Instead of striving to be disciplined, dedicated and presidential, Donald Trump is flitting between seven characters that have no place in the White House.
Two years have passed since Donald Trump was sworn in. He set the tone for his presidency with an inauguration address accurately characterised by George Bush Jr as “some weird shit”. Trump told the American people that “I’ll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street in your inner city, or wherever you live, you’re not going to be shot. Your child isn’t going to be shot. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Needless to say, he hasn’t delivered on this preposterous undertaking. School shootings continue to occur with numbing regularity. Eight months into the Trump presidency, the worst mass shooting in US history took place in Las Vegas: 58 people died, 851 were injured. American carnage indeed. “Trump had no plan to stop such an attack,” wrote Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, “nor did he do anything after the fact that would prevent a similar attack.”
The lack of follow-through on this and other similarly grandiose vows doesn’t seem to have reduced Trump’s standing in the eyes of his hard-core supporters. Perhaps their sense of grievance and paranoia makes them prefer apocalyptic rhetoric that “projects strength” to the earnest endeavours of conventional politicians. Or perhaps it just shows the resilience of a cult of personality based on the notion that Trump is the only person who can prevent picket-fence – and trailer-park – America being overrun by murderous illegal immigrants.
In many respects Trump is – to use one of his favoured pejoratives – a fake president. He doesn’t govern; he tweets. He doesn’t drill down into issues and engage in serious policy discussions with a view to generating appropriate legislation; he stages rallies at which he preens and wildly boasts of having already achieved more than any other president. And why not? For cult members, objective fact is a meaningless concept: they believe whatever the Great Leader tells them to believe.
Two years after his inauguration, the idea of Trump as president remains as far-fetched and disturbing as ever. It’s truly remarkable that, halfway through his term, Trump gives no indication of having acquired even a glimmer of understanding of the nature and significance of the position he occupies and the awesome responsibilities it brings with it.
If anything, the opposite is true. Every week, he reconfirms the unfitness for office that was apparent from the outset; the longer he’s president, the more irresponsible, capricious, divisive and dishonest he is, the less presidential he seems.
The most laughable claim made on Trump’s behalf was that, once the rogue/clown of the campaign trail had his feet under the Oval Office desk, he would be magically replaced by un homme sérieux; that he’d shed the persona that had brought him wealth, fame and power and knuckle down to the enormous job of running America and leading the Western world.
But Trump was never going to transform. How could he when his defining characteristic is narcissism? By definition, the narcissist isn’t given to self-improvement or personal development. Trump is the impostor president he was always going to be. Rather than approaching the job in a disciplined, dedicated way, striving to be presidential, particularly in the sense of promoting unity as opposed to sowing discord, Trump flits between seven characters, none of whom belongs in the White House. They flow into, feed off and reinforce each other.
Herewith the Maleficent Seven.
1. The Amateur
Trump is the first non-politician elected president since Dwight Eisenhower, who took office in 1952. However, Eisenhower had commanded the Allied armies in Europe during World War II and been Supreme Commander of Nato. He was a government man; he’d been involved in geopolitical decision-making at the highest levels and with far-reaching consequences.
Ronald Reagan was derided for being a B-list Hollywood actor who was upstaged by a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo, but he was a two-term Governor of California, which last year surpassed Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. Jimmy Carter was dismissed as a peanut farmer but he’d been a naval officer, a state senator and Governor of Georgia.
Trump has amassed a personal fortune, although the size of it is unclear because of his refusal to provide his tax returns, and the precise nature of it is equally murky given his history of bankruptcies, tax dodging, bilking creditors, mysterious – and very timely – cash infusions and serial litigation.
Despite his lack of interest in policy and the nuts and bolts of government, he’s a prime example of that tiresome stereotype the arrogant ignoramus, the unworldly empty-head who thinks he knows it all and certainly knows more than the so-called “experts”. He’s on record as claiming his “gut instincts tell me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me”.
But he refuses to test that proposition through reading, discussion or debate, because that would involve effort and engagement and he’s not big on either. As Politico columnist Jack Shafer put it, “Trump has more free time in his daily schedule than a lazy student attending a hippie alternative high school.”
In any case, it would be a waste of time, since information and other people’s opinions are irrelevant. According to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump “doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’” Hence his response to a multi-agency report that concluded the effects of climate change are already causing huge economic losses and making the US less competitive and Americans sicker: “I don’t believe it. Right now we’re at the cleanest we’ve ever been.”
Alarmingly, former staffers insist the consequences of Trump’s hubristic amateurism would have been far worse if they hadn’t run interference. Former staff secretary Rob Porter, quoted in Bob Woodward’s Fear, said, “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reason to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas.” Former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn: “It’s not what we did for the country; it’s what we saved him from doing.”
That’s scary stuff, given the dwindling number of “adults” on the White House staff and in the wider administration. The day can’t be far off when Trump, having purged everyone who might challenge or attempt to deflect him, is completely surrounded by sycophants and enablers who grasp that the key to retaining his approval is pandering to his delusion of omniscience.
“In Trump’s mind and those of some of his supporters, he’s shedding those establishment figures who have prevented him from following his instincts and fulfilling his campaign pledges,” says former President Barack Obama’s campaign strategist and adviser David Axelrod. “But his instincts are impulsive, almost always grounded in his own narrow politics and often motivated by spite. An unbridled Trump is a frightening proposition.”
2. The Authoritarian
With his background as an autocratic head of a private company, instinctively disdainful of the checks and balances provided by strong institutions and the democratic process, and emboldened by his unexpected election victory, Trump arrived in the White House thinking his word would be law and he could rule by fiat.
Not surprisingly, therefore, when the media adopted the role of the child who points out the emperor has no clothes, when judges refused to be buffeted by political headwinds, and when civil servants continued to see themselves as part of the government rather than Team Trump, his response was to berate, threaten and fire. Journalists became “enemies of the people”; non-compliant civil servants were operatives of the “deep state”; principled opposition based on protocol, convention and the law was evidence of a conspiracy.
Those who crossed him were insulted and falsely accused on Twitter. On one hand, this was mere childishness, the overreaction of an absurdly thin-skinned narcissist and lifelong bully who can’t bear not having the last word; on the other, it was a signal to the alt-right media and its social-media militia to pile in.
Former Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is the latest observer to compare Trump to a Mob boss (the mobster emerges slightly better in Reid’s comparison). Trump’s ties to the Mob and the ways in which his conduct invites comparisons with the head of a crime family are too numerous for a full accounting; suffice it to say that his personal lawyer and mentor was the notorious Roy Cohn, consigliere to several New York crime families; that Trump had a decades-long involvement in the New York construction and New Jersey casino industries, hotbeds of organised crime; and that in 1987, Australian police blocked Trump’s bid to build a Sydney casino because of what they called his “Mafia connections”.
3. The Deplorable
Hillary Clinton’s remark, during the 2016 campaign, that Trump supporters were “a basket of deplorables”, was deemed a hideous gaffe, a misstep from which she never really recovered. But, like 2012 Republican nominee – and possible Trump nemesis – Mitt Romney’s view that Russia posed the biggest geopolitical threat to the US, a statement that at the time was seen as virtually disqualifying him, Clinton’s remark in hindsight looks not just fair and reasonable but prescient.
And Trump has revelled in the role of Deplorable-in-Chief, with his racist dog whistles and pandering to the lowest common denominator, for instance, by asserting a moral equivalence between an anti-fascist protester and the neo-Nazi who fatally ran her down, or portraying a ragtag refugee caravan as a disease-ridden invading horde of criminals and terrorists.
His rhetoric about the migrant caravan recalled Winston Churchill’s commentary on Germany’s decision to transport exiled Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin back to Russia in February 1917 in the hope he’d stir up unrest and galvanise anti-war sentiment: “They turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.” (The German gambit was strikingly successful: in October 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Government and initiated an armistice.)
Then there’s the divisiveness – the incendiary attacks, the dishonest blame games, the demonisation of political opponents in which citizens exercising their right to protest become “mobs” and liberals are cast as saboteurs on a nefarious mission to weaken America. When a pro-Trump zealot mailed bombs to various TrumpWorld hate figures, including former Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton, Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, tweeted: “No one in politics or wingnut media made this guy send bombs. Period. What they did instead was superheat the political environment and flood crazy bullshit into the information space so regularly that unhinged guys like this think they’re being patriots by sending bombs.”
4. The Personification of American Conservatism’s Moral Crisis
American conservatism was in the throes of a moral crisis before Trump became President. However, at the Deplorable-in-Chief’s behest, the conservative movement has shed core beliefs like a winter coat, thereby exposing itself as a morally bankrupt force whose only true commitment is to the preservation of white privilege.
Thus, evangelical Christians ignore the tarnishing of the presidency and coarsening of public life that’s an inevitable consequence of having an unrepentant serial adulterer, self-confessed sexual harasser and monumental vulgarian in the White House. The movement that purports to stand for the old values and virtues turns a deaf ear to the lying that gets more brazen by the week, such as the recent, easily debunked claim that the Obamas have erected a 3m-high security wall around their Washington DC residence.
Having exposed the Republican Party as an empty vessel during the 2016 election primary season, Trump now enjoys rubbing the party establishment’s noses in the fact that what used to be their party is now his party, a reality demonstrated by the base’s readiness to indulge Trump’s egregious behaviour and his radical departures from Republican orthodoxy. Of all Trump’s extravagant claims on his own behalf, the following increasingly seems to contain an enduring, essential truth: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Ave and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
The Faustian nature of Trump’s relationship with the conservative movement becomes even more evident when you consider that, as cult leaders invariably do, he despises his followers for their infinite credulity and willingness to jettison supposedly deeply held principles. How could he not since, in that tiny, ruthlessly suppressed part of himself where the last vestige of self-knowledge resides, he knows full well he’s not the saviour they believe him to be?
5. The Leaver of the Western World
These components coalesce in Trump’s manifest reluctance to maintain US membership, let alone leadership, of the Western alliance that has underpinned the international order since 1945.
His amorality makes him impervious to appeals to shared values. Being contemptuous of international co-operation and multilateralism, he sees membership of alliances and groupings, official and unofficial, as burdensome, a means by which so-called allies seek to entangle America in a sticky web of mutual obligations with unequal contributions. His transactional approach causes him to view all interactions, even those with long-standing allies, as zero-sum games in which there’s a winner and a loser. His disregard for the virtues of service and sacrifice leads him to reject the world view that places America among a community of nations united by a commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a set of ideals that emerged from the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment.
Trump’s authoritarian instincts cause him to gravitate towards the leaders of autocratic regimes that brook little or no dissent and to impose no constraints on the leaders’ freedom of action, most notably and notoriously Russian President Vladimir Putin.
6. Moscow’s Man
Trump’s obeisance to Putin is, on the face of it, the most bizarre aspect of a bizarre presidency and the Republican Party’s complicity in it the most damning evidence that the GOP now exists for no other purpose than to protect and advance the interests of the donor class.
We know what’s in it for Putin and Russia: a polarised America, a divided West, a discredited system, a repudiation of American exceptionalism. We live in hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will reveal exactly what’s in it for Trump.
It was little wonder that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was taken aback by the Republican reaction to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. After all, Putin’s Russia has been dispatching assassins to eliminate troublemakers without drawing anything like the same level of condemnation. Putin’s high five with bin Salman at the G20 summit in Argentina showed just how much the Russian leader delights in trolling the West and exploiting the divisions apparent in Trump’s isolation at a gathering at which American presidents have hitherto held centre stage.
7. The Sobering Reminder
Like the Brexit referendum result that has mired the United Kingdom in humiliation and paralysis, Trump’s 2016 election is a warning of what can happen when citizens abdicate their civic responsibility to respect the democratic process and vote with due care and attention and instead succumb to the fairy-tale notion that there are instant solutions to difficult problems. In America’s case, the fairy tale involved a maverick anti-politician who vowed to make everything right through the force of his personality and restore a mythical golden age. Similarly, Brexit was founded on lies and ran on lies and is now foundering in a mire of complexities it insisted would be easily resolved.
Democracy is in retreat (Dirty Dancing, Listener, September 1, 2018) and Trump is a factor in that process. The latest domino to fall is Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right ex-army captain who approvingly evokes the period when the country was under a military dictatorship, has just been sworn in as President.
“We have Bolsonaro because we have Trump,” Oliver Stuenkel, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, told the Huffington Post’s Travis Waldron. “We would not have seen the same dynamic here without what happened in the US in 2016. I think that inspired a lot of people who basically learnt from Trump. And I think in that same way neighbouring countries in Latin America will learn from Bolsonaro.”
After Bolsonaro’s inauguration on New Year’s Day, Trump took to Twitter to praise his speech and declare, “The USA is with you.”
As Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of How Democracies Die, points out, “Bolsonaro can do things in Brazil, potentially, that Trump can’t do because Brazilian institutions are nowhere near as strong as those in the US.” Nevertheless, it’s profoundly depressing that a US president is now the primary role model for 21st-century autocrats who serve the interests of the elite by seducing the masses with nativist rhetoric and the fantasy of problems decades in the making being solved practically overnight.
Levitsky notwithstanding, it remains to be seen what further assaults on democratic conventions Trump will launch in the remainder of his term, especially if the investigative scrutiny becomes more intense and draws ever closer to home. There’s a violent strand in the Trump base. Trump himself has predicted people “will revolt” if he’s impeached. Loyalist and longtime political dirty trickster Roger Stone suggested congressmen and congresswomen would be taking their lives in their hands if they push for impeachment, and even invoked the spectre of civil war if Trump is removed from office.
Democratic freedoms and responsible government are not guaranteed and do not occur as a matter of course. They have to be nurtured and respected. It doesn’t take much – one reckless figure – to place the system under stress.
Trump isn’t a totalitarian; apart from anything else, his primary driver is ego rather than ideology. But his first two years have reactivated the question that haunted the developed world for half a century: could it happen here? At some point in the next two years, the American people and their institutions may be called upon to provide a reassuring answer.
This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.