Have you noticed that whenever President Trump gets a slight bump in the polls, he goes on a tear, as if to prove once again that he is the baddest of bad boys and nothing will ever tame him? He clearly yearns desperately for approval, but unless that approval is wrenched from people against their will in defiance of everything they have previously believed in, he's left unsatisfied.
But who knows what really drives the man? All we can do is observe his behavior and hope he doesn't completely go off the deep end. This past weekend he came close.
First, Trump tweeted out the scariest tweet of his long Twitter career, and that's saying something. He threatened to murder millions of people if the North Korean foreign minister said something he didn't like:
Meanwhile, when he wasn't threatening Armageddon, Trump decided that the one pressing issue he absolutely had to address was the protests by NFL players against police racism and violence. That he did this during the same week there were large demonstrations in St Louis over the not guilty verdict for a cop who was filmed planting a gun on a suspect -- after being recorded saying he was "going to kill this motherfucker" -- was probably not an accident. After everything that happened after Charlottesville, Trump just had to rip off the scab and pour salt into the open wound.
This is what the president of the United States said at a rally in Alabama last Friday night:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s FIRED!" You know, some owner is gonna do that. He’s gonna say, "That guy disrespects our flag; he’s fired." And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.
This isn't the first time Trump has sneered at this protest, which began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick using the sports ritual of "taking a knee"when a comrade is down on the field to protest the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. In Louisville last March, Trump was going on about how he was going to fix the inner cities and promised that people who go "from welfare to work" there will "find a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity." Then he abruptly digressed to talk about the "San Francisco quarterback," saying that no team wanted to hire him because they might get a nasty tweet from Trump. He has suggested several times that the NFL's ratings were down because of Kaepernick's protest.
After Trump's comments on Friday before his adoring, all-white Alabama crowd, NFL players and owners were hugely insulted.
After all, he called any such athlete a "son of a bitch" and used the bully pulpit to agitate for them to be fired from their jobs for failing to stand for the national anthem. This is, to say the least, unusual. Or at least it was, prior to the Trump administration, which has been made a habit of calling for black people to be fired if they say or do something Trump doesn't like. (Using foul insulting language at rallies is nothing new for him. Recall that he once called Ted Cruz a "pussy.")
When the most popular athlete in the country, Stephen Curry, said he wouldn't go to the White House with his Golden State Warrior teammates because he objected to the president's rhetoric and attitude, Trump angrily tweeted in response:
In response to this bizarre presidential Twitter tantrum, many more players took a knee during the anthem on Sunday. One entire team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, didn't even come out of the locker room until the anthem was over. Some sat on the bench and others, including team owners, linked arms in solidarity with those who were protesting. It was an intense moment, and even people who don't care about sports knew that an extraordinary cultural event was taking place.
Rather than try to calm the waters, the president spent the day tweeting complaints about the player protests being unpatriotic and telling fans to boycott the games. A nonprofit group that supports Trump immediately took up the cause, buying ads accusing the NFL of "disrespecting the country" and called the protesters "hateful individuals." In one of Trump's greatest acts of chutzpah yet, he pretended that all the people who linked arms during the anthem were doing it to show solidarity with the anthem, not the protesters:
Trump personally spoke to the press and reiterated his position three times on Sunday, in addition to the more than a dozen tweets over the weekend. It was all he could talk about.
But he couldn't spare a moment to address the catastrophe that is unfolding for 3 million American citizens in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Not one word, among his torrent of tweets and press appearances, for what officials are describing as "apocalyptic" conditions. The whole island is still without power, with little hope of repairing it anytime soon. Food is scarce. Dams are breaking and towns are flooding. It is an emergency.
It's possible that Trump doesn't even know that the people on this devastated island are Americans. It's probable that if he does know that, he thinks they shouldn't be. They are all Latinos and most of them speak Spanish, after all, which he thinks disqualifies people from American citizenship. He certainly isn't giving Puerto Rico the same kind of attention he gave to Texas and Florida when they were hit by hurricanes, and he raced to the scene with Melania by his side to offer solace to the victims. These Americans got one perfunctory tweet last week, most likely written by a staff member.
To add insult to injury, late on Sunday night Trump announced a new indefinite travel ban that includes people from North Korea and Venezuela, in a naked and superficial attempt to pretend that it isn't based on religion. Apparently, the new policy is to ban people from the United States for any reason he likes.
Donald Trump got good reviews for briefly acting like a normal president. He knows what it will take to raise his poll numbers, and he has good reason to believe that his supporters will stick with him not matter what. But he simply cannot stop being divisive. It is the single defining feature of his presidency. He is threatening the world and tearing the country apart and it's not getting better. It's getting worse.