is it about him? That he’s a black man that’s accomplished, became president? That he punked you on the whole birth certificate thing? What is it about him? Just wondering.”
It was trolling, pure and simple, but it generated publicity. It was picked up all around the internet — Don Lemon hits Trump where it hurts! And it kept the audience amused.
Others try to up the ante to keep the customers satisfied. In February, an MSNBC contributor got some notice by publishing an column in The Atlantic, a big anti-Trump clearinghouse, entitled, “What Would Happen if Trump Refused to Leave Office?” (Answer: He would be forcibly removed from the White House.)
A former New York Times correspondent, David Cay Johnston, recently predicted a Trump re-election would bring a wave of extra-judicial executions. “We’ve got to get this man out of office, or it’s the end of our democracy,” Johnston said on Joe Madison’s radio program. “And down that road lie firing squads. That’s what dictators do.” For a bit more drama, Johnston added, “I would expect to get shot in the first round.”
On the politics side, trolling the president can raise the profile of even the most marginal group. The latest example comes from the Lincoln Project, a team of anti-Trump operatives who have supported Republicans in the past and are now backing Democrat Joe Biden for president.
On Monday, the group released an ad depicting the United States as a broken, bankrupt, diseased dystopia because of Trump’s performance during the coronavirus crisis. They called it “Mourning in America,” a grim play on Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign ad, “Morning in America.”
The ad was inaccurate, misleading and unfair, but political ads are often inaccurate, misleading and unfair. The project’s founders immediately sent out a fundraising appeal touting “an ad so good it’s trending on Twitter ... can you pitch in $100, $50 or $25 right now?”
Then something even better happened: Trump himself responded. In a series of midnight tweets, the president denounced the Lincoln people as “A group of RINO Republicans who failed badly 12 years ago, then again 8 years ago, and then got BADLY beaten by me, a political first timer, 4 years ago ...” Setting aside whether members of the group still think of themselves as Republicans, “in name only” or not, Trump’s description was basically accurate.
And they were delighted. Trump gave one of them, George Conway, husband of top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway, a new nickname — “Moonface.” Conway immediately added “Moonface” to his Twitter bio. A Lincoln Project co-founder, former New Hampshire Republican chair Jennifer Horn, happily added a bit more trolling, tweeting the ad with the advice: “He would probably hate if you retweeted it.” A Lincoln Project adviser, GOP strategist Reed Galen, whom Trump mistakenly called “Reed Galvin,” actually changed his Twitter name to “The Real Reed Galvin.”
Being denounced by the president touches all the pleasure centers of the Trump troll.
More important, it can be good for business. Watching it all, another anti-Trump Republican, Liz Mair, who is not part of the Lincoln Project, noted, “When Trump tweeted about me in 2016, it caused an immediate jump in my followers, ensured me more TV and print space and, frankly, got more small-dollar donors interested in donating to what I was doing.”
So some of what you read and hear that sounds like Trump Derangement Syndrome is actually something different. Trump trolling can lead to what Mair experienced — more visibility, more influence and more money. And in the media and politics business, that’s good for the bottom line.