The president fired all the ambassadors! He’s issuing executive orders! He’s putting political cronies into trusted positions! He’s declaring his inauguration to be a special national day! Well, of course he is. It’s what presidents do in their first weeks in office. It’s what Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did, too.
Much to the dismay (and perhaps even surprise) of his opponents, President Donald Trump has charged into office determined to implement many of the policies he promised on the campaign trail. From dismantling the Affordable Care Act to changing the composition of the National Security Council, the president has fired off a series of decisions that have sparked major protests across the United States. There is no honeymoon with the press or the opposition, nor does the president seem to want one. (His approval ratings, predictably enough, are hitting historic lows.)
There is plenty of fuel for the president’s critics in these actions, yet Trump’s opponents — especially in the media — seem determined to overreact on even ordinary matters. This is both unwise and damaging to our political culture. America needs an adversarial press and a sturdy system of checks and balances. Unmodulated shock and outrage, however, not only burn precious credibility among the president’s opponents, but eventually will exhaust the American public and increase the already staggering amount of cynicism paralyzing our national political life.
Much of this anxiety is rooted in the public’s tragic ignorance of civics and government. For younger Americans, this is somewhat understandable. They may have no firm memory of any president taking office other than Obama, and it’s unlikely that they were overly concerned with the statutory membership of the National Security Council eight years ago. Even citizens who remember earlier transitions would have to go back to the chaos of the 2000 election to recall a more divisive transfer of power.
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Journalists are supposed to have a longer memory, but the media seem to despise Trump more than any president in modern history, even Richard Nixon. (Reuters recently issued guidance on covering the Trump administration the same way its reporters cover authoritarian regimes around the world.) Trump, for his part, clearly revels in that competition and feeds it daily with taunting tweets and incendiary official statements that he knows will make news.
As a result, too many in the media are inclined to take every action by the new administration as a declaration of war, presenting almost everything as unprecedented or unconstitutional or some other alarming adjective. For instance, Trump’s proclamation of Inauguration Day as a “Day of Patriotic Devotion” was deemed not only “vaguely compulsory” (the Atlantic) but also to have “echoes of North Korea” (the Guardian, in Britain). But eight years ago, Obama declared his own inauguration an equally creepy-sounding “Day of Renewal and Reconciliation.”
This feeds into a social-media environment that is hyperventilating about Trump’s every word.
Ordinary citizens might be forgiven for their lack of civic knowledge, but long-serving members of Congress certainly know better. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, said that he was boycotting the Trump inauguration and that it would “be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in the Congress,” which roiled the news and stunned only those who didn’t recall that Lewis also boycotted Bush’s 2001 inauguration. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said this past week that he had never seen an executive order end up on the wrong side of a federal court so fast — as though a challenge to an executive order was itself an unprecedented moment in history.
As a scholar of international security affairs, I wish we were talking about these issues on their merits. Unfortunately, our national debate is instead consumed with overreaction and hysteria, which not only cloud important questions but in the short term paradoxically play to the president’s advantage, no matter how much his opponents wish otherwise.
A continual state of panic serves no purpose and will eventually numb voters and their institutions to real threats when they inevitably arise.
The legitimate concerns of the president’s critics are not well served by attacking the normal functions of the executive branch merely because those powers are being exercised by someone they oppose.
Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School.