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Calling Donald Trump “Presidential” Forces Us to Fight a Person Who Doesn’t Exist

By now you’ve seen the praise for Donald Trump’s speech last night that wasn’t technically a State of the Union address but might as well have been. Liberals, specifically, were effusive in expressing how astounded they were by Trump’s remarks. Here are two quotes from immediately after the speech from highly visible, well-paid pundits:

CNN’s Van Jones and NBC’s Katy Tur are by no means the only two liberal chattering heads to express such sentiments, but hearing it from these two in particular is important. The night of the election, Van Jones teared up on CNN, asking of the result, “How do I explain this to my children?” It was a rare moment of genuine emotion from a profession—paid punditry—that typically only requires a person to blithely play a defined and perfunctory role in the game of hearing both sides. Later on in the broadcast, Jones had a fairly heated exchange with Corey Lewandowski, the ex-Trump campaign manager who was hired by CNN but never stopped shilling, or working, for Trump. Jones was being badgered by Lewandowski and in retaliation called him “a horrible person,” which he is. In the immediate aftermath of that night, Jones briefly emerged as a leading voice of the anti-Trump left, appearing on the cover of Variety along with people like Michael Moore and Lena Dunham, all draped in the American flag.

Tur, meanwhile, had more personal confrontations with Trump himself, who she covered on the campaign trail. (Tur later clarified her comment in a later series of tweets.) In a press conference over the summer, Trump responded to questioning from Tur by telling her to “be quiet,” and alleging that Tur wanted to “save” Hillary Clinton. Then in November, just days before the election, Trump addressed Tur directly from his bully pulpit during a rally in Miami saying, “You’re not reporting it, Katy. But there’s something happening, Katy.” In December 2015, he called her a “third-rate reporter.”

These are two television personalities who, having had the Trump administration’s spear pointed directly between their eyes, should be very, very careful to call the man “presidential.” It redirects conversation from being around policy or the actions of the human himself, to the vague idea of a faceless man in power, a figment of our collective imagination whose flaws are potentially redeemed by the difficulties and honor his position holds. It’s a useless term that we nonetheless understand to mean that the president is being respectful of us, and so therefore we should be respectful of him. It goes without saying that Donald Trump does not deserve our respect.

The concept of being “presidential,” especially when cosigned by faces of the “left” like Katy Tur and Van Jones, is particularly dangerous at the current moment because it forces us to debate a person that does not exist. More so than most public figures who have had their lives extensively pored over, we know who the real Donald Trump is. He is vindictive and sexist—two qualities that, funnily enough, history tells us are “presidential,” but aren’t what anyone means when they really use the term. It was gross and sad when it was revealed that Trump bragged about wantonly grabbing women “by the pussy,” but it was the most useful moment of the campaign because it forced Republicans to defend who Donald Trump actually is, not who they would like to pretend he is for political expediency. So we got lots of defenses of “locker room talk” and male juvenilia, and dissections of what counts as consent. It was a bad thing to live through, but Republicans were at least forced to go to bat for a real life, inarguably shitty human being. They could argue that him being shitty didn’t matter, or that sexual harassment isn’t germane to governing, or that Bill Clinton was a lecher, too. But we were at least all talking about the same person.

When Corey Lewandowski bullied Jones on election night, telling him it was disrespectful for Hillary Clinton to not come out at two in the morning and demand her supporters unite under Trump, that imaginary person is who he was talking about. At the time, Jones rightfully rebuffed him. But now Jones, and everyone else jumping out of their chairs to praise Trump because he showed up and did his line readings so shakily that it would have gotten him laughed out of the audition room for The American President, have ceded all ground to a person who is not real. And that ground—that Donald Trump is not normal, not capable of being understood as “presidential”—is all we have left.

Indeed, Jones himself is ready to reelect the man for a second term:

Needless to say, this is all great news for conservatives, like Frank Luntz, who should be expelled from polite society, to say nothing of the Trump administration itself. History has a habit of remembering as honorable presidents who deserve far less: Ronald Reagan, who let gay people die of AIDS, or Bill Clinton, who wouldn’t let them marry, or George W. Bush, who, well, where to even start. But rarely do we see this sleight of hand happen in real time, celebrated by the exact people who are nominally tasked with preventing it from happening. Van Jones and Katy Tur and everyone else are supposed to call the card tricks out in real time, but how easily they are mesmerized.

This post was updated to note that Tur elaborated on her assertion of Trump as “presidential” in a later series of tweets.