the national circus

Frank Rich: Trump vs. Twitter Is No Contest

Fact-checking doesn’t work too well on him. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s threats against Twitter, Joe Biden’s apology to black voters, and the legacy of Larry Kramer.

Shortly after Twitter declined to delete Donald Trump’s conspiracy-tinged smears of Joe Scarborough, the company added a fact-checking link to subsequent tweets Trump used to push falsehoods about voting by mail — the first time it had done so — and Trump fired back, on Twitter, with a threat to “strongly regulate” or “close down” social-media companies. Is Twitter’s response in the public interest, or are they creating another distraction that plays into Trump’s hand?

The only winner in this latest dumpster fire is Trump. The bland “get the facts” labels Twitter is affixing to a couple of his tweets are but tiny snowballs buried in his daily avalanche of lies. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s czar, is a profile in courage only in comparison to the self-serving and spine-free Mark Zuckerberg, who has done more to facilitate Trump’s rise than any other media titan, Rupert Murdoch included. Meanwhile, Trump and his crybaby adherents can once again parade themselves as victims, preposterously claiming to be deprived of “free speech,” while the White House orchestrates another photo op in which Trump affixes his comic-book signature to a legally spurious executive order.

Trump’s real motive for his Scarborough sideshow, as always these days, is to distract our attention from actual victims — those who have succumbed to COVID-19 in an avoidable acceleration of American carnage that happened on his indolent watch. Though he has not expended an iota of emotion over the 100,000 who have died since March, he concocted a rip-roaring spectacle to dramatize his concern over the death of the woman whom Scarborough did not murder 19 years ago. On a Memorial Day weekend when many noted that the COVID body count exceeded the number of American combat casualties in Vietnam and the Korean War combined, Trump served up a buffet of alternative programming: tweets suggesting that Nancy Pelosi be silenced with duct tape, attacking Stacey Abrams’s physical appearance, and mocking Joe Biden for wearing a mask. He did stop short of calling Biden a pedophile — a tactic wielded by Trumpists against Hillary Clinton last time around, in the so-called “pizzagate” conspiracy — but then again Donald Trump Jr. had already done so on Instagram two weeks earlier.

Even were Twitter to take a far sterner stance on Trump and his accomplices, it wouldn’t matter. His followers are well past being interested in checking out any facts. Of all recent polls, none was more revelatory than this week’s Morning Consult finding that even now, even after repeated clinical tests showed that hydroxychloroquine increased the risk of death for COVID-19 patients, 41 percent of Republicans still support its use. If you are looking for further proof that Trumpism is a death cult, look no further.

As the election inches nearer, anything can happen. One of the wittier tweets of recent days was sent forth by Stuart Stevens, the GOP political strategist turned Never Trumper, who suggested that “Trump is moving into the late Elvis stage of his presidency. Everyone around him trying to make as much money as they can fast,” with doctors “giving him whatever he orders up.” A more sober take was posted Thursday morning in an essay titled “The Psychopath in Chief” by Tony Schwartz, who has been observing and thinking about Trump since collaborating with him on The Art of the Deal. Schwartz argues, powerfully and with facts, that he and many of the rest of us have been underestimating Trump’s destructive powers by focusing on his narcissistic personality disorder: “As I once did up close, we can observe every day which psychopathic traits Trump manifests in his behavior. The highly regarded Hare Psychopathy Checklist enumerates 20 of them. By my count Trump clearly demonstrates 16 of the traits and his overall score is far higher than the average prison inmate.”

Joe Biden apologized for saying, in an interview with “The Breakfast Club” host Charlamagne tha God, that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Does the stumble hurt his candidacy?

This is another story that Trump, his allies, and the so-called liberal media all inflated for escapist entertainment as the pandemic death toll approached 100,000. Biden made a lame wisecrack, he apologized for it, and as “stumbles” go, it is no more likely to hurt his candidacy than any of his other countless gaffes. If anything, it distinguished him from Trump on two salient personality attributes: Biden believes in apologizing for mistakes, and he at least aspires to a sense of humor. Trump never smiles, never laughs, and never tries to crack a joke unless you count his nasty mockery of the physical appearance of opponents, a disabled reporter, and virtually all women.

It was ludicrous as well as infuriating to watch Vichy Republicans like Nikki Haley and Ari Fleischer join the Fox News gang in taking contrived umbrage at Biden’s misfired gag. Haley, for instance, said that she “struggled” in dealing with his remarks and found them “gut wrenchingly condescending.” Neither she nor other GOP hacks show any signs of struggling with Trump’s weekly acts of racism, including most recently an all-out election-year war against minority voting rights and a regular public demeaning of female reporters of color at press conferences. What does it say about Fleischer that he went berserk over Biden’s words but said nothing when Trump last December said that Jews have “no choice” to vote for him so they protect their money from taxes? What does it say about Nikki Haley that she had a public meltdown about a misfired gag on a talk show at a time when a black man was hunted down in Georgia like a victim in a Jordan Peele horror movie and another was murdered in broad daylight in Minneapolis? And what does it say about those non-Fox Sunday morning talk shows that, as Brian Klaas of the Washington Post summarized it, “focused on Joe Biden’s recent bungled joke” but ignored Trump’s “false accusation of murder”?

The author, playwright, and activist Larry Kramer died yesterday, at 84. How do you view his legacy?

Larry was an American hero. The phrase “speaking truth to power” is bandied about too loosely, but it applies to him as much as anyone I’ve witnessed in my adult lifetime. Yet he didn’t actually speak truth to power, he shouted it — angrily, relentlessly — and with uncommon bravery. That’s the only way he could get the attention of governmental and media leaders who went AWOL during a devastating plague. Thousands of Americans, many of them gay men, were dying of AIDS, often alone and shunted out of public view. Almost no one in power wanted to help them. Ronald Reagan did nothing and said nothing (though the Reagans quietly secured an experimental drug regimen, denied to most others, for their dying friend Roy Cohn). Ed Koch, the mayor of New York, which was an epicenter of the virus, did nothing. The New York Times, then edited by a notorious homophobe, Abe Rosenthal, covered the outbreak in real time as tardily and egregiously as it had the Holocaust. Even as late as 1985 — four years after the first reported AIDS case — Rosenthal tacked an addendum on to my review of the original Public Theater production of Larry’s landmark drama, The Normal Heart, trying to discredit the play’s accuracy.

More than anyone else, it was Larry’s high-decibel shouts that forced these callous elites and America to pay attention. He never let up. He truly believed that one voice could make a difference, and he made that difference at a moment when life and death held in the balance.

Of course he could be exasperating. On ABC’s Nightline, Ted Koppel turned off his mike during one vociferous appearance. I’ll never forget being a fellow panelist on Charlie Rose, then broadcast live, when Larry was so infuriated by what he saw as public television’s inadequate AIDS coverage that he chastised some of Channel Thirteen’s gay executives by name. But he could also be hilarious — he’d not been a Hollywood screenwriter for nothing — and he could be generous and loving to all of those around him he had chewed out in a rage the week before, Anthony Fauci among them.

Over the last decades of his life, Larry had the kind of illnesses that would defeat most people. But he never gave up, never stopped working, never stopped shouting about the causes that mattered. His final words in the last, brief email I received from him, on May 1, banged out in bold face and large type, were “we’ve got to get rid of trump asap!”

Frank Rich: Trump vs. Twitter Is No Contest