Commentary: What’s depressing about Trump’s attack on Thunberg

The tweet itself is bad enough, but Trump’s followers openly encourage ridicule of a child with Asperger’s.

Video: Time’s 2019 Person of the Year, Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, was announced on the “TODAY Show” on Dec. 11. Allie Caren, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

By Karen Tumulty / The Washington Post

Is there nothing too petty for this president?

Early Thursday morning, President Trump took to Twitter (where his current follower count is 67.5 million) to attack a 16-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome and tell her to “work on her Anger Management problem.”

As always with Trump, when he accuses someone else of something, we get a window into what he himself is feeling. So it’s fair to ask: What did Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg do to make the projectionist-in-chief so hopping mad?

The answer: She was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

Time covers are something of a fixation for this president. Back when he was a reality-TV star, he decorated the walls of at least five of his golf clubs with fake ones featuring his own face.

You might remember that it was just eight days ago that the White House erupted in howls of outrage when an academic testifying during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings made a pun that involved the name of the president’s own adolescent son. First lady Melania Trump — who, as it happens, has also adopted anti-bullying as her cause — declared that Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan “should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.” Karlan subsequently apologized.

No word yet as to how this latest setback to her #BeBest movement is going over with the enigmatic first lady. We may learn from her outerwear on her next public outing that, well, she really doesn’t care.

After all, this was not the first time Trump has mocked Thunberg for her demeanor. People with Asperger’s syndrome, sometimes described a form of autism, often do not respond to social cues or express their emotions as others do.

When Thunberg was being acclaimed internationally in September for a passionate speech she gave about how her generation will feel the ravages of climate change, the president tweeted sarcastically: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (At that same gathering, a United Nations climate summit in New York, Thunberg fixed a withering stare on Trump as he walked by.)

But the real question, as is so often the case where Trump is concerned, is why would the most powerful man in the world stoop to doing the things he does? One answer, at least judging by the reaction to his tweet on Thursday, is that his always-loyal base applauds him when he indulges his basest impulses. “Haha,” one of his supporters responded. “Trump is awesome. You have to love his sense of humor.” And that may be the most depressing thing of all.

Trump’s son, Donald Jr., was not wrong on Wednesday, when he described Time’s Person of the Year franchise as a “marketing gimmick.” It started with the selection of aviator Charles Lindbergh as 1927 Man of the Year; rectifying the mistake the magazine’s editors had made by putting an old picture of King George V & Queen Mary on the cover the week that Lindbergh soloed the Atlantic Ocean.

I worked at Time for more than 15 years and got to see the annual selection process from the inside. It was not exactly scientific or even consistent.

Each year, there are months of discussions among editors and reporters about who should get the nod for having most influenced the world, for better or worse, during the previous year. The magazine’s management will invite readers to weigh in on who they think it should be. (Which can result in the waging of some mysteriously orchestrated campaigns. In the late 1990s, when Time asked who should be named Person of the Century, 200,000 letters, emails and postcards came in on a single day with votes for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Time picked Albert Einstein.)

In the end, at least when I was there, the call was usually made by one person: Time’s managing editor, whoever that happened to be. As much as anything else, the naming of a Person of the Year is meant to be a conversation starter.

In the age of Trump and Twitter, alas, that is a dangerous thing.

Shortly after Trump’s disgraceful tweet, Thunberg rewrote her Twitter bio. It now says: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

Thank you, Greta. If only everyone were so mature.

Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.

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