Donald Trump’s tit-for-tat philosophy

An eye for an eye: Trump meets Hammurabi

When confronted with adversity, how do you respond? President Trump’s answer you already know. On June 29, 2017, for example, following criticism by co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC's Morning Joe talk show, Trump responded on Twitter.

Melania's version: 10 eyes for an eye? (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

"I heard poorly rated Morning Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"

After this counterattack drew predictable bipartisan denunciations (“beneath the dignity of the White House,” etc.), Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offered this ethical defense of her boss: “I don’t think that the president’s ever been someone who gets attacked and doesn’t push back. This is a president who fights fire with fire.”

Melania’s defense

Overlook for the moment the relevant question of how the Washington, DC, fire department fights fire — i.e., with water, not fire. Overlook the equally important question of whether Trump employs his firefighting tactics on behalf of his larger community or merely himself and his family. Overlook, also, Melania Trump’s defense of her husband’s operating method: “As the First Lady has stated publicly in the past,” her spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement during the Morning Joe ruckus, “when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,"

Excessive retaliation has been a no-no at least since the Lex Talionis, which Hammurabi promulgated some 3,700 years ago as a framework for settling injuries, feuds, and vendettas. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is how it’s often interpreted by folks like Trump and Huckabee Sanders. But the original meaning was quite different: “only an eye for an eye” — that is, compensation for an injury should be restricted to the value of the loss.

In the great march of civilization, Trump and his defenders seem unaware that there is more than one way to handle adversity. One is the tit-for-tat strategy practiced by Trump, Dick Cheney, and Richard Nixon (who famously compiled an “enemies list,” the better to enable his aides to “screw our enemies”). The other is the turn-the-other-cheek philosophy practiced by, for example, Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln (“I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend”), various Quakers, and of course Jesus Christ.

You and I may disagree as to which of these philosophies better serves our purposes. But we do have a choice.

How do these two philosophies work (or fail to work) in practice? Consider two examples from 20th-century Philadelphia.

Bill Green versus WCAU

In 1982 Philadelphia’s TV station WCAU erroneously reported that the city’s squeaky-clean mayor, Bill Green, was the target of a federal investigation for accepting a bribe. Within 24 hours the station retracted its story and publicly apologized. If anyone’s reputation suffered from this episode, you would think it was WCAU's.

With WCAU humbling itself before him, Green could have magnanimously acknowledged that mistakes are sometimes made by well-intended people. He could have recognized the difficulties faced by the media in dragging the truth out of the hundreds of stories they cover every day. Like Lincoln, he could have destroyed his enemies by making them his friends.

But Green, who prized his reputation for honesty, did no such thing. Instead he filed a libel suit against WCAU and its parent network, CBS. His apparent purpose was to throw the fear of God into politicians and bureaucrats who, under the cloak of anonymity, spread malicious lies about public figures. But of course, many people with legitimate concerns would never talk to reporters at all (or to police officers, priests, or psychiatrists) without an assurance of anonymity. Could the Watergate story have been broken without the help of Deep Throat?

Rather than contest Green’s suit, CBS, then suffering corporate turmoil of its own, chose to settle for a reported mid-six-figure sum. But the suit reinforced Green’s growing image as a distant and inaccessible icon. When his first term ended the following year, this honest and dedicated public servant chose not to seek re-election and left political life permanently.

Ed Piszek versus Thacher Longstreth

Around the same time — 1980 — combative Philadelphia industrialist Ed Piszek approached Chamber of Commerce president W. Thacher Longstreth for help with a problem at his fishcake company, Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens. One of Piszek’s employees was accused of stealing water from the city, allegedly with Piszek’s knowledge. Longstreth called the Water Department and pleaded Piszek’s case, but the employee was convicted and the ensuing bad publicity rubbed off on Piszek’s company.

When Philadelphia magazine subsequently wrote a story about the case, Piszek bitterly complained no one in the city had done anything to help him, “not even Thacher Longstreth,” whom Piszek described as “the kind of guy who would be swimming 14 miles an hour downstream when the stream was going at 20!”

Longstreth, when asked to respond, gave this turn-the-other-cheek reply: “Ed Piszek is probably the most honest, hard-working, and generous man I have ever met.”

The day after the article appeared — with the quotations from both men intact — Longstreth got a call from Piszek.

“Goddammit, you have me so embarrassed,” Piszek said, according to Longstreth’s memoir, Main Line WASP (on which I collaborated). “My wife is so angry at me. All my friends say, ‘How in the world could you say such things about Thacher Longstreth, and then he comes back with such a gentle, kind answer?’ All of a sudden, you’re the good guy and I’m the villain. You’ve taught me a lesson, Thacher. I’m never going to say a mean word about anyone publicly again.”

Useful advice for a certain U.S. president, albeit one who seems incapable of learning lessons.

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