Opinion | Trump’s Postmortem Roasting of Powell Could Burn Him in the End
Jack Shafer is Politico ’s senior media writer.
Of course Donald Trump rained on the Roman triumph parade the political establishment and the combined houses of major media convened this week to honor the memory and accomplishments of warrior, diplomat and leading citizen Colin Powell on the occasion of his death on Monday.
In a classic bit of counterprogramming, Trump took the position that no other prominent commentator wanted to go near. In Trump’s formulation, Powell wasn’t a hero, he was a fool. In one of the “statements” he issues in hopes it will be reposted on Twitter — from which he is permanently banned — and become Topic A in the media, Trump blistered Powell as a “classic RINO” who dragged us into the Iraq war and slagged the press for treating him in death “so beautifully.” Trump’s sulfurous elegy worked as designed, as the media chorus united to scold him for violating the no-speaking-ill-about-the-newly-dead conventions of modern manners and meta-analyses, like this one, assembled themselves to explain the former president’s strategy.
In Trump’s defense, the graveside broadside was at least consistent with his previous comments on Powell. In 2020, when Powell defected from his Republican Party colleagues to endorse Joe Biden for president, Trump called Powell “a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.” The only purely naughty thing Trump did was hit somebody who couldn’t hit back. It wasn’t as much a Trumpian low blow as a rabbit punch to a defenseless bunny.
If Trump had thought it necessary to justify himself, he could have claimed he was only telling the truth, adopting the position first articulated by I.F. Stone that “funerals are always occasions for pious lying.” But neither remaining consistent nor tweaking convention was Trump’s primary objective. After all, nobody needed Trump to remind anyone that Iraq was Powell’s great failure; it was one he had acknowledged himself. That corrective sentiment could be found in most of the ledes of the obituaries and assessments that came spilling out. The AP even moved a story that dealt exclusively with the special hatred Iraqis still harbor for Powell for his role in pushing the invasion.
So the postmortem smear didn’t illuminate Powell. But it did help explain something true about Trump. Without Twitter, without chyron-to-chyron coverage from Fox News and without a pulsing presidential campaign to boost his messages, Trump depends on his shock-jock skills to elbow his way into the public sphere and onto the front page. Wicked mugging like this may look brainy and calculating, but it’s a good bet that, for Trump, swinging wildly when nobody pays attention to him has become his first instinct. Shouting through a megaphone to reach the cheap seats is also a technique he uses in court, too, filing ridiculous lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to overturn election results or to punish his niece Mary Trump . His grandstanding shouldn’t work after all this time, but it still does.
The Powell incident doesn’t mark the first time Trump has dug up a corpse and danced it around to win the spotlight and score a few political points. Trump continued to verbally assault political rival Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain for months after he died in 2018. In 2019, Trump suggested that the former Michigan Democrat Rep. John Dingell, then only 10 months dead, was “looking up” from hell . (Trump was irate about Dingell’s wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, also a Michigan Democrat supporting the Trump impeachment even though he had approved the lowering of flags for the late member of Congress.) And he’s never been sentimental about America’s war dead. In 2020, the Atlantic ’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that behind the scenes, Trump called them “losers” and “suckers.”
Trump seems to intuitively understand that these cheap shots don’t cost him with his base, which applauds his corrosive moxie. Given his history of explosive comments, he has set a baseline expectation for rude conduct that he must exceed to keep his fans entertained and to keep his critics appalled enough to drive his “statements” into the news. Truth be told, he probably didn’t care much one way or the other about Colin Powell, but, seeing the general’s death forming a news wave, he decided to paddle out and ride it to shore in hopes of getting noticed. But the downside for Trump — if downsides exist in Trumpworld — is that as he descends ever lower to hack his way into the news, he will end up sending the equivalent of an audition tape to the social media outlets that have only suspended him (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch), that they should never let him return.
That leaves Trump standing there, smoldering, lacking enough rhetorical fuel to reach political liftoff and waiting for his next countdown.
The Trump obituaries will be fantastic. Imagine a lede and send it to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com . My email alerts read the Irish sport pages first thing each morning. My Twitter feed imagines that few flags will be lowered when Trump expires. My RSS feed seeks only to outlive him.