Over the weekend, Donald Trump resumed his attacks on deceased Sen. John McCain. But it’s not as if Trump ever quit. From mocking McCain’s time as a prisoner of war, to claiming he was last in his class at Annapolis (he wasn’t), Trump just cannot stop taking digs at McCain. And when McCain’s daughter dared to defend her fallen father, Trump took a slap at her as well.
Because Donald Trump never lets a perceived slight go without striking back, and he never, never ever, forgives. Both in his statements and his actions, Trump has made his personal policy clear: attack those who don’t lavish you with praise, then just keep attacking. That John McCain can’t defend himself from Trump’s attacks doesn’t matter to Trump. In fact, it makes the situation infinitely better.
If Trump’s desire to wound everyone who ever failed to bow down at his approach was limited to McCain, that might not represent a great issue. It would still be fundamentally repulsive, but it wouldn’t make a great impact on the nation. But McCain is not a one-off.
The way Trump behaves toward McCain is the way he behaves toward anyone who he ever believed was less than obsequious in his presence. That means that European allies are suffering and NATO is weakened, not just because Trump has, at the very least, a fondness for Vladimir Putin, but because some of those leaders dared actually try to explain to Trump the political realities of their situation and the function of strategic defense. For daring to speak the truth, Trump insults them, demeans their nations, demands payment, and burns the bridges of alliances stretching back 70 years or more.
And Trump has not forgotten that he was the butt of jokes at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. What most people would have taking as gentle joshing, Trump took as a mortal insult. It may not have been the origin of his desire to slash and burn his way through everything ever touched by President Barack Obama, but it certainly made those flames a thousand times hotter. On everything from health care to the environment, Trump’s policies have been cemented around not just the idea of pleasing his ‘investors,’ but burning to the ground everything that came from those he regards as enemies.
Barack Obama has refused to engage with Trump, but just as McCain’s absence from the planet hasn’t stopped Trump from going after him with new lies, Obama’s diplomatic reticence hasn’t stopped a lot of statements and actions intended to belittle and undercut the actions and legacy of the former president.
If it sometimes seems that Trump is making moves for no good reason—deliberately making it harder for people to get health care, destroying national monuments, opening up lands for drilling in areas where oil companies aren’t even interested—that’s only because spitefulness rates high on Trump’s list of values, probably higher than anything else except greed.
As CNN reports, Trump’s feud with the NFL has little to do with whether or not any player takes a knee. It’s about how much harm he can cause to an institution that he sees as having snubbed him in the past.
Jefferson Sessions is still finding his name in conspiracy theories about “the witch hunt” despite having left his post as attorney general months ago, and despite having been Trump’s earliest supporter in the Senate. Because for Trump, one moment of what he sees as less than full loyalty negates every other action.
And the media will never be anything other than the “enemy of the people,” so long as that media contains even a minority that is engaged at trying to explain the truth rather than hand Trump praise.
Trump’s willingness to operate on anger and spite isn’t just unseemly, it’s dangerous. It’s a primary motivation in his policies. And it’s a reason why Trump can’t recognize hate speech—for him, hate isn’t bad. It’s his core. Trump would burn down the White House if he thought it would offend the right people. But at the moment, he’s only doing that in spirit.