There was a certain perfection to the tweet President-elect Donald Trump sent at 6:55 a.m. Tuesday.
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
It came on the heels of a wildly incoherent tweetstorm about media members casting doubts on his previous wildly incoherent tweetstorm about “the millions of people who voted illegally” and cost him the popular vote and who are, experts agree, imaginary.
Trump is the most dangerous brand of poker player: He rarely folds, he rarely backs down, he’s never scared and he’s always ready to respond to a stiff $1,000 bet that would run most gamblers off with a $1 million raise. Or in this case, by demanding the participants switch from poker to horseshoes mid-hand.
The flag-burning tweet is perfect because most of Trump’s followers will agree. They will be repulsed at media members and activists who use facts to to shred his assertions. And it introduces a far more incendiary (!) and accessible topic than some egghead he said-she said about voting irregularities.
Trump could just as effectively have tweeted, “No convicted child molester should be allowed to live within 20 miles of any school!” or “All drug dealers should be jailed for life or put to death!” Neither idea has much timely relevance or any possibility of being imposed, but they sound good to his followers. And people who would try to debunk them would sound like they love child molesters and drug dealers.
But what’s most notable about the flag-burning tweet isn’t its unparalleled non sequitur-ness or it’s utter inconsistency with U.S. laws on both flag burning (legal) and revoking U.S. citizenship (illegal). What matters is that, 14 hours after Trump issued his flag-burning tweet, he had garnered 61,000 retweets, 170,000 likes and 49,000 replies.
While the media wring their hands about how or whether to report on the highs and lows and just weird events of a Trump day, he is bypassing them and sending exactly the messages he wants, true and untrue alike, straight to the people.
It’s this willingness and talent he shows in bypassing cultural institutions, violating accepted rules of behavior and potentially ignoring even laws and branches of government that is about the scariest thing about Trump.
In the same way that television networks no longer show streakers interrupting sporting events in the hope that the lack of attention will discourage them, many in the media suggest Trump’s goofiest and most inane acts are not newsworthy and should be ignored.
But the truth is the exact opposite. Anything a U.S. president does is news, from buying a dog to playing golf to drinking a beer. On that scale, Trump declaring that our election system is untrustworthy or that rights of expression upheld by the Supreme Court should be harshly criminalized is very important. But more important, Trump gets plenty of attention through social media even when journalists ignore him, spun exactly as he chooses, which makes rigorous reporting on what he does and says all the more important.
The United States works because even our leaders mostly respect its mores and laws and institutions. But Trump, so far, seems to exhibit a frightening willingness to ignore branches of government, laws, accepted norms of behavior and facts. It’s crucial that if he tells a falsehood, it’s challenged, and if he breaks with custom or legal precedent, it’s exposed.
Donald Trump has figured out how to have his say his way. But that doesn’t mean he can be allowed the last word.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.