×

Trump's flag burning tweet an ingenious trap for critics

Protesters burn a U.S. flag outside Trump Tower following President-elect Donald Trump's election victory in New York, November 9, 2016.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters
Protesters burn a U.S. flag outside Trump Tower following President-elect Donald Trump's election victory in New York, November 9, 2016.

It's not often that the payoff comes so quickly for even the best laid political trap. But that happened Tuesday morning after another one of President-elect Donald Trump's tweets produced just the kind of response he and his team must have hoped for all along. It was so easy and quick, it was kind of like watching a Washington version of the old practical joke show "Punked."

Here's how it went down. At about 7am Eastern Time, the following message appeared on Trump's Twitter feed:

It's likely the tweet was in response to some flag burning incidents that have been reported across the country in protest of Trump's election. The most famous of which occurred at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and resulted in the school's administration taking the drastic step of removing the flag from the campus flagpole.

But right on cue, an army of sanctimonious Trump critics took to social media and even newspaper web sites to attack the President-elect's tweet and use it as proof that he is a reckless and scary fascist. Almost uniformly, the critical comments pointed out that flag burning was a protected form of Free Speech protected by the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision joined even by the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

The Washington Post's political writer Philip Bump perhaps bit the hardest and fastest on the bait as he quickly attacked Trump for flouting existing law but also for supposedly letting this flag burning comment distract him from the more important work he should be doing assembling his cabinet.

Well, the joke's on you folks. As Trump and his team must have certainly known, the last nationally prominent American politician to propose making flag burning illegal and affixing a hefty fine of as much as $100,000 for doing so was... then-Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005. She and the late Republican Senator Bob Bennett introduced and co-authored the Flag Protection Act of 2005 and it came to the floor in October of that year but was never passed.

The New York Times, to its credit, saw through the Clinton ploy at the time, and criticized her for what they called, "Clinton in full pandering mode." But almost no one else did, and unlike her former position against gay marriage, it was not an issue where liberal political pressure forced Clinton to reverse herself. In other words, the Left didn't care all that much about anti-flag burning laws when Hillary Clinton was proposing them.

And the Times and the other Trump bashers today all failed to mention Hillary Clinton's eerily similar position in their attacks on Trump today. And in so doing, they were basically the victims of a sneaky practical joke that Trump is likely to use again to continue to embarrass and delegitimize his opponents. If Trump can make it appear that his opponents don't actually believe in any political philosophy and only attack and defend policies based on who's proposing them, then he makes all that supposed principled opposition quite moot.

But even without the delicious Clinton connection, the tweet served to get Trump's opponents to very loudly defend the right to burn the flag. Legal or not, that's simply not a very politically popular position. Every politician of course holds a few unpopular positions, but the trick is to get him or her to go public with them. This ploy Tuesday morning from Trump did that too.

And social media platforms like Twitter help Trump achieve that delegitimizing goal instantly and publicly. After today's quite gratifying exercise, we can all forget about getting Trump to stop tweeting. As long as so many people are going to be gullible enough to give him exactly what he wants every time he tweets, this will continue. Tune in tomorrow or the next day, when he does it again. For Trump, Twitter isn't a problem. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.