“To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”—President Theodore Roosevelt
In the end, there was nothing but applause. Senator Jeff Flake, a staunch conservative from Arizona, dropped his sword and left the field of battle Tuesday in a move that President Donald Trump saw as a symbol of his victory over the GOP and in favor of his molding it in his own image. Symbols are powerful things and can supersede reality. As Flake stood before the Senate and spoke in words that resonated across the world on Tuesday, our president and his staff basked in their momentary and symbolic victory.
Trump won. Flake quit, so he lost. It was black and white. By Flake announcing that he would not seek reelection, Trump could crow loudly that the “weak senator” from Arizona was giving up because he knew he was gonna get whooped in the midterms.
Flake saw it differently and received tumultuous cheers as he said the president’s symbols do not square with reality: “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” Flake told the senate.
Senator Bob Corker, another member of the GOP who has decided to throw in the towel rather than battle the dark symbols of the new president, has openly feuded with Trump for the last few weeks in a drive-by-shooting style Twitter feud with Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press corps Tuesday the president was winning the symbolic fight with Corker as well.
“Look, you’ve got an individual in the president—he’s a fighter. We’ve said it many times before. The people of this country didn’t elect somebody to be weak; they elected somebody to be strong. And when he gets hit, he’s going to hit back. And I think Senator Corker knows that, and he’s maybe trying to get a headline or two on his way out the door.”
In other words, Sanders dismissed a very real concern with the symbolism of a snarky put-down. The president is very big on symbolism and winning symbolic battles. He meets North Korean insults with symbolic put-downs. He doesn’t like people taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games because it is disrespectful to the symbol of our Republic, the flag. Taking a knee is therefore symbolic of disrespect to another symbol. Battling symbols enable confusion and thus gives the president the chance to flip the script, which he did masterfully.
We have a symbolic president intent on pushing his symbolism in direct contrast to reality.
The reality has never been about disrespecting the flag. It’s about police brutally beating minorities. That’s why Colin Kaepernick took a knee. But there are few symbols in the president’s quiver that can deal with that reality.
Tweets are popular with the president, because according to Sanders, “It’s always a benefit for the president to be able to speak directly to the American people without any filter, without any bias. I think that’s a positive thing. I think it’s one of the reasons that the president is president, is because he often goes directly to the American people, speaks directly to them. And I think that’s a plus.”
Tweets are a simple symbol of transparency according to the White House, but where they claim transparency, others see bias and many see the tweets as a 140-character way of communicating the simplest symbols of vague ideas that sometimes appear to be gibberish spewed by a raving lunatic. But it is those tweets of sometimes withering and rude insults that enable the president’s strident base to raise their fists and scream, “Hell Yeah!”
His tweets are powerful symbols he’s used to simplify his arguments and reduce his enemies to symbols of anti-Americanism. It’s this jingoistic, cavalier behavior that has enabled the president to label (and symbolize) the media as “enemies of the people”—and he continues to pound away daily with this argument.
Trump has never admitted doing anything wrong and according to everyone associated with this administration, no one at the podium in the press room or in the administration has ever misled the American people either. Trump and his minions symbolize the dutiful father, the benevolent King and the Pharaoh of old telling us how things really are.
The president claimed Senator Corker helped former President Obama pass the Iranian deal he now wants to dissolve. When presented with facts, as CNN did Tuesday showing that Corker voted against the Iranian deal, Sanders would not back down. Corker is the latest person to lose their humanity in order to become a symbol in the president’s symbolic battle pitting those who love him against those who do not.
Sanders, not so curiously, is sure this symbolic battle will land Trump a favorable notice in the history books. “I certainly think history is going to look at this president as somebody who helped defeat ISIS, who built an economy that was stronger than it’s been in several decades, who brought unemployment to a 16-year low, who’s created over 1.7 million jobs since being elected. I think those are the things that people actually care about, not some petty comments from Senator Corker and Senator Flake,” she said.
At the end of the day, “at what cost?” is not even under consideration by the president. The ends always justify the means. Dehumanize others? Sure. No regulation? Higher pollution? No problem. Angry immigrants? Who cares? Upset minorities? Not a problem. Poor people getting poorer? Not a concern. It’s the symbol. We have a symbolic president intent on pushing his symbolism in direct contrast to reality.
Trump wants the symbol of the presidency to be something majestic. Corker thinks it’s a daycare center.
Corker took up this symbolic gauntlet and smacked the president in the face with it: He called the administration an adult daycare center. “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult daycare center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning,” he tweeted, thereby using one of the president’s favorite method of communicating against him. It turns out Twitter is a bit of a double-edged sword.
Of course, the president got outright upset about that one. Trump wants the symbol of the presidency to be something larger than life and majestic. Corker thinks it’s a daycare center.
In his speech before the Senate, Flake put it eloquently as he spoke about the problems of the “new normal” and the administration’s symbolic battles: "If I have been critical, it not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters—the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is a historic and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
In calling into question the president, Senator Flake attacked all of the president’s symbols, laid them bare for what they are: empty rhetoric befitting a despot and not the president of the United States.
That’s why Flake was met with cheers. And remember, even as Trump sees this as a symbolic victory, the Mueller investigation continues.