Watching President Trump in conversations Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused a moment of cognitive dissonance.
Could this be our Donald Trump speaking?
Setting aside whether one agreed with his remarks, the president was well-spoken, reasonably informed, confident without being abrasive, and, if I may say so, a perfectly acceptable human being. OK, I spit out my coffee as I wrote that, but my relief was palpable, as was my longing for that person to continue occupying the president's body.
Such encomiums, of course, result from a very low bar. Trump's grown-up performance brought pause precisely because of its contrast to what we're accustomed to. The disparity was so jarring, in fact, that it made me angry. How dare he not behave appropriately every day, not just when he's in the mood. Surely he owes America that much.
Instead, he's a one-man wrecking ball on decency and civility. To wit: His appalling performance at a recent rally in Minneapolis, where he acted out an imagined, sexually exciting telephone conversation between two former FBI agents.
Now that I have your attention, a short note on style versus substance. Some readers will think, who cares how he behaves? Trump supporters have long admonished us to ignore what he says and focus on what he does. To others, Trump is simply an entertainer who also happens to be president and who, apparently, thinks he's a comedian. But, one can be too funny for one's own good, which holds especially true if you're commander in chief and your-own-good extends to about 330 million other people.
Trump's style, indeed, is his own worst enemy — and one of the single greatest reasons so many despise him. His presidency often feels like a sustained whoopee cushion or a boutonniere's squirt in the eye. Critics can't take him seriously because, surely, he can't be serious. A clown speaking about tariffs is still a clown.
I would argue that style and substance are complementary coequals in matters of import. It isn't tenable that Trump act any ol' way and expect trust and respect in return. Nor am I convinced that his political base would dissolve without his antics. How does his mimicry of a reporter with disabilities elevate his followers to make America great again? How does his heavy-breathing mockery of the two former agents enhance their aspirations?
Lisa Page, the female half of the FBI duo, has suffered silently for almost two years as President Trump has repeatedly attacked her, mostly via Twitter. She broke her silence this week with Molly Jong-Fast of The Daily Beast, saying that Trump's "fake orgasm" was the final straw. We can debate what it sounded like, but I wouldn't want my grandchildren to witness it.
As backstory, Page and Peter Strzok had an extramarital affair while working at the agency and exchanged text messages that were leaked, exposing both the romance and their mutual dislike of Trump. Both had been working on investigations of Hillary Clinton's emails and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump owes Page and Strzok a thank-you note rather than a salacious stream of attacks. Their text messages were a gift that allowed him to claim bias and accelerate his campaign of distrust in America's security institutions. The president was undeterred by subsequent findings that, though the two were way out of bounds, their opinions did not constitute bias in their work.
Cynics may point to Page's timing and her likely inclusion in an imminent report from the Justice Department's inspector general. But she has every right to object to the president's indefensible stalking. The question is, why isn't the sound of outrage deafening? How is it possible that Republicans condone such behavior with their silence?
The answer isn't only that Trump otherwise pleases them. It is that, as a society, we've become inured to outrage by its constancy. We swim, steep and marinate in rudeness, coarseness, foul-language and lurid behavior. President Trump could have been a leader but chose to seek attention instead. He, not the media, is the true enemy of the people — at least the decent ones.