Somewhere, someone first wrote “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” We are pretty sure it wasn’t Mark Twain. It may have been Abraham Lincoln. It may have been somebody misremembering a biblical proverb, or the author of a book of rhymes for children. A Minnesota newspaper attributed it to “Empeco.” Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum may have come up with it. Whoever it was, they had a point.
2016 was an exciting time for the global far right and their stateside cheerleaders. Voters in the UK opted to separate from the European Union, which some feared would perilously weaken the alliance. Marine Le Pen, a French nationalist, was mounting a serious play for her country’s presidency. In Germany, in the Netherlands, in Hungary, and in Austria, far right seemed poised to break into the mainstream.
Fast forward six months into 2017, and that storyline seems to have reached its raveled end. Le Pen was defeated by a 39-year-old ingenue. Germany’s Angela Merkel’s post looks safer for Germany than it did at the turn of the year. And in Great Britain, conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, human cautionary tale, called a snap election in an attempt to strengthen her power as the country heads into Brexit talks. This week, that effort backfired. May is now facing a hung parliament.
Many factors have contributed to this swing to the left. One of those reasons is Donald Trump’s unpopularity, and his seeming inability, for even a second, to stop reminding people how much they hate him.
For an average person, the consequences of foolish speech only serve to embarrass the fool, or the fool’s girlfriend. But for politically active public figures, from celebrities who dabble all the way up to the Oval Office, foolish speech is more damaging. It gives one’s opponents ammunition and turns off people who could have become allies.
Public figures have always been tripping over their own proverbial dicks, but, thanks to social media and an ethos that values the act of speaking up over the contents of speech, broadcasting one’s foolishness has never been more seductive. Nor has it been easier for other people to notice that idiocy, expand its reach, and demand apologies from the poor fools tasked with PR cleanup.
Lena Dunham started her career as a shining star of young filmmaking talent, but recently has made more headlines for embodying a caricature of culturally walled-off safe space millennial liberalism. The most recent headache she’s caused her ideological brethren occurred in December, when she told listeners to her podcast that she hadn’t had an abortion, but wished she would have. She then apologized on Instagram by saying that she was merely playing a character. During the presidential campaign, she backed Hillary Clinton and vowed to move to Canada if Trump was elected, and then did not move to Canada. Last week, she posted a photo of herself wearing a body-length blaze orange sleeping bag, which somehow is supposed to fight gun violence, or something. If she didn’t already exist, conservatives would invent her.
When Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself hoisting a fake severed Donald Trump head the other week, all she accomplished was aiding producers at Fox & Friends struggling to find news stories to chase that did not have to do with Trump’s ineptitude. She gave a party without ideas a break from weaving their own ropes. Her subsequent apology and press conference about bullying Streisand Effect-ed her into the right wing news cycle and Donald Trump Jr’s conspiratory-nuts Twitter timeline. Not helping.
Bill Maher, in his long career, has found himself creating grief for his supposed ideological brethren, recently saying the N-word in conversation with Senator Ben Sasse. Sean Penn annoys the piss out of some on the left. So does Susan Sarandon. Actor Matt McGorry’s over-the-top feminist dude wokeness is frequent fodder for ridicule among many all-female text circles. Not Helping.
Steve Harvey is a classic Not Helper. Sarah Palin has a similar opportunism streak, often inserting herself into discussions to add nothing but another thing to make those she’s trying to help look bad. Maxine Waters, as beloved as she’s become by some, is viewed by others as a corrupt grandstanding opportunist, tossing irresponsible accusations before enough evidence exists to back them up. Speaking of Maxine Waters: Bill O’Reilly. Not helping. Ann Coulter and Piers Morgan, while quick to speak up, often seem to do so without first considering whether they’re doing good or making a mess for somebody else to clean up.
In other cases, whether or not speaking up is helping or not isn’t as clear.
Hillary Clinton stepped back from public life after her electoral defeat last fall. But now she’s back, and she’s exactly the same as ever. Sure, some superficial elements have changed-- her purple pantsuit of defeat hasn’t been brought out of retirement yet--her message is the one she’s been delivering for her entire career in the public eye. “Never let anybody silence your voice,” she told graduates of Medgar Evers College in New York City this week.
Clinton’s months-long return to the limelight hasn’t been smooth, nor has it always been welcome. Why can’t the Clintons just go away? lamented the New York Post back in April. Weeks later, New York Daily News columnist Gersh Kuntzman urged Hillary Clinton to “shut the f--- up and go away!” Two weeks later, Boston Globe columnist Adriana Cohen asked “How can we move on together if Hillary Clinton won’t go away?” And on Friday, Vanity Fair joined the dogpile, running a story headlined “Can Hillary Clinton please go quietly into the night?”
If Hillary Clinton delivers a speech alone in a forest and there’s no op-ed columnists around to tell her to fuck off, is she still hurting America?
Two weeks ago, Clinton delivered the commencement address at her alma mater Wellesley College. During that speech, she sharply criticized President Trump. The Republican National Committee tried to raise funds off Clinton’s speech immediately. After months of bumbling, gridlock, and failure, they finally had something pure that would fire up their supporters that didn’t involve them highlighting their own inability to govern. On one hand, telling a woman to shut up for no reason sounds pretty sexist. On the other, Hillary Clinton declaring that she will not sit down or shut up was the best thing that happened to Republicans that week.
At the same time Clinton was urging graduates in New York City to keep speaking up, in Washington, DC, former FBI director James Comey was speaking under oath before a Senate committee. The committee was interested in figuring out whether President Donald Trump had attempted to obstruct an FBI investigation into the ties between various agents of the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to influence the American election. Trump, it seemed, couldn’t resist speaking up about Michael Flynn, about wanting certain behaviors out of an FBI director. According to Comey’s testimony, each time the president spoke up to Comey about FBI business, he just made things worse.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, the man has never, not once in his 70-year-life, shut the fuck up. A recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women in an apparent attempt to convince Billy Bush that he was a cool and good guy incinerated the career of Bush and nearly tanked his campaign. There was that Obama-was-born-in-Kenya nonsense. Then-candidate Trump congratulated himself after 49 people were murdered in a terrorist attack in Orlando a year ago. He crowed about the UK’s decision to pull out of the EU, last August tweeting with characteristic bombast that “They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” After London was attacked by terrorists last weekend, President Mr. Brexit attacked London’s mayor and called for a travel ban on Twitter.
But a person can only talk so much shit before stepping in it, and Not Helper-In-Chief Trump’s inability to shut up is a problem for people who get too close to him.
The President’s twitter habit has cost him credibility, and his aides their dignity as they scramble to control a White House message that’s about as streamlined as an untethered firehose on full blast. It may have forever ruined his children’s ability to function as business leaders; it’s tarnished his daughter’s image so much that she or “somebody close to her” has taken to planting positive stories about her in supermarket tabloids owned by Trump family allies.
Every day presents a new opportunity for Donald Trump to shut up. And every day, Donald Trump lets that opportunity pass him buy, reminding people the world over that they do not like him. To paraphrase dead #MAGA-land darling Pepe the Frog, tweeting feels good, man. But it’s not helping Trump’s cause beyond Trump’s own desire to express himself. His ego is screwing things up for people who should be his allies. Mr. Brexit indeed.
If Hillary Clinton needs to go quietly into the night to best serve her cause, Donald Trump needs to have his phone chucked into the Lincoln Memorial’s snail-infested reflecting pool, and be kept at least a golf course-length away from the nearest microphone.
Yesterday, during a press conference alongside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump again displayed his famous restraint, barking out that James Comey had lied during his Senate testimony and that he’d testify to that effect under oath.
Somewhere, the author of that quote about proving one’s foolishness by speaking up rolled over in his grave.