Since the administration of John Adams, presidents of the United States have been satirized, vilified and caricatured by opposition media with little regard for the dignity of either the office or the men who occupied it. The vilification and caricaturing of President Trump is nothing new, nor is it unprecedented in its vulgarity or obscenity, though the hostility shown toward him may be more inescapably pervasive in our age of cable news and social media. What seems unprecedented to many is the manner in which the current President talks or tweets back at his critics. Some previous presidents -- notably Andrew Jackson, whom Trump sees as something of a model, and Harry Truman -- were known for their salty or straight talk, depending on who was listening, but in their days millions of Americans didn't receive every overnight outburst from a President on their cellphones. Today, it is feared that President Trump further debases our public discourse every time he lashes out on Twitter. He faces a new storm of criticism after lashing out at Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, and his fiancee Mika Brzezinski, the co-hosts of MSNBC's middle-of-the-road Morning Joe show. No one seems to know what specifically triggered the President, but Morning Joe has often criticized him, despite allegations from the likes of Eric Alterman that the hosts actually toady to Trump. In any event, the President went on a typical ad hominem (and feminam) attack, calling Scarborough "Psycho Joe" while mocking Brzezinski's supposed poor facelift in lurid terms and, as always when he attacks media figures, accusing their show of failing in the ratings. For his trouble, he has been rebuked by Republicans as well as Democrats, but what else is new? Meanwhile, his spokespeople defend his right to go tit-for-tat with those who mock and slander him.
Since the days of Adams and Jefferson, media figures have been vilified and caricatured nearly as often as their officeholding targets -- and in those days they could be challenged to duels or beaten in the street, depending on their perceived social status. If anything is new now, it's that the President or other top politicians don't have to rely on surrogates to heap mud on their media enemies. The freedom with which politicians can spew unfiltered opinions or insults alarms some people and simply disgusts others. Forgive me if I read like a Republican for a second, but I fear a double standard is at work here. Trump's tweets are condemned, by presumed political allies as well as partisan antagonists, for degrading the dignity of his high office. But there seems to be no regard for that same office or its dignity when the opposition takes rhetorical or pictorial potshots at this particular President. It can no doubt be argued that in a liberal democracy dissent should have more license than authority, and it will almost certainly be argued that Donald Trump is the first cause of any debasement of the office he occupies. It's still unconvincing to blame Trump alone (or the Republicans, or conservative media, or the alt-right) for the perhaps terminal decline in American civil discourse, especially when millions of people can vent their bile onto those millions of cellphones. Let's concede that the President's trolling of Morning Joe was childish, if only in order to ask whether it was really much more childish than anything you see online daily from his friends or foes. Let's concede that it's beneath the historical dignity of the Presidency, to the extent that most of his predecessors would find Donald Trump contemptible, but let's remember that ours is a democratic republic in which the President is widely seen as the one true representative of the American people as a whole. Why should we presume (or even want) him to be more dignified than we are?