The conventional wisdom has always been that you can’t make yourself bigger by trying to make other people appear smaller, but President Donald Trump has never bought into the conventional wisdom. And, to be fair, it does not seem to have applied to him, at least in his presidential run.
Trump won fame and then office degrading and insulting others, and now he’s serving his term the same way. It is his one truly unprecedented triumph: He is the first president of the United States to regularly and publicly insult and attempt to discredit his opponents, his detractors, his predecessors, his supposed allies, and really, anyone else he feels like taking a swat at for any reason, or no reason at all. This is a guy who tweeted in March, “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show.”
He is the belittler-in-chief, a man whose self-esteem depends on convincing others both that he is strong and wonderful, and that others are weak and horrible.
Take this week’s gem. Trump was at a Rose Garden news conference Monday when he was asked why he had not addressed the deaths of four American service members killed in action in Niger on Oct. 3. The president, immediately on the defensive and unwilling to directly answer the question, did what he generally does: strike out at others.
Trump said he had written letters to the families and would call soon, then pivoted to insults based in lies: “The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said Monday. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
President Barack Obama, of course, took great pains to call, write to and meet families of slain service members. So did George W. Bush when he was commander in chief. Different presidents have used various methods to fulfill this terrible duty, but seemingly no president has ever been accused of not doing it at all. Yet that’s what Trump put out there, until he was challenged on it later in the news conference and backtracked, admitting he really didn’t know whether Obama called families.
Separate from the fact that the shortcomings Trump accused Obama and other presidents of are not true, it would have been classless to call them out even if they had fallen short. Obama did not need to publicly belittle Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, nor, generally, any of his predecessors or rivals.
It makes Trump the world’s tiniest man, inhabiting its biggest job.
Trump loves to give people nicknames. They seem always to catch on. There’s “liddle” Bob Corker and “little” Marco Rubio. There’s “crooked” Hillary Clinton and “lyin’” Ted Cruz and “1 for 38” John Kasich and “crazy” Bernie Sanders and “Pocahontas” Elizabeth Warren and “low energy” Jeb Bush and “cryin’” Chuck Schumer and “dumb as a rock” Mika Brzezinski and “psycho” Joe Scarborough.
And there are plenty of others.
But of all the nicknames Trump has coined, not one seems to be positive. There is no “superstar” Susan, no “manly” Mike, no “tough as nails” Terry and no “Jimmy the genius.” And there is essentially no recognition from Trump that any president before him ever did anything positive, save an occasional and non-specific nod to Abraham Lincoln.
Trump is absolutely the best at saying he’s the best, and at saying others are the worst. He’s the world champion, which says something about him. And he’s the president, which says more about us.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.