In an age of hyper-polarized politics, hating President Donald Trump’s tweets has become one of the country’s few genuinely bipartisan pastimes. After Trump’s infamous tweet on July 1 about MSNBC anchor Mika Brzezinski, in which he wrote that he had seen her “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote, “Please just stop. This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.” Senator Lindsey Graham had a similar message: “Mr. President, your tweet was beneath the office and represents what is wrong with American politics, not the greatness of America.” In an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Ohio Governor John Kasich said, “It’s one of the few things that I think brought Republicans and Democrats together. … The coarseness is not acceptable.”
The Republican criticisms of Trump’s tweets hit the same themes over and over. They are beneath the “dignity of the office.” They damage America’s standing in the world. They are simply not civil, and thus have no place in respectable politics. For the most part, Americans agree: According to a Quinnipiac poll that dropped before the Brzezinski tweet, 61 percent of registered voters think he should delete his account. A Fox News poll released the same day found that only 13 percent of voters approve of his use of Twitter, while a hopeful 39 percent wish he would “be more cautious.” And this was before Trump tweeted a video of himself pummeling a man with CNN’s logo for a face.
But in fact it is the very incivility of Trump’s tweets that make them valuable to the GOP. It allows the party to take the moral high ground—a position that it has not earned through any of its own actions and policies. And while Republicans protest that Trump’s tweets are annoying diversions, diversions are what the Republicans need as they steadily trash other norms of American democracy.
Trump’s tweets allow someone like Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy to say this on Meet the Press:
Our focus has to be on that kitchen table family paying $20,000, $30,000, and $40,000 for their premiums, wondering how they’re going to make ends meet. Their child might be addicted to opioids. We in Washington, we in the country cannot be focused on tweets. We have to be focused on answering that family’s problems. And I get so frustrated when we get focused on Tweets. We need to think about these families with this incredible human need.
You can practically hear Cassidy sighing in exasperation that Trump is preventing the country from focusing on these pressing problems. His position is that the loud noises erupting from Trump’s Twitter feed are a burden to decent Republican lawmakers, and that Trump’s misogyny and low-rent authoritarianism do not define the Republican Party, no matter how much the media and Democrats fixate on them.
In Cassidy’s version of events, this is what Republicans are up to these days: They’re trying to make health care affordable and solve the opioid crisis. They’re trying to fix America. It’s a shame that the president is a buffoon and a boor because it means that voters are overlooking the real issues—and the Republican Congress that is hard at work trying to address them.
But none of that is actually happening. The friction between Trump and congressional Republicans is mostly aesthetic. In terms of anti-democratic activity, there is no meaningful distinction between stealing a Supreme Court seat, writing a health care bill in secret, preventing minorities from voting, and Trump attacking the free press. They are all brazen attacks on basic democratic norms.
Imagine for a moment that Trump did delete his Twitter account, or handed the keys to an aide who produced bland and forgettable tweets about what the White House did that day. Congressional Republicans would still be working to take health care away from millions of people, and to redistribute billions of dollars from the poor to the rich. Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions would still be remaking the Departments of Education and Justice in their own image. Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry would still be waging a war on science. Neil Gorsuch would still be sitting on the Supreme Court.
Trump has defended his actions by claiming they are “modern day presidential,” which at least recognizes their unprecedented nature.
In contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination under a very flimsy guise of precedent. And with the GOP’s ultra-secretive health care bill, he has claimed, hilariously, that all the issues have already been debated.
And then there’s the fact that the Republican Party has happily facilitated Donald Trump’s rise to power—misogyny, incivility, and all. Republicans have been using Trump’s tweets to claim the mantle of civility, while distancing themselves from their ultimate creation. But Trump’s authoritarian leanings, his racism, and his hatred of women are features, not bugs, of the modern GOP. In terms of policy, he has governed exactly the way any other Republican president would have. If his nasty, deranged tweets drag the Republicans down with him, then it is only what they deserve.