Donald Trump poses a conundrum that the Observer editorial board has never before faced:
What do we do with a president who does or says something almost daily that deserves criticism? More precisely, how do we hold him accountable for his words and actions without becoming predictable and repetitive – and thus risk being tuned out, certainly by his defenders but even by average readers and his critics?
Do we let it go when he mocks a disabled reporter? When he insults Carly Fiorina’s looks? When he says he might date Ivanka if she weren’t his daughter?
What about when he posts a GIF of him assaulting CNN? Or of him hitting a golf ball into Hillary Clinton’s back?
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What about when he suggests an equivalence between white supremacists and those who oppose them? Or when he threatens to wipe North Korea off the face of the earth?
If we find fault only with his most egregious statements or with his policies, are we – and other commentators across America – allowing the debasement of the office and public discourse to become normalized?
Our job is to comment on public affairs and call out public officials – of any party and of any stature – when they fall short of the public’s expectations or pursue policies that we think are detrimental to the public good. It is vital, we believe, that the press hold public officials (and private ones, often) accountable when they are deceitful or discriminatory or hypocritical.
Trump can be all of those and more. It’s essential that the public doesn’t “get used to it.” We can’t just say, “Yep, that’s Trump!” Those who believe Trump’s words and beliefs are bad for America must be persistent in saying so.
At the same time, critics have influence only to the extent people hear them or read them. I fear we, and other editorial boards and commentators, become easy to dismiss if we use every controversial Trump utterance as an opportunity to rail against him.
Some of this tension was reflected in an editorial we published June 8. In it, we urged Trump to put his phone down and stop the embarrassing tweets. At the same time, we encouraged Trump to keep tweeting. “It’s an extraordinary window for Americans into their president and what he thinks. … Your tweets reveal the truths behind your policies – and the falsehoods your administration too frequently offers.”
We faced this question last week when Trump said NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who take a knee during the national anthem. The first draft of our editorial sounded too much like others we’ve written to disapprove of Trump’s comments. I and others feared readers would quickly move on. We reworked it to focus less on Trump and more on why the players were protesting, noting parallels between their actions and other protests throughout U.S. history.
Similarly, we often write about immigration or health care or tax reform, analyzing the substance of the issue and not Trump’s latest tweet about it. We have developed a higher bar for criticizing what Trump says and a lower one for what he does and what policies he pushes.
Still, a president’s words matter. We will never shy away from saying what needs to be said, from holding the president and his administration accountable or from trying to prevent hate from becoming routine. We hope voters won’t either.