Botstein and Danner Discuss the President’s Policy and Personality

Presented by the 100 Days Initiative, human rights project, CCE, and Council for Inclusive Excellence



The First 100 Days, a college-wide initiative combining civics and public media to track Trump’s first months as president, was launched last night, Thursday February 2. The event was called “Trump Abroad, Trump at Home: Declaring the New War.” President Botstein and journalist and professor Mark Danner had a conversation about Trump’s role as a domestic orator and international representative of America. They covered the extensive action taken by the President over the last two weeks–from wrongfully omitting multiple pages from the website to threatening to cut funding for UC Berkeley after its students protested his immigration order.

Danner repeatedly noted the sentiment he feels and observes that Trump, his personality, and his volatility are consuming–making these first weeks feel more like months. They discussed Trump’s use of rhetoric, and post-truth in the wake of Trumpism, and how the media can address these new standards of political journalism, including how and when to air or analyze so-called “alternative facts.”

The two also confronted the administration’s immigration executive order and its implications regarding racism as well as America’s shifting stance on the international stage. Botstein and Danner posited some methods to resist, including the pursuit of protest, art, writing, and education; the consensus was the best way to resist is to stay in school, read, learn, and create.

One aspect of Trump that many have found most intriguing and worthy of analysis is his style of rhetoric. Botstein is no exception to this fascination. Though he criticized Trump’s intelligence and lack of preparedness for the job, his tone remained purely observational–academic, studious, and civil.

“He’s incapable of concentrating, or hearing something he doesn’t agree with, or thinking in a sustained way, which is why his sentences are so short and his rhetoric so vulgar and simplistic—most is childish—it’s all negative and a vision of the world where he is a kind of narcissistic personal rescuer. It’s like undisciplined behavior of a bad Roman Emperor,” Botstein said.

Botstein continued, “He has no regard for the clear distinction of what is truth and not truth, what is a lie, what is not… Hannah Arendt spoke about the de-factualization of politics—not in reality but an imagined space—there is no doubt in the 20th century that it comes along with authoritarian regimes.”

Danner offered his own evaluation of Trump’s use of language to effectively communicate–if only with the base of voters who elected him. He said, “One of his favorite words in his small vocabulary is ‘tough.’ He speaks in fourth-grade vocabulary–they analyzed all Republican candidates his grade level was by far the lowest.”

He also addressed Trump’s “mastering of the media”–the fact that the kind of rhetoric he employs, however absurd, is played on media outlets since they have no choice but to cover him. This was particularly true during the election, as coverage of Trump since his Inauguration has become substantially more hard-hitting.

But playing his speeches, full of insults and obscene language, over and over, didn’t just resonate with the disenfranchised voters who favored him. It also benefitted the media, which has both a civic responsibility to report the truth, and a commercial responsibility to make money and get good ratings.

Danner continued, “It’s extremely effective. People like it, how direct he is, they like when he says ‘tough.’” Danner spoke of attending Trump rallies and watching his supporters swoon at this kind of language.

He spoke of Trump’s unique ability to dominate the public eye and serve as both president and entertainer. “He masters the news cycle, and he exhausts people in the audience. If we look at various controversies in the past two weeks it’s remarkable–crowd size, the CIA speech– the Muslim ban is only the latest. Now the Trump army might be sent into Mexico. This is part of the way he governs—mastering the news cycle and playing the commercial press.”

He highlighted the difficulty journalists face in making decisions that are both editorially responsible and financially savvy. They have to consider their own livelihoods, job stability, and holding someone like Trump accountable for what he says and does.

One of the most recent controversies reported in the media, overflowing with Trump’s child-like and openly Islamophobic rhetoric, was the immigration executive order, which Trump signed Friday, January 27. This is just another instance of Trump’s attempt to manipulate the media, deny facts, and question the legitimacy of accurate reporting.

The immigration order comprised a large part of the dialogue between Botstein and Danner and served as solid evidence when they discussed Trump’s openly Islamophobic rhetoric, mastering of the media, and his narcissistic, self-serving political agenda. They agreed that the immigration executive order, which barred the entrance of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, was, in fact, a ban on Muslims–an idea that Trump refuted in a statement on Monday.

“Trump is carrying out the executive orders he vowed to do during the campaign, which includes the Muslim ban. While these actions are shocking they should not be surprising,” Danner said.

“Given his narcissistic personality, incapability of learning and admitting error, not concerned with the way the world is but single-minded half-baked ideas about how things actually work such as the Muslim ban–the countries terrorists actually came from were not on the list. It was not coherent,” Botstein said in response.

Danner expressed concern about the rampant Islamophobia Trump fueled among his conservative supporters and what it would mean for young, susceptible Muslims in America. “In societies creating anti-Muslim fervor and making Muslims feel alienated and repressed and candidates for radicalization and Trump is the wet dream for them.”

Botstein agreed, speaking of the fundamental rights such a ban would violate and his stance on immigration. “My focus is on preserving the openness of the US especially as a destination for immigrants and a place of international exchange,

[the ban] has done damage to America’s standing…He does things for a theatrical purpose. If a crisis does occur, what I worry about is [that he will use it as] an excuse to limit civil liberties and to justify a kind of domestic restriction much worse than the Patriot Act,” he said.

Danner added, “‘I am the strong man, I am the man who is going to protect you, I’m going to close this country off to threatening Arabs,’ [Trump often says.] During Obama there were less than 100 Americans who have died in terrorist attacks in recent events like San Bernardino; this threat is enormously exaggerated but it’s an enormous part of the constellation of his politics. He will impose these restrictions gratefully and with a flourish and the republican congress will support him.”

Multiple times, Danner called him a “shatterer of norms” which he later replaced with “a breaker of laws,” which Trump inarguably is after enforcing this unconstitutional, un-American, and in fact illegal immigration ban. Danner showed much concern that the courts will not have the “backbone” to stand up to Trump, in this case and undoubtedly future cases that hold the same degree of illegality.

The two experts touched briefly on the Johnson Amendment, which Trump has vowed to “destroy,” in his own words. Signing a bill that would repeal the amendment would change a major aspect of the church-state divide that has been consistent in American politics for decades. It’s also another instance of Trump imposing on religious rights in an effort to promote his own agenda, this time in regards to federal tax policy. Congress would have to approve the decision in order to repeal the amendment, which is what worries Danner now that Trump has appointed new members to his cabinet–many of whom show little sympathy to immigrants and refugees.

Money proves to be a recurring theme so far in the Trump presidency–something we can all expect as America nominated a real-estate mogul and formerly bankrupt businessman. He values finance and economic ties over morality, which became clear when Trump threatened to cut federal funding at UC Berkeley after its students protested his immigration order and the school cancelled a conservative Trump-supporter speaker.

“The demonstrations in New York and San Francisco will have an impact on the courts, not him, the cowardly representatives we have on both sides [Democrat and Republican]. What he did to Berkeley was threaten no federal funds, beating down opposition–the appearance of large support on what he did. We must provide some measure of courage,” Danner said about the federal funding threat.

“We cannot ultimately be exhausted early in this fight. The fight has to be consistent and on the local level even on immigration—I’m heartened by southern California and even Redhook how they assert their rights about who lives here and who comes here…” Botstein agreed.

Trump’s long-term effect on domestic and foreign policy, media and public perception of politicians, and countless other issues remain to be seen. As we all have to remind ourselves, it has only been two weeks. Though the conversation had a somber, academic tone to it, the two managed to deliver a few funny, lighthearted lines, including a particularly light-hearted one made by Botstein. “History has no precedent of a dictatorship being established by a 70 year old—time is by our side!”


Photo by Miranda Sanborn/ Bard Watch. 

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