We need to stop reacting to Trump—and start responding. There’s a big difference.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before departing on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019, in Washington. Trump is headed to Kentucky. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In a busy 48-hour period, President Trump asserted on camera that any American Jew who votes for Democrats is “uninformed or disloyal”; broadcast Wayne Allyn Root’s praise of his own person in a tweet (“the Jewish people in Israel love him...like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God”); and, while riffing on his own alleged fortitude in deciding to “take on China,” looked up at the sky and shouted, over the din of a helicopter, “I am the chosen one!” These statements from a commander in chief of the United States military are more than a little unprecedented.

If it is true that Americans are peculiarly vigilant when it comes to a president’s pretensions to divinity or rhetorical targeting of some Jews as more acceptable than others, one might think this would cause more than a temporary stir. And yet it is as if the citizenry has been trained to dutifully let it all go by Sunday. The actionable intelligence of such eye-rubbingly irresponsible statements voiced aloud by a man entrusted with the power to deploy lethal force against any person or population he deems a threat will hardly register as a blip in the U.S. bandwidth. How did this come to be?

Advertisement

The beloved science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once offered an account of the function of disinformation that could prove helpful in an era when verifiable facts (like a recording of the president’s statement) gain little or no traction among people paralyzed by a cascade of reactions—and reactions to reactions—that always seem to fall short of substantial response to the facts. Disinformation, Mr. Dick tells us, is “noise driving out signal,” but it “is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise.”

Disinformation deadens the possibility of an actively informed electorate and, therefore, coherent governance.

It works like a charm. Disinformation deadens the possibility of an actively informed electorate and, therefore, coherent governance. In words worthy of Hannah Arendt or George Orwell, Mr. Dick names the state of play powerfully: “If you float enough disinformation into circulation you will totally abolish everyone’s contact with reality, probably your own included.”

This is indeed our current state. The president speaks, people react, repeat cycle. At least for now, it remains a stimulus-reaction procedure, not stimulus-response. Response would involve a moral actor risking something. As we try to maintain contact with reality, we recall the existence, on paper, of the 25th Amendment. Who in the president’s inner circle could serve as the adult in the room? Perhaps Vice President Pence. Or maybe we need someone who’s recently left the room. Some Republican commentators have suggested that Nikki Haley might play that role. Perhaps they will risk something.

[Don’t miss more stories like this one. Sign up for our newsletter.]

Or not. The former ambassador to the United Nations offered no response to the president’s pronouncements concerning his chosenness. While many of us were distracted by the question of whether or not Mr. Trump thought of himself as the Messiah, Ms. Haley saw fit to react, instead, to supposed rumors that she would replace Mr. Pence as vice president on the 2020 ticket. “Enough of the false rumors,” she tweeted. “Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support.”

To be clear, this is not the response of a self-respecting adult in the room. This is a reaction to alleged reactions, which Ms. Haley alluringly refers to as “false rumors.” What false rumors? To even ask is to risk being drawn into another disinformation cycle, a culture of non-response, all heat and no light. To risk genuine response is to lose ground in a realm driven by reaction. In truth, we have been at it for a while.

Consider the night then-candidate Trump hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2015. A ratings boon or an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of NBC? Let the viewer decide. This question was alive and signaling in the opening monologue that was abruptly interrupted by Larry David, who stood up on live television and yelled, “Trump’s a racist!” After a few pregnant seconds, Mr. David revealed he was a paid protester. The audience laughed. “That’s O.K.,” Mr. Trump allowed in the tone of a mafia boss, and the “great show tonight” proceeded unencumbered.

Four years on, the question of whether or not Mr. Trump is a racist is still ratings gold because it invites endless reaction, huge audiences and, let the reader understand, money-making without end. Was Mr. David’s role in this exchange a shirking of responsibility? That is a question for actual signal, not noise.

We do well to take our own measure concerning whether or not deep responsibility remains among our core concerns.

Then as now, Mr. Trump’s implied call for the execution of black men who were later exonerated (the Central Park Five) and refusal to apologize for his incendiary language awaits a substantial response from someone who can meaningfully counter his claims to authority. No Republican nominee for president nor anyone in Mr. Trump’s cabinet has found it expedient to risk a substantial response to these incitements to violence. Reaction? Oh my, yes, all day long. Response? Not yet. In October 2016, Mr. Pence heard an audio recording of Donald J. Trump boasting about his own pattern of sexual assault. Mr. Pence responded by concluding that he still had a sufficiently credible partner in pursuing his goals. Millions of Americans followed his lead.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

And today, the pattern of predatory disinformation repeats. For news networks, provocation drives profits in an expense of spirit and a waste of shame, a lucrative effort for some but an assault on the general welfare of many. We wake up wanting to tune in and weigh in, and we are blessed (or cursed) with the technology to do so. As we pause and wonder how it is that we, the people, could allow a man whose ignorance of and contempt for the Constitution is well established to take the oath of office for the president of the United States, we do well to consider the distance between reaction and response, noise and signal, disinformation and actionable intelligence. We do well to take our own measure concerning whether or not deep responsibility remains among our core concerns.

Rebecca Solnit offers a timely adage for anyone interested in being a genuinely responsive people in this beleaguered world that God so loves: “The revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”

Disinformation of the sort President Trump floats by speaking of disloyal Jews, his role in the second coming of God and his own chosenness is of a piece with his own refusal to commit, in advance, to accept the results of our last presidential election: “I’ll keep you in suspense.” Shocking words and disavowals of the duties and obligations of law-abiding citizens are nothing new among men without boundaries. Disorientating speech is in the playbook of anyone who feels their survival depends on avoiding accountability. Keeping others in suspended animation is a form of flex essential for brutal behavior and brutalizing policies.

But we need not be stupefied by this cycle of weaponized incoherence nor continue to enable the enablers of disinformation. We can wake up to ourselves at any time and, if stupefaction is a process rather than a state, we can reverse the process in myriad ways even now. One risky and responsive word at a time.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
1 month 2 weeks ago

Responding to Trump rather than reacting to him is difficult when so many people do not choose factual news sources. DJT and company have an entire media empire spewing disinformation every day. My mantra during the 2016 campaign was, “you might not like Hillary Clinton but you can’t vote for someone who is crazy.” Too many people voted for a crazy man and the nation and the world will suffer until he is thrown out of office. I have noticed the Trump supporters in my vicinity no longer talk much about politics. They know Trump’s election was a major mistake. We can only hope he confines his stupidity and craziness to things other than nuclear war.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 2 weeks ago

Lisa
I am betting you never heard much from your friends who were Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign ......hence the surprise win by that the loud mouth, nouveau politician with the Train wreck campaign who consistently polled 10 to20% below Hillary. Presidential elections are essential binary (exception Perot)....Wait for who Trump’s opponent turns out to be....only Hillary could have lost to Trump

Lisa Weber
1 month 2 weeks ago

Stuart, I heard plenty about politics during the 2016 campaign, but more bashing of Hillary than about Trump’s nonexistent virtues. In the years since, the only positive aspect I can see about the current president is that people have had a chance to see and suffer from allowing an ignorant and hateful man into the White House. For those farmers who lost their farms over the idiotic tariffs - I would say that is a high price to pay for voting for someone incredibly ignorant, but the world is sometimes unforgiving of mistakes. Even you have nothing good to say about Trump - only that Hillary Clinton lost.

Crystal Watson
1 month 2 weeks ago

I wrote earlier that barely a day passes when Trump isn't dooming someone. Today is no exception ... "The Trump Administration Is Now Deporting Kids With Cancer" ... https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/08/medical-deferred-action-deportations ... Trump supporters must be so proud of their "chosen one".

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

I saw this news too: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-immigration-border-cancer-children-healthcare-deport-a9080601.html
The overt and committed cruelty of Trump and his Administration is stunning.

Martha St. Onge
1 month 2 weeks ago

This article by Rob Sellers is one of the best I've read on the presidency of Donald Trump from a Christian perspective. Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. He has eloquently expressed my thoughts. “I view the president’s character as wildly contrary to the portrait of God in Christ . . . the polar opposite of the One to whom I am committed. Our sense of honor is dying. Our reason to feel proud is dying. Our national soul is dying." https://baptistnews.com/article/the-president-is-correct-there-is-an-insanity-gripping-our-nation/?fbclid=IwAR1mXWIRlrxWWFjxNoeSwiDHtPl3Mi1YA7My3C2HoB4CNFC2jNnRNPouPSQ#.XWbLWC5KjIW

Martha St. Onge
1 month 2 weeks ago

From the article "My Christian faith dictates how I should live and requires that I do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. To be a silent witness to the troubling words and deeds of our nation’s leader would present a false testimony to my neighbors."

Martha St. Onge
1 month 2 weeks ago

Deleted repeat post

Charles Erlinger
1 month 1 week ago

Our isolated islands of trusted communication just got a lot smaller and more remote with the emergence of “deepfake” technology for electronically creating hard to detect phony audio and video recordings that mash up excerpts from real recorded events that are different, one from the other, but are combined to seem that they are continuous recordings of some action or utterance that really happened. For details, see:

“Deepfakes and the New Disinformation War
The Coming Age of Post-Truth Geopolitics”
By Robert Chesney And Danielle Citron in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019

Did you ever wonder why some recorded utterances are so joltingly incongruous that a normal reaction could be either horror or humor with more or less equal probability?

Advertisement

The latest from america

On Oct. 14, 2018, he was canonized by Pope Francis. Today, Salvadorans ask themselves what the transition from “Msgr. Romero”—what he has been called in El Salvador for decades—to “St. Romero” means for his legacy.
Melissa VidaOctober 14, 2019
Pope Francis, tweeting about the new saints he recognized Oct. 13, inadvertently used a hashtag connected to the New Orleans Saints football team. But fans appreciated it, as did the team. (CNS photo)
A hashtag mix-up caused a papal tweet meant to give thanks for the Catholic Church's newest saints to be read as Pope Francis showing support for the New Orleans Saints' football team.
Domenico Giani, lead bodyguard for Pope Francis and head of the Vatican police force, keeps watch as the pope leaves his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 1, 2019. Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Giani Oct. 14, nearly two weeks after an internal security notice was leaked to the Italian press. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Domenico Giani resigned after being unable to identify the source of a leak of a confidential Vatican security notice connected to ongoing financial investigations.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 14, 2019
The cardinal archbishop of Westminster came to Rome with 15 English and Welsh bishops to concelebrate the Mass in which Pope Francis declared Newman a saint, the first British saint to be born after 1800.
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 13, 2019