Donald Trump

Donald Trump's Chaotic Presidency Has One Fixed Principle: Retaliation

Is there a limit to how far he'll go to take down opponents and critics?


In recent days, President Donald Trump has threatened the Ukraine whistleblower with the treatment meted out in "old times" to "spies," which means execution. He has suggested that Rep. Adam Schiff (D–Calif.)—chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the scandal—should be arrested and charged with treason for unfairly characterizing Trump's comments soliciting dirt about former Vice President Joe Biden from the Ukrainian president. And he has warned that if Democrats try to remove him from office through impeachment, they will trigger another "civil war" in the country.

This language may be spooky, but it is not surprising. Trump thrives on chaos. But the one constant in everything he does is that he will pull out all the stops to retaliate against anyone who crosses him—friend or foe, domestic or foreign. This would be a dangerous trait in a person with any degree of power, let alone the most powerful man on the planet.

Trump launched his politics of retaliation the moment he announced his bid for the presidency. He belittled his Republican rivals, inventing insulting epithets for them. He viciously attacked any conservative who stood up to him—publicly musing, for example, about whether Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) could be a genuine war hero since he got captured in Vietnam (never mind that Trump himself got a doctor's note to avoid the draft). He encouraged violence against protesters at this rallies and delighted in chants of "lock her up" against Hillary Clinton.

Any hope that the responsibilities of the office would temper such personal attacks after he was elected were dashed. And it isn't Republican lawmakers such as the neo-Nazi-courting Rep. Steve King of Iowa who earn Trump's wrath, but his critics, like former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford and current Michigan Rep. Justin Amash. He openly celebrated when Sanford lost his re-election bid, lampooning his romantic dalliance on Twitter, and he called Amash, easily the most principled and decent conservative around, not only "one of the dumbest" but also the "most disloyal" person in Congress.

The upshot is that Trump's Republican critics simply cannot survive with their integrity intact. This reality has forced many to quit or retire, turning the Grand Old Party into Trump's Own Party. Many state chapters of the GOP have already scrapped 2020 primaries to avoid weakening Trump, even though three Republicans are challenging him.

Trump has also never let up on his attacks on the press. Since he assumed office, he has averaged more than one anti-media tweet per day. He dubs all unfavorable coverage "fake news" and calls the media the "enemy of the people." But he doesn't merely stop at generic rhetoric. He names names and uses his power to go after individual journalists and newspapers he personally dislikes. He scrapped the press credentials of The Washington Post's Jim Acosta after he asked Trump some tough questions at a press conference, and he threatened to do the same to other journalists who "don't show respect." And as if eliminating access to the White House isn't enough, he wants to eliminate entire news outfits by scrapping the broadcast licenses of NBC and other television outlets whose coverage he dislikes.

What's even more alarming is that Trump isn't simply trying to retaliate against media critics and outfits that challenge him using media-related tools at his disposal. He deploys the massive regulatory powers of the state to go after them. He issued an executive order to explore raising postal rates to punish because its founder, Jeff Bezos, publishes The Washington Post, whose coverage Trump hates. He directed the Department of Justice to challenge the merger between Time Warner and AT&T because he dislikes how CNN, a Time Warner subsidiary, covers him. Much of this has become the subject of a First Amendment lawsuit against the administration by PEN, a nonprofit that defends free speech rights around the world.

In foreign policy, too, Trump has unleashed a new style of retaliatory diplomacy. After the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, when some countries overreacted and issued travel warnings against the United States, Trump responded that America would do the same to them—never mind that some of them, like Japan, might be safer for Americans than America itself. "If they did that, we'd just reciprocate," Trump declared. "We are a very reciprocal nation with me as the head. When somebody does something negative to us in terms of a country, we do the same to them."

Trump's worst retaliatory instincts come out on trade, especially against China. He has been locked in a tit-for-tat trade war with China ever since he fired his opening volley last summer and slapped tariffs on foreign washing machines and solar panels, major Chinese exports. But that failed to bring China's autocracy to heel, enraging Trump so much that he hilariously issued an "order" via twitter that American companies "immediately start looking for an alternative to China."

"The personal is the political" used to be a left-wing slogan, but Trump has given it new meaning. Settling scores is the only fixed principle in his presidency. Trump's tweet that impeachment will lead to a civil war is not a prediction—it's a warning that he plans to take his politics of retaliatory destruction to a whole new level.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.