The only enemies Donald Trump sees are his fellow Americans.

How Can Trump Defend the Country if the Only Enemies He Can See Are Americans?

How Can Trump Defend the Country if the Only Enemies He Can See Are Americans?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 16 2016 11:37 AM

The Only Enemies Donald Trump Can See Are His Fellow Americans

How can he defend the country?

President-elect Donald Trump points to his supporters during his "Thank You" rally at Crown Coliseum on December 6, 2016 in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
President-elect Donald Trump points to his supporters during his rally on Dec. 6, in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Since his election, Donald Trump has done three peculiar things. He has refused the daily intelligence briefings traditionally given to the president-elect. He has dismissed intelligence suggesting that Russian hackers played a role in the election. And he has delivered angry speeches against Americans who opposed him. These three behaviors are related. In Trump’s eyes, the enemy isn’t Russia. It’s the part of America that opposes him.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The president-elect says he’s too busy for intelligence briefings. Instead, he spends his time flying from state to state, addressing partisan rallies, as he did in the campaign. He calls it his “USA Thank You Tour,” and the prepared texts of his speeches talk about unity. But if you watch the speeches, you’ll see that he ad-libs most of his remarks. These riffs reveal the real Trump, not the scripted one. And they don’t celebrate America. They celebrate his defeat of the 54 percent of American voters who went against him.

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On the tour, Trump boasts about his “landslide” victory, his “big-league” margins, his vindication in recounts (“I won it twice”), and how he “busted up” the Democratic base. He talks about his TV performances (“Did I win those debates, folks?”), his rallies (“I’d turn on a television to see how massive my crowd was”), his Time Person of the Year award, his genius (“a Cabinet with the highest IQ that anybody has ever …”), his punditry (“They refused to acknowledge that I predicted it”), and the superiority of his campaign (“We spent a fraction of the money and won”).

Trump also invites crowds to revel in the pain of his adversaries. At every rally, he recites the states Democrats lost, detailing their defeats in Pennsylvania (“They lost it big”), West Virginia (they “almost didn’t register”), and Texas (“a slaughter”). He mocks journalists, claiming that one “started crying” on election night, another “was throwing up,” and others were “devastated.” He derides Hillary Clinton (“Does anybody remember my opponent?”) and comically re-enacts the moment when a TV anchor, in Trump’s words, announced, “There is no path for Hillary Clinton to become president.”

Trump belittles other candidates and constituencies, too. He heaps scorn on Jill Stein (“She got less than 1 percent”), Evan McMullin (“a bad guy,” “Not only did he not win Utah, I won Utah in a massive landslide”), and supporters of Bernie Sanders (“The election ended three weeks ago, darling”). He glories in the humiliation of Never Trumpers: “They’re on a respirator right now. They’re gasping.” Speaking in Ohio on Dec. 1 and in Michigan on Dec. 9, Trump reminded crowds that their Republican governors hadn’t supported him. Six weeks after the election, he’s still taking names and targeting enemies. On Tuesday, he told an audience in Wisconsin that the recount was a Democratic plot: “Believe me, they were behind it.”

Why would a man who has just been elected president attack his countrymen this way? One reason is Trump’s petulance. Another is his defensiveness: He got only 46 percent of the popular vote, trailing Clinton’s 48 percent. But there’s a third reason, and it’s more serious: Trump lacks the grace and wisdom to transcend old battles. After the Republican primaries, he couldn’t stop ridiculing his vanquished rivals. (Thursday night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he bragged again about his victory margins in the primaries.) Now he’s doing the same to everyone he beat in the general election. The nominee who couldn’t unite his party has become a president-elect who can’t unite his country.

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In his speech on Tuesday, Trump said: “I also want to give a very special thanks to all of our great veterans that are here: service members, military families.” It sounded as though he was about to thank them for their service. Instead, he continued, “The military and law enforcement—I don’t know what our numbers were, but I know they were record-setting high. So, to all of those veterans and service people and law enforcement people, I want to thank you.”

Trump wasn’t talking about service or sacrifice. He was talking about the election. He was pausing to thank the armed forces and the police not for protecting the country but for supporting him.

A president who thinks this way is a danger to every American who didn’t vote for him. But he’s also oblivious to threats from abroad. He’s too fixated on dissent at home to understand that he now represents the whole country and must defend it against an array of foreign malefactors: not just terrorists, but nation-states. Throughout the campaign, Trump has rejected warnings that Russia is a threat. The real threat, he suggests, comes from Americans—including U.S. intelligence agencies—who accuse Russia of interfering in the election. These accusations threaten Trump’s legitimacy, so he dismisses them. In effect, to protect himself, he protects Russia.

Intelligence is often murky, and the extent of Russia’s role can be debated. But Trump doesn’t debate the extent of it. He doesn’t even say, as a normal president-elect would, that the reports of Russian involvement are worrisome and that he’s working to learn more from the intelligence community. He simply dismisses the whole idea as a stunt staged by his domestic enemies. On Nov. 28, Trump told Time that reports of Russian hacking were “a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, ‘Oh, Russia interfered.’ ” When Time asked whether U.S. intelligence agencies had implicated Russia for domestic political reasons, Trump replied: “I think so.”

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Trump repeated that charge in a Dec. 11 interview on Fox News Sunday:

It’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. … Every week, it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College. I guess the final numbers are now at 306. She’s [Clinton] down to a very low number. No, I don’t believe that at all. … [T]he Democrats are putting it out because they suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.

This week, Trump has mocked the intelligence reports on Twitter. On Monday, he accused his opponents of playing “the Russia/CIA card.” On Thursday, he asked: “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?” On Friday, he tried again to shift the scrutiny from Russia to Democrats: “Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?”

This is how Trump’s distrust of Americans blinds him to foreign infiltration. He doesn’t think the intelligence even merits his attention. Trump told Fox News he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings because usually “nothing has changed.” He also opposed congressional hearings on Russian cyberinfiltration, arguing that any inquiries should be broadened to cover other incidents and other possible culprits.

Trump is a man of low character. He showed this throughout his campaign, and he has continued to behave this way as president-elect. Having such a man as president poses moral, cultural, and legal problems. It also creates national security problems. You can’t protect the United States if you don’t believe in unity. You can’t defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic, if you dismiss intelligence about foreign enemies as fabrications by your domestic enemies. Millions of people voted for Trump because they didn’t fully appreciate these consequences. They will now learn the hard way.