The lowest point of my online career came in 2009, and it also happened to be one of the most important moments in my career. I tweeted a pretty nasty statement about then Justice David Souter. A friend had said it, and I was the bold, stupid one to put it on Twitter. It was just us guys — my friends and me. No one reacted to it, so I made sure to tweet it again with the “ICYMI” prefix for “in case you missed it.” That did the trick.
It was terrible, I was wrong, I found that I had cut my credibility right out from under me, and I am very glad I went through that experience. Had I not done it then, I would have eventually done it. And by so doing I finally had the swift kick in the ass I needed to realize that it was not just my friends and me anymore. It was others listening to me, paying attention to what I said, and it impacted my family.
My wife got ambushed in grocery stories by people wanting to know what I was thinking. They never approached me. For the first time, I realized just how much others in my family could be burdened by what I do and say. But my first reaction was to double down and dig in my heels. It was only when a prominent friend ran into some trouble that I realized any claim to moral authority I had was now gone. I could not speak up to defend my friend who really had done nothing wrong because I had not only done something very wrong but had not even apologized for it. To defend her, I had to acknowledge I really had done wrong.
I was wrong, it was awful of me, and I am grateful for the lesson. I am also mindful how people still trot out that eight-year-old tweet to discredit me. When I said Mr. Trump should be ashamed of his statement about grabbing women you know where, several people I had once considered friends made sure everyone knew eight years ago I had said something terrible. When I uninvited him from the RedState Gathering in 2015, his campaign made sure everyone knew I had tweeted that. Apologies never live on the internet, just sins. It is times like that you get clarity about who your real friends are.
I bring this up because I often think Donald Trump is in somewhat of the same situation I was in back then. It has not yet penetrated to him that others listen to him and his words affect others. I suspect Donald Trump remains clueless that his blasting me on Twitter inspired people to show up to my home and threaten my family. I really do not think these things penetrate. I think he lives in an isolated bubble surrounded by people scared to disagree with him. They affirm everything he says and does. The few who speak up are ostracized, and Mr. Trump looks on the approving majority and concludes the disapproving minority in his circle must be wrong.
He is not helped by his sycophants either. If Donald Trump said tomorrow that God is bad and the Devil is his hero, a sizable portion of the Christian population in this country and many others would be lining up to join the Church of Satan. Tribalism can be poisonous and often the poison kills the connection with reality that the leader of the tribe once possessed.
Thus the President of the United States, who for eight years joined Republicans in criticizing Barack Obama for engaging in moral equivalence between the United States and other countries went on Bill O’Reilly’s program and behaved no better.
Between Russia and the United States, Donald Trump said, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” This is not the first time he has engaged in such moral equivalence.
As Jay Nordlinger noted at National Review,
During the campaign, Joe Scarborough asked Trump about Vladimir Putin — particularly Putin’s killing of political opponents. “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also,” said Trump.
Like the earnest internet trolls who, eight years later, dwell on my oft apologized for tweet, Donald Trump hangs on the imperfections of our country to reduce us to the level of Russia. His twice repeated moral equivalence sounds like a statement said among yes men who nod approvingly without ever correcting the sentiment.
The United States shed a lot of blood for its sin, but laying Lincoln in his grave, we began moving beyond that sin toward a renewed dedication to freedom. The Russians have still never accounted for the genocide in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin murders dissidents. The Russian autocrats behave in a ruthless, immoral manner.
The United States is not perfect — a nation of sinners cannot be perfect. But let’s not claim the United States is worse than or even equal to Russia.
For eight years, Republicans litigated the case that President Obama privately rejected American exceptionalism. They highlighted his false moral equivalence in speeches in Cairo and elsewhere. Dinesh D’Souza cornered the market on peddling tales of President Obama’s latent hatred for the country. The conservative book market filled with tales of Barack Obama betraying the country.
What Donald Trump said is just as bad. He equates the United States with a murderous regime that stifles dissent, kills the opposition, and relentlessly covets an era of Soviet expansion.
President Trump’s staff would be wise to call him to account. The President would be wise to learn his words and deeds do now affect others and the President of the United States should never, ever suggest we are something we are not — guilty of being killers.
Mr. President, your staff may not tell you, your sycophants by nod along with you, and your champions on television may just sweep it all under the rug as if it never happened. But I will tell you, sir, that you were wrong. It is the second time you have said this and you were wrong both times and should apologize. If you continue to engage in moral equivalence, you will find that you shed your Presidency of any ability to rally this nation’s people to a higher, greater purpose in the name of freedom. One day you will be tested in your office and you will need people of good will to support you. But if you believe we are no better than a regime that wantonly murders its citizens, you will be hard pressed to define any cause as righteous.