[Just a heads-up: this trio of posts are approximately book-length when taken as a whole. It occurred to me that some people might therefore prefer to save it to something like the Pocket app and read it gradually over time — that’s how I prefer to read very long articles myself — so here’s all three posts stitched together in case it’s more convenient to have it in that form.]
The difficulty of writing this piece
To tell you the truth, over these last four years I probably could have sat down several times a month and written a post about President Trump/his administration or the events happening in his orbit. And, in a sense, I very much wanted to. There was such an enticing deluge of scandal to dissect and weight in on. I was keeping up with it all so closely that I was continually accruing a build-up of undisgorged strong opinions, which is about as comfortable a condition for a writer as, say, kidney stones. But two considerations ultimately stayed my hand nevertheless.
The first was that I worried it would become tiresome and monotonous to keep writing about essentially the same topic all the time. (For both me and the reader.) This type of thing is subject to diminishing returns: at some point, you become keenly aware that there’s only so many ways you can harrumph and say “my god, what a disgrace this is!” To be fair, if you’re going to write about politics to any extent, you need to make sure you have at least a few trusty equivalent phrases tucked into your back pocket, because much like pen, paper, cynicism, and hypertension pills, they are part of the essentials of the trade. But I suppose I did rather wonder whether I had it in me to draw upon the nearly endless supply of them I would need over the span of four very looooong and ignominy-ridden years.
That’s not to say that it’s never worth droning on about the same thing and risking being boring. If the subject matter is important enough, that’s a very small price to pay for shining needful light upon it. And I certainly respect the reporters who have no doubt profoundly wearied themselves — like, deep in the core of their being — by making the meticulous cataloguing of Trump and co’s misdeeds their particular beat. It really can’t have been a very pleasant way to make a living. You probably clock out just feeling so dirty from having had to fixate on this grimy sphere full of scoundrels all day long. It’s a bit like being a warden at an asylum for the criminally insane and, sitting in front of a big wall-mounted bank of CCTV monitors, having to maintain a log of exactly who is smearing their faeces on the wall at any given moment and exactly how they’ve opted to do so. Only, I suspect that such a position is far better paid than those in the struggling and contracting journalism business. But, anyhow, they perform a crucial public service and we should be glad that there are those willing to do it. (What’s more, one ought to remember the unbelievably hostile environment which they have had to conduct their work in. Watch those videos of wild-eyed MAGA-hat freaks screaming ‘FAKE NEWS!’ at camera crews at the top of their lungs and until they’re red in the face, and I don’t think I’ll even have to prompt you to recall my asylum analogy. These are people who could pass as escaped inmates any day of the week.)
My point being that it’s one thing if that’s your job, but quite another to take on that depressing chore voluntarily. And I can also tell you that, personally, I’d worry about descending into obsessiveness. I could see myself chasing a sort of vaguely completionist documenting of all my problems with Trump’s reign, no matter how minute or of-the-moment. The danger being that you’ll get so caught up in trying not to miss anything day to day that you’ll lose sight of the bigger picture. On top of which, I guess I just had this feeling that it would probably be better for my sanity if I simply got it all out in one go. A cathartic thought-dump to purge this stuff from my system.
The second consideration was that I knew the best vantage-point to analyse the Trump years from would be in hindsight. In order to view them — their effects and their lessons — as a whole, rather than merely indulging in a piecemeal examination of this moment or that moment, and whilst you’re still trapped in their particular sinkhole of myopic, ephemeral outrage to boot. I think there are some things which, even if they do indeed piss you off and shock you at the time, you just can’t appreciate the true craziness of because you’re still living through them.
Trump having been evicted from the White House for some months now should provide enough distance for my purposes. Of course, I’m not only going to be reflecting on the past, I’ll also be talking about what’s been happening recently and even venturing some speculation about the future. As aforementioned, I won’t be able to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. And I will no doubt read this one day and be like “shit, I can’t believe I forgot to talk about [BLANK]! I’m such an idiot! [BLANK] made my blood boil when it happened! How could it slip my mind later on?!” That’s kind of just par for the course. But I’ll try to hit as much of the major stuff as I can.
One last note before I dive in. I’m trying something a little different with the formatting of this piece, by not only splitting it into multiple posts — which is, frankly, also necessitated by its considerable size overall — but then also segmenting those individual posts under various sub-headings. I’m hoping that it will make it both easier to write and easier to read. Given that the many aspects of this whole Trump topic very much blur into each other, presenting this piece more like an interconnected series of narrowly focused essays should help keep things more organised and distinct in a structural sense.
What it was like seeing Trump win in 2016
It’s now actually quite difficult to cast one’s mind back to how crazy the world seemed when Trump won the election, given all the political turmoil and fireworks which have happened since but also given what an absolute neutron bomb of insanity 2020 turned out to be. So it’s akin to raising the binoculars to your face and trying to look back at the smouldering grid of charcoalized tree-stumps left after a forest fire twenty miles away, but you’re forced to peer at it through the fucking city-sized mushroom cloud illumed with streaks of impossible blood-red lightning that’s now between you and it. Not an easy task. To say the least.
So in an attempt to jog my memory, I dug up some, let’s say, emotional artefacts from that dark day back in 2016. This is verbatim what I first texted to a friend of mine when I rolled out of bed, checked my phone, and learned that Trump was officially the winner: “Woah. What the fuck have I just woken up to?…” That was pretty much all I could say in the moment. It was the only way to put it. Before the eventual anger and dismay and disappointment that would coagulate once I’d had time to process it, there was only the disorientating hundred-decibel white-noise of stunned surprise. Donald Trump becoming the ‘leader of the free world’ is something that wasn’t supposed to be able to happen. It felt like we had stepped into a bizarro dimension, had diverged into a disturbing new aberrant timeline. Even if there was a part of you pessimistic enough to suspect Trump might somehow defy the odds and win, it was a very different thing to see it actually occurring right before your eyes. It was one of those events which are so startling and so plainly monumentally significant that they rip off those trapped-in-the-present-moment blinders we’re all cognitively encumbered with almost all of the time as human beings. They force your perspective to abruptly zoom out, force you to realize you’re living through history. It’s an infliction of clarity — and yes it’s fleeting, but it’s also so intensely vivid you won’t soon forget it — which really jolts you. Jolts you like ECT paddles held up to the back of your head and zapping you full-power. You feel like you’re witnessing what’s happening as if from some temporal remove, sort of just objectively appreciating its historical importance. You even feel you can perceive how its impact is going to tumble into the future and lodge there too. It’s a trippy thing to experience. As I was staring at those surreal headlines of ‘Trump Elected President!’, I literally couldn’t help but simultaneously visualize them reprinted in a textbook some schoolkid will be reading a century or two from now.
But, yeah, then that weird ruminative bubble pops and the merciful distraction it was providing vanishes along with it and you’re just overcome with raw disgust at how awful this outcome is. I suppose some people may think it odd that someone would be affected so much by an unpleasant turn of events which occurs in a different country. And, true enough, I am an Englishman; I still live in England; I’ve never so much as stepped foot in the United States. I can, alas, claim to know/understand it only as well as an outsider ever can and no more. But I am also someone who has always loved America from afar, always dearly wished I had been born there instead, always revered its uniqueness and its pre-eminence and its very romantic self-designation as an ongoing experiment. But most of all, its rightful preoccupation with liberty, and the breadth of possibilities that creates. A coinage from Walt Whitman’s preface to ‘Leaves of Grass’ — itself an imperishable encomium to the country’s warp and weft — which has stuck with me is that the nature of America permits the “breed of full sized men.” It’s a simple phrasing, sure, yet very potent nonetheless. If it speaks to you, it speaks to you deeply. Now, believe me, I’m well aware that there are many much, much worse birthplaces than England and I am, it cannot be denied, exceedingly lucky to have decamped from the womb on this island. As pre-existence rolls of the dice go, mine was pretty damn good. But, for all that, I still know what it is to live beneath a system of governance intent upon treating its citizens a great deal more, well, Liliputianally. And I would very much like to sample the alternative. Long to, in fact.
And that’s why Trump’s ascendency was such a concussive blow. It was a stark reminder of America’s darker and more repellent side. All those regressive traits which it has not yet outgrown. All those prejudices and stupidities which have lingered like a thick, unkillable fungus in the many rank crevices of the country until some swindler had the gumption to tell the most highly-susceptible people that, actually folks, it’s edible too! There’s no time like the present to rip a furry clump off the wall and dig in! Why stop at letting it sully your community, let it blight your insides too! The fact that this bamboozling sales pitch not only succeeded, but succeeded to such a massive and consequential degree, is one of those things which is so unfathomable it threatens to reboot your brain should you dare contemplate it for too long. I mean, for real, what is to be our takeaway? How does one satisfactorily account for something like this? I suppose the weird, anti-rational, irresistible attraction to spiritual ugliness which some human beings suffer from, not to mention its capacity to be exploited, is just not to be understated…
One of the other remarks I texted that day I hesitate to share with you because I don’t want it to be taken the wrong way. To give you a little backstory: Christopher Hitchens is the writer who has had, by a country mile, the largest and most profound effect on me overall. He’s someone who means a hell of a lot to me. I’ve been regularly reading and re-reading his work (and watching and re-watching his public appearances) since I was a young teenager, and it has powerfully shaped not only my own non-fiction writing, but also my thinking and worldview more generally.
One of the reasons why I immediately felt such affinity with him was because he was also an Englishman who was besotted with America and its vast, resplendent promise. Of course, he would eventually pay it the ultimate compliment by making it his home and becoming a citizen, and he wrote extensively about many aspects of the country: its politics, its culture, its arts, its history, but also just… its soul, if you will. And in a sense it was via his perspective and his commentary that I first really came to know America and have my own infatuation grow deeper and more enduring.
He died in 2011. By all indications, his love affair with America was very much still just as passionate and undiminished right up until the end. And that’s important, because it was a love affair which had been thoroughly tested, shall we shall. Not only were there seemingly inextricable elements of American society which he disdained (e.g. its pervasive religiosity or the corruptness of the two-party racket) or even found totally unconscionable (e.g. the practice of and popular support for the death penalty), but he also lived there during several presidencies that he abhorred. The venom he directed towards Bill Clinton is best-remembered for good reason, because Hitchens’ hatred for him was so triple-distilled it was downright incandescent, but his writings during the Reagan years are also extremely trenchant and unsparing in their own right. Arguably too little of which is included in his published essay collections, by the way. If you wanna do a real deep dive you can go buy a digital subscription for, say, The Nation magazine or Harper’s magazine and plumb their archives for everything he wrote beneath their masthead. Highly recommended. And if you do, you’ll see what I mean when I say that he was one of those rare columnists who refused to sometimes just phone it in, even during slow news weeks. He respected his readership too much. If he wrote something for publication, he made damn sure it was well worth reading.
He died during Obama’s first term in office and although he was rightly not so awestruck as to be uncritical of Obama — something which much of his profession cannot also claim — he partook in the same dividend of optimism that so many other people experienced during that time. The sense that the country had turned a page in its history and set itself on the right path, had emphatically lived up to what it had the potential to be in its best moments. It’s now kind of the cool thing to do to label this as pure naivete. Given the slight buyer’s remorse and disenchantment that some Obama voters have come to feel, it’s not hard to see why they’d want to reframe the heady emotions of that time as merely the by-products of us all being drunk on illusory hope. I don’t really agree. I think Hitchens was right on the money. There was something real there. It wasn’t just the Obama phenomenon, wasn’t just his campaign’s incredible marketing acumen; Obama’s election was simply the most conspicuous manifestation of a larger trend. The weathervane of progress was pointing in the right direction for the first time in quite a while. And, true enough, that’s not a guarantee. It doesn’t guarantee anything. But it was a good, reassuring sign. It was reasonable for people to be buoyed by it.
I tell you all this so that you can better understand what exactly I meant when upon learning of Trump’s victory I remarked that some small part of me was almost glad Hitchens didn’t have to see this. To some degree, saying that was definitely a product of the rawness and bitterness of the moment. But there was more to it than that. Like I said, he had a certain palpable faith in the future of the American experiment and the incrementally improving wisdom of the American electorate itself which I suspect would have been brutally walloped if he had lived to see Donald fucking Trump being sworn into office. I know because I felt much the same thing that day.
It’s just such a flabbergasting regression. Given they’re such polar opposites in so many ways, the switch from Obama to Trump has to be one of the most dramatic political yo-yoings ever. It’s like if after penicillin was invented and publicised people still declared en masse “you know what, screw you, we’re going back to leeches to cure our ailments! Times were better back then! Leeches are just a better embodiment of our cultural values!”
The fact that it swung so far the other way, literally without any time in-between the two presidencies, is just so remarkable. You’d think the country would have had to first build up a tolerance, over decades of increasingly outrageous and unpresidential presidents post-Obama, to this kind of thing. But no, it just came along right away, like a stretched elastic band suddenly snapping back. And anyone with any sense was knocked senseless by the whiplash of it. (It’s very common for people to compare Trump’s election to Brexit but, really, the comparison would make a lot more sense if the yes-vote on the Brexit referendum had somehow come right after Britain joined the European Union in the first place. That’s the level of absurdity we’re dealing with.)
The other predominant emotion upon seeing Trump win was just a sort of dread of the unknown. It’s extremely rare that a national leader is elected where you feel like you really can’t predict what their tenure is going to be like. With Trump, it truly felt like there was just no telling what his presidency would entail.
Especially in the sense of: just how fucking bad is this going to be? Because, I mean, let me break it down like this. Do you recall the Nixonian ‘Madman Theory of Deterrence’? Tricky Dick got it in his head that if he acted like a capricious and unstable hothead, his foes would think twice about tangling with him because it’s impossible to rationally outplay an irrational opponent. After all, they’re playing a different game than you — or rather they’re playing a sort of non-game or even anti-game. Well, in this case, Trump had forked this source-code into what could be labelled the ‘Idiot Theory of Untouchability.’ It’s a way to pre-emptively cushion yourself from negative repercussions. So pulling it off is the ultimate wet dream for someone who really wants to be president, for reasons which do not transcend mere vanity, but really, really, really doesn’t want to go to the trouble of learning how to actually do the job properly. And here’s how it goes. He brazenly made it clear to his voters that he was a dangerous idiot during the election. (Traditionally, of course, it’s considered good form to at least keep it together and project an air of being soberly statesmanlike on the campaign trail, before breathing a big sigh of relief in the Oval Office and finally unleashing the worst parts of yourself like the face-melting flames bursting forth from the opened ‘Ark of the Covenant’. But Trump is not one to be bound by tradition. Well, apart from the heinous long-dead traditions that the far-right cherish maybe.)
He showed them over and over and over again that he had terrible judgement, that he would do or say whatever his childlike whims prompted him to. And then they still enthusiastically gave him their seal of approval anyway. They said “we don’t care! Trump’s our guy!” That’s ballgame. Right then and there. It means he has secured himself carte blanche to fuck up whilst in office. Because he has already set his baseline of tangible competency and knowledge and self-control — and decency, but that’s a separate matter — so low that further moronic comments or mistakes barely rise above the horizon anymore. That’s a crazy situation. That empowers him to do whatever the hell he wants. Scary, uncharted territory for an already inherently perverse and warped presidency to be entering.
The type of person Trump has shown himself to be
It can be, I find, very difficult to write about Trump himself, due to three main factors. The first is that everything has already been said a million times before. And I should think that any writer worth their salt will inevitably chafe at having to simply remurmur the well-worn words of the consensus. The second is that when describing his flaws, all those many inflamed warts on his gnarled and shrivelled soul, it tends to sound like exaggeration or embellishment, though it is of course not. He has long been the beneficiary of that fact. Because when confronted by what seems to be but a stream of hyperbole, the mind of the listener is instantly put on guard and assumes an incredulous posture. This is a sound instinct usually. But very much not so here. The third is that he is someone whose misdeeds and lies are so blatant, so transparent that it almost feels pointless to go to the trouble of detailing them. These are not complex machinations which require a great deal of analysis to unpack. Trump is a man of simple acts and, arguably, even simpler motives. (It’s why even when you don’t yet have all the pieces about a certain plot he’s involved with, it’s child’s play to divine what must be going on. You just remember that his stunted psyche means he’s stranded on the second-highest tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy — he’s been bivouacking on a narrow little windswept ledge at that false apex all his life — and then work backwards from there. It’s a scarily surefire trick.) His antics are sitting there right before your gaze, nakedly appalling. Because Trump is unlike practically every other political animal in one way most of all: he very conspicuously does not feel the need to conceal the worst parts of himself, nor the worst things he does/says. No, simply put, he has long since stopped being able to even recognize them as such. He has no filter because he has no self-awareness. He just lets it all hang out.
Despite all this, I’m going to give anatomizing Trump as a person a shot. Give it the ol’ college try. (To use an odd American expression which I’ve always thought sounds like an awkward calque from some other language.) I do usually find it a bit tiring when pundits feel the need to eventually hazard an amateur psychological profiling of every major political figure of the day. Because the truth, deflating as it might be, is that most politicians are just not very interesting psychologically. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that the political class is largely just the same bland, ambitious archetype of a person copy-and-pasted over and over again until you’ve got enough clones to fill a quorum and pass some bills. It’s also not really a bad thing. Well, in one sense at least. It does lead to a degree of safe predictability which can in turn create stability. Trump on the other hand? However one feels about him, you can’t really deny that there’s a lot to be said about the way his mind works or the fact that he’s a complete and utter slave to the little cartoon devil sitting on his shoulder and whispering unwholesome commands. It’s something that’s difficult not to be morbidly curious about, if you ask me.
So, in no particular order, here are some miscellaneous, though still only scratching the surface, observations about his character:
Let’s get some of the broad strokes out of the way right off the bat. Listen, I’m not a psychiatrist — meaning I have neither the expertise of one, nor the tongue-tying ethical strictures — so I’m going to offer my armchair diagnoses with reckless abandon. I consider it self-evident that Trump checks all the boxes of a pathological liar, at least in terms of how I’ve always heard it described. He lies with prodigious frequency — I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines keeping an eyepopping running count — and without hesitation or compunction. But, even more tellingly, he often lies even when he doesn’t need to. He’ll lie when nothing’s at stake, when it doesn’t even serve a purpose. He compulsively lies for no reason, in short. It’s like it is just instinctually hardwired into him to never hand over the truth or any part of the truth. People like him, whose closets have more skeletons than an overcrowded plague pit, regard the truth as an intrinsically dangerous thing: even when a fact seems innocuous it must still be held close to the chest just in case it has some unforeseen capacity to destroy you. When you’ve got that much to hide, and it’s all complexly interconnected in ways you can’t possibly keep track of, it’s just best to err on the side of caution. What’s more, Trump lies even when he must know that no-one could be stupid enough to believe it. Either because it’s such a poorly-spun or outlandish falsehood, or because the truth of the matter is already well-known. Disquietingly, there are times where you can see it written plainly on his face, the magical thinking at work in that addled brain. He’s positive he’s such a skilful fabricator and so incredibly, hypnotically convincing that he can somehow override all the contradictory evidence and make people buy into his bullshit.
I also think he fits the bill as a nigh-sociopathic manipulator, in terms of how he uses people for all they’re worth and then throws them away like fucking soiled rags. I mean, we all know that politics is not a chummy knitting-circle where everyone’s incredibly gracious and smiley and slices of homemade lemon cake are handed out halfway through. It’s pretty much the polar opposite, in fact. Politics is a lonely, ruthless game filled with people who principally form relationships based on favour-trading and who will always put their personal ambition before all other considerations. Always has been; probably always will be. If you understand the basic, inextricable selection pressures at work there, you understand why that is. It’s pretty straightforward really. And, hey, let’s not pretend we don’t all like to hear grizzled Beltway insiders wryly rattle off go-to lines like “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” (After all, if we didn’t find the uniquely unsentimental attitude of politicos fascinating, there wouldn’t be a whole bustling genre of TV and film depicting the endless sequence of both large and small insouciant betrayals which constitutes the day-to-day handling of business in D.C. It can’t have escaped your notice that the more unpleasant the political world becomes, the more the hunger for dramatizations of it grows.) But even by this cut-throat standard, Trump still manages to stand out.
The reason why his particular M.O. is so disturbing is not just due to the irony of him demanding extreme, unwavering, downright truckling ‘loyalty’ from everyone around him, but also because he understands the high cost that anyone who hitches themselves to his train has already paid just by being there in the first place. The thing about run-of-the-mill exploitation by politicians is that, well, let’s say you’re a campaign whiz and you helped some nobody get elected and then once they’re a bigshot senator you get dropped like a bad habit. Sure enough, you were coldheartedly fucked over. But the reality is you just lost a job. You still have that impressive experience on your resume now, so you’re walking away with that one positive at least. You can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and hopefully go find someone else who wants your services.
The thing about Trump is that when you go work for him, you know that his noxious stink is on you forever. To be clear: believe me, I don’t feel any sympathy for these political mercenaries either. They’re usually the kind of low-quality people (both in terms of their skills and their, shall we say, rectitude) where if they were one of four candidates vying for a position you were seeking to fill, they would unquestionably rank as your fifth choice, right behind just straight-up dissolving your business rather than having them attached to it. But that riffraff is all Trump’s really able to attract, so he takes what he can get. My point is Trump knows that by joining his team, they are sacrificing themselves — probably their career prospects, even in GOP circles, but most definitely their personal reputations — in service to him. Because however much de facto prestige attaches to having worked in the White House, it will be outweighed by the immense dishonour of having worked in this one. Trump may be inexplicably scandal-proof, but his staff sure as fuck are not. He’s like a guy standing on a street corner in a bulletproof box gleefully inviting drive-by shootings and laughing about how he doesn’t feel a thing, whilst the retinue crowded around him are all supine and groaning from gut-shots.
And what do these disposable peons get for their trouble? It’s not enough for them to be cast aside once their utility is expended, because Trump fundamentally thinks like a mob boss and a mob boss considers that anyone no longer on the payroll knows too much and is thus a potential enemy. Those loose threads have to be tied up. That’s why time and time again — we’re definitely not starved of examples given the staggering number of people discarded and/or purged from this administration — Trump pre-emptively resorts to scorched-earth tactics the moment someone’s cleared out their desk and had their entry badge confiscated. He’ll schedule an interview with some tame ‘reporter’ to repetitively badmouth the person in. Y’know, he’ll say the usual stuff. Trot out the tried-and-true classics. He’ll talk about what a useless loser they are. He’ll stress that none of their colleagues liked or respected them, and covertly begged for their ouster. He’ll claim that only his own munificence and overdeveloped sense of pity prevented them from justifiably being shitcanned sooner. Maybe even name some embarrassing times when they messed up badly, just for good measure. He’s trying to strike first so that if they do opt to share some negative insights about him or the operation he’s running, it will merely seem like they’re mad about being fired or mad about being publicly trashed afterwards and so now they’re making things up to get even. And then even in those rare cases where he’s not outright slamming the person once they’re gone, he’s at least disavowing them and downplaying the role they played. This is a less aggressive approach, but still just an attempt to insulate himself at their expense. He’s hoping to erase any hazardous connection before it can be used against him in the future; should new information come to light which paints them as shady figures, he can now claim a degree of separation from that. These tactics aren’t necessarily all that effective, especially if you have as little credibility as he does. But when you’re not flush with options, you take what you can get I suppose. I’m sure if Trump were literate enough to bone up on history, he’d rather envy the way that Stalin was bold enough to just airbrush former associates out of their photos together.
You could maybe understand Trump’s mentality when the target is someone who’s signalled they’re likely to start bashing him now they’re on the outside. (A lucrative have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy for them, given how exceptionally ravenous the media is for such turncoats. To hold them up and fete them and give them a golden megaphone. Nothing you say is believable whilst you’re working for Trump but once you’re kicked out and you have a financial incentive to tell people what they want to hear, suddenly your words are immaculate and incontestable truth. Funny old thing, that.) Yet what’s really stunning is that he will sometimes throw someone under the bus even when that person, despite having been ejected, is still full-throatedly singing his praises and kissing his ass. As I touched on earlier, the concept of loyalty is profoundly unidirectional for Trump. In fact, he may even come at them harder than normal, as though he’s disdainful of their continued long-distance sycophancy. That gives you a peek into the using-the-whole-buffalo-of-cruelty which underpins Trumpian psychology. He hates you and will seek to destroy you if you’re not enough of a yes-man but then he’ll also be disgusted by you if you don’t have enough backbone to stop fawning once you’ve been bounced out of there.
I’ll grant you, Trump doesn’t turn on absolutely every single person he’s thrown away. Yeah, once in a while he’ll sling a belated pardon to this guy or half-heartedly stick up for that guy publicly. But if you look closely at these anomalous examples, he typically has a self-interested reason for doing so. It’s not simply out of the goodness of his heart — if you can believe it. Perhaps you refused to testify against him in some court case and just took the prison time like a good foot-soldier should, and so he wants to reward you/buy your continued omertà-esque silence. Or perhaps the hardcore MAGA folk in his base have formed some kind of attachment to you and an emotional investment in your fate. Perhaps although he was forced to get rid of you because you were just too toxic in that particular moment, he can see some valuable further use for you down the line when the dust has settled and it’s possible for you to quietly return to the fold. See what I’m saying? He’s merely working the angles. It’s strategic when he disowns you and tears you to shreds, and it’s just as strategic when he almost seems capable of some scintilla of kindness. That’s the kind of person he is. Don’t get me wrong: it’s never especially clever or subtle strategy but it’s an attempt at strategy nonetheless.
However, there are indeed instances where Trump’s impulsiveness and emotional volatility get the better of him, times where his dinged pride is the overriding factor and he lashes out even though it’s not in his interest to do so. This is most apparent when he goes about burning bridges even with people still inside his administration. He’ll go full-force after those who he perceives to not be, or rather to no longer be, slavishly obedient enough but who he also cannot fire (at least, not yet.) The thing about very publicly and very severely laying into someone who you still have to work with and still need things from is you’re really just shooting yourself in the foot. It’s so foolish. Unless they’re the type of styrofoam-spined pushover who will wilt and capitulate simply because they can’t take the public tongue-lashing, you’re only going to make them more embittered and more entrenched in their unwillingness to do as you ask. The shrewd way to play it, assuming you’re unswayed by ethical considerations, would be to put on a fake smile and extend an olive branch and hopefully repair the relationship enough to get what you want. Or, failing that, to try to find some leverage over them or discern what they’re open to trading their cooperation for.
We probably ought to be thankful, really, that Trump is so petulantly thin-skinned that he’s often unable to be strategically-minded when it matters most.
Trump, by his own admission, is a lecherous little creep. It’s not enough for him to habitually make women uncomfortable with his sleazy verbal advances or to objectify women by rating their attractiveness publicly. Because he is who he is, he can’t leave it at just that. He can’t just cross the line, he has to venture several kilometres beyond it and set up shop there. Just to take one very illustrative example, he has glibly bragged about using his status/power as the owner of various beauty pageants to nonchalantly barge into the backstage changing rooms whilst the women in there are unclothed. He is ostensibly referring to adult pageants in those remarks, but several former contestants from the Miss Teen USA event have alleged that Trump also pulled this disgusting shit there too. And as the name suggests, these were teenage girls that he would have been trying to see naked. Some as young as fifteen apparently. (In light of this, one can’t help but recall that Trump still enthusiastically endorsed the thoroughly stomach-turning and despicable Roy Moore AFTER the latter was accused of sexually preying on girls as young as fourteen. Trump did this even though the Republican establishment — who are morally gaunt at the best of times, and usually willing to tolerate some seriously repellent bedfellows if electoral math demands it — had taken the rare step of beginning to wash their hands of Moore. Something to ponder, perhaps?)
And, of course, in the now colossally notorious ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, Trump is outrightly boasting about being able to use his celebrity to get away with sexually assaulting women. At the time, many of his defenders feebly tried to dispute that this was the plain meaning of his words or to otherwise obfuscate the matter, which was an absurd and foul attempt to gaslight the entire world. But he said what he said and we all know it. We also all intuitively understand not only why Trump treats women in that heinous way, but furthermore why it would be poised on the tip of his tongue when trying to puff himself up and seem impressive to a fellow shit-for-brains schmuck. To echo Maya Angelou’s famous prescription: he is showing you exactly what type of person he is, in the core of his being, and all you have to do is believe him.
(This is a minor point given the gravity of what we’re discussing, but I think it’s still potentially worth noting that this whole thing highlights one of the many diseased paradoxes at the heart of Trump’s psychology. He’s always claiming to be irresistible to women, and yet it would seem that he’s also intent upon finding various ways to steal titillation from them or even to physically force himself on them. I’m sure this disconnect doesn’t even occur to him. How could it? I imagine he thinks that those women should just be glad that this
gross buffoon golden god is deigning to pay them any attention. They might pretend they don’t want it, but that must just be coyness, because it’s only logical that being ogled or groped by a man like Trump should seem like winning the lottery to them. I mean, god. You want to take a very, very long shower with industrial-strength bleach just envisioning this mindset. Moreover, I really do feel so badly for all the people who’ve suffered some kind of sexual victimization and who had to watch this man become president, because it’s really not hard to see how it would reawaken that trauma to some degree.)
And if somehow you still need a little help imagining Trump as a sexual predator, I suppose you could peruse the stories of the more than two dozen women who have publicly accused him of everything from ‘sexual misconduct’ — a paltry euphemism, I agree, but hard to find a better general-purpose synonym for it — all the way to rape. Now, as always, I think it’s important to remember that accusations are accusations and they aren’t transmogrified into concrete truth just because you loathe the person enough or because the alleged behaviour seems to fit an existing pattern. That being said, it would also be silly to deny that there’s a certain strength-in-numbers factor that collectively amplifies their believability. And, let’s not forget, those are just the women brave enough to make these claims on the record and endure the ensuing onslaught of harassment and defamation. That there are likely others who fearfully opted for self-preservation and kept their lips sealed and their head below the parapet, I don’t see how anyone could possibly doubt. Nor can I see how one could possibly blame them. If you know the all-too-common real-world consequences of saying something damaging about a figure who a fair number of armed lunatics worship with white-hot intensity, you ought to understand how ghastly it is that people who’ve had something horrific happen to them are then haughtily expected to put their lives in danger in order to speak about it.
There are a lot of forms that misogyny can take. And Trump is the kind of dyed-in-the-wool misogynist who’s a jack-of-all-trades, if you will. He employs several rather modern forms, which are more subtle or needling, such as being condescendingly impressed when a woman is able to do a traditionally male job just as well as a man or implying that female anger towards him must be caused by menstrual hysteria. However, when he says — as he very much fucking did — that he can’t have sexually assaulted a particular woman because she’s too ugly, it’s more like an inconceivably vile throwback to dark bygone eras. (If you happen to want to nauseate yourself with the actual quotes, here you go. “She’s not my type,” he said in one case. “Look at her, I don’t think so,” he said in a different case. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” he said in yet another. Curiously, he declined to specify who his first choice to rape would be. I’ve contacted his office for comment, but they’ve yet to respond. I’ll be clicking refresh on my email inbox every five to ten minutes. I’m sure your breath is almost as bated as my own.) It is, I would argue, him importing into the present day a downright medieval form of misogyny. Can’t you just imagine some feudal lord saying that kind of shit with a sneer as his grotesque flock of retainers let out a belly laugh?… Well, to see what the modern version looks like, you need only go look up the videos of Trump mocking his accusers at his rallies and the crowd roaring in approval. It’s one of those sights which will make you angry for the rest of the week. Know what I mean? You’ll be confused why you’re clenching your jaw and cutting your steak a little too aggressively several days later and then you’ll remember, oh yeah, that goddamn video. The more you think about it and its implications, the more it gets under your skin like a splinter. He’s reviving the spirit of a savage age where women were regarded as contemptible little toys to be used however powerful men pleased, and he’s so confident in both his impunity and the untapped receptive audience for this he’s even doing it in front of an array of television cameras, and it’s so repulsive that trying to convey how repulsive it really is through mere words seems like a bad joke.
I think at this point there’s no question that he’s a racist. And it appears to be primarily rooted in the fact that he looks down on and is even disdainfully perplexed by people of colour. There’s reason to believe that this is probably a lifelong prejudice he’s harboured, but I would venture to say that it was surely hardened and intensified when a substantial majority of non-white voters opposed him in the 2016 election, because he profoundly despises anyone who rejects him. I suspect that in the sad little fantasy world Trump lives in, he finds it utterly, maddeningly inexplicable that anyone would ever either dislike him or stand against him. It just doesn’t make sense. Don’t they see how infinitely charismatic he is?! Don’t they realize that he, and he alone, has the extraordinary ability and insight needed to improve everything in the country overnight?! Don’t black Americans understand that when he says “what the hell do you have to lose?” he’s sympathizing with their meaningless little lives in their wretched little ghettos? I mean, it’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out in frustration. (Though in his case I’m sure the prospect of undoing some frighteningly expensive and no doubt highly arcane/unholy procedures would stay his hand.) Ultimately, when so many white people voted for him but so few POC did, I believe that just reinforced some longstanding us-vs-them feelings he had from growing up in the very, very white domain of extreme affluence, and inserted a note of bitter resentment there too. He felt he was owed gratitude from non-white America for even going to the trouble of pretending to care about it. Instead, it denounced him. So in his mind — which, if you want help picturing it, looks a bit like a gaudily gold-plated Rube Goldberg machine designed to manufacture opportunities for indignant self-pity — it was a double insult.
It’s also undeniable that his political ascendency is partially due to him unashamedly appealing to racial anxiety and racial animus and just xenophobia in general. When he peddled the equally repulsive and ridiculous birtherism horseshit, when he proposed banning all Muslim immigrants, when he said there were “some very fine people” amongst white-supremacist protestors, when he praised people flying confederate flags and made protecting confederate statues a massive priority, when he savaged black NFL players for silently kneeling but then also wanted the George Floyd street protests to be crushed by the military, and so on, what was he doing? He was sending a message that he knew would cut through the noise and reach certain antennas attuned to it. Other politicians of his ilk at least try to be somewhat subtle about it. Maybe you occasionally throw out a pained comment about how ‘our’ culture and ‘our’ way of life is being threatened by ‘outsiders’ and ‘homegrown subversives’ who ‘hate America’ or ‘hate its history’. Maybe you content yourself with merely saying that that grand, heroic monument to some Confederate massacrist ought to stay up because it’s a part of ‘our country’s story’ — even though, y’know, it’s actually part of an entirely separate country’s story, a hostile country which barely lasted four years and was consecrated to preserving the notion that human beings of a particular colour are only fit to be cattle. But, like, that’s about it. You don’t overdo it. You try to stay low-key. You hope that enough of the right people will be able to put the pieces together and see what you’re getting at. Trump knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe though. He had to make one-hundred-percent sure he got through to all of his target constituency and won their allegiance. After all, when your election victory comes down to how less than 80,000 people voted, your margin of error is very close to nil relatively speaking.
That’s why he purposefully held the dog-whistle up to a bullhorn and made it very clear to those white Americans who feel like white America is in danger of somehow being eclipsed and supplanted, whether culturally or demographically or in terms of political power, that he understands their grievance. They were sick of being told to shut up. Sick of being ridiculed, of being ignored or refuted. For a presidential candidate who had won his party’s primary to validate them and their beliefs must have been electrifying. Not some hatemonger crackpot with a radio show, not some fringe provocateur perpetually hawking a new book, but finally someone real. The ultimate get, in fact: Trump was on the cusp of becoming the most powerful man on the planet. I’m sure they couldn’t believe their luck. All their birthdays had come at once. They had made do with clowns and nobodies for so long; now they were poised to bag a king as their advocate. He could actually get things done for them, and help mainstream their bigoted ideas.
It was a no-brainer that they’d throw their weight behind him and do everything possible to ensure he was elected. Their messiah had, at long last, arrived on the scene. Someone who can turn back the hands of time. Because these people want to go back to a highly-mythologized ‘simpler time’ in American history — which, hilariously enough, most of them weren’t even alive for — where white dominance of discourse and politics created a sort of comfortable, idyllic stasis and there wasn’t all these headaches about racial justice. So, yes, please, let’s have a “law and order” president (READ: white-preferencing authoritarian) in the White House who’ll keep those “thuggish protestors” (READ: uppity, bellyaching minorities) in their place. And thankfully we also needn’t worry about them daring to try to move into our nice upscale area, because Trump wants “suburban housewives” (READ: white middle-class female voters — the dope even helpfully put the euphemism in scare quotes himself!) to know that he won’t ever let “low income housing” (READ: high-melanin poor people) “invade their neighbourhood” and spoil everything.
Again, appealing to this rancid section of American society definitely isn’t the only reason he won, but it’s an inextricable part of it. Let me put it like this, and tell me if you disagree: by no means was every Trump voter a racist, but every single racist was a Trump voter. That’s not a trivial feat. Politicians usually don’t even dare to hope that they might net 100% of a particular group’s vote, but Trump did the impossible. And in doing so, he reminded every other conservative politician out there that the thing about people who genuinely lose sleep over ‘white genocide’ and ‘cultural marxism’ is that if you can convince them you share their worldview — which, usefully, can be done somewhat deniably via hints and coded language — they are guaranteed votes for you. No matter what other areas of disagreement they might have with you, you’ve just activated their latent potential to become a single-issue voter. You’re also awakening a decent-sized number of habitual non-voters who are disaffected with national-level politics because nobody’s willing to go far-right enough for their tastes, and you’re getting them to the ballot box and probably even getting them to electioneer for your campaign. When you’re the underdog running against a political powerhouse like Hillary Clinton, securing this kind of boost is something you’ll chase at all costs.
Trump is really the very worst sort of narcissist. It goes without saying that he’s impossibly vain, as was made evident by the rampant ‘stage management’ — for lack of a better term — during his presidency, where everything was made to comport with and bolster his lofty, quasi-imperial image of himself. For example, remember all those so-called cabinet meetings he would invite the press to watch? Boy were they pathetic spectacles. Their sole purpose was to stroke Trump’s ego. That’s it. He’d spend the bulk of the time just crowing about his supposed achievements whilst his staff nodded along enthusiastically, and then they would eventually pipe up to laud him for his supposed achievements like ventriloquist dummies. (You can understand why Trump thought he and Kim Jong-un would have a natural kinship and rapport, given their shared penchant for ‘praise the dear leader’ sessions.) It was a ridiculous exercise, one that only someone as delusional as Trump could believe would be believable or impressive. I would venture to say that it was also intended to humiliate his cabinet a little bit, by making them bow and kiss the ring in public and thus further emphasizing who’s the boss. Trump really does have a tic for petty shows of asserting dominance. Anything he can do to redelineate the pecking order for everyone to see, he’ll find a way to cram it into the busy daily schedule of a president, rest assured. World War III could be breaking out and his presence could be urgently needed in the Situation Room and he’d still be roaming the halls looking for some hack reporter to take down a quote about how he’s the one who’s president and don’t forget that the president is the commander-in-chief and the final decision about something is his to make and the generals report to him and not the other way round and etc, etc. His whole life is a continual symphony of self-aggrandizement. I mean, it’s certainly not played very well. It’s an atonal, ear-fatiguing mess produced by an orchestra of vuvuzelas. But it’s blasted out at max fucking volume, and that serves his purposes well enough.
The other notable aspect about Trump’s narcissism is the stark emotional dichotomy at the heart of it: when he’s not morosely self-pitying and insecure and desperate for validation, he’s enraged and childishly lashing out in all directions because he didn’t get it. This is perhaps most evident when considering his love-hate relationship with the press. And by ‘press’, I’m of course not referring to the outlets which exist simply to sniff his throne and enthuse at great length about how delightfully and bewitchingly fragrant it is, the outlets which just function as signal-boosters for his own PR machine. I’m talking about revered, respected institutions like, say, the New York Times. They’re a perfect example, actually. There’s no question that Trump longs for their approval. It would be his wet dream to see a positive story about him on the front page. Not because he likes or admires the people who write for the Times — I’m sure he very much doesn’t — but because he knows the cachet attached to getting well-reviewed by the prestige press. That’s something he can’t just artificially contrive. Nor can he simply buy it. Which, for someone who has all the money in the world, is just about the most tantalizing prize of all. It’s not like purchasing your spot on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ so you can have a cheesy photoshoot next to one of those stars. You have to actually earn it. It’s also something he knows that no amount of shoddy substitutes can serve as an equivalent to. He knows that all of Fox News’ slavering paeans to his greatness aren’t worth a hill of beans. It’s like strutting around wearing a bad fake-Rolex and emphatically showing it off to everyone you pass: it’s shiny and it looks a bit like the real thing but it has no real value, symbolically or otherwise, and anyone who remotely understands what they’re looking at will just find it laughable and sad.
Trump wanted the real thing. And chased it almost his entire presidency, in various ways. It was something he just couldn’t let go. From time to time, like clockwork, he’d take another stab at it. I mean, look, he gave the NYT an exclusive full-length, sit-down interview even as late as 2019. He had already spent years bashing them by name and attacking their credibility and claiming nothing they said mattered in the slightest, and he also knew full well that trying to persuade the Times’ readership to vote for him was hopeless. This all only seems like a contradiction if you’re not keeping in mind that Trump wants something from the paper itself, something that can’t be extorted or stolen, but rather has to be given freely. That’s why he was willing to sit down and talk and make nice. He’s a native New Yorker: the New York Times means something to him, has a special significance. He was, I bet, still nursing adorable fantasies of waking up the next day and having someone hand him an early morning edition of the Times featuring a big grinning photo of him and the oversized headline: TRUMP DOING FANTASTIC JOB; ACTUALLY VERY COMPETENT PRESIDENT! He wants that trophy for his shelf, he wants to be able to check off that elusive box on his list of accomplishments. (It may seem inexplicable to you and I to pursue something that’s so obviously futile, but remember that this is someone who already ‘did the impossible’ by becoming president. He believes he can achieve anything he seeks to achieve.) And given he’ll stoop to framing totally fabricated magazine covers with him on — hmm, almost like some blockhead flashing a fugazi Rolex around, wouldn’t you say? — I really don’t get how anyone could dispute that he cares a great deal about this kind of thing.
Anyhow, that’s one side of the coin. The other side, as I mentioned earlier, is the temper tantrums he throws when the press doesn’t play ball with his attempts at self-aggrandizement. So many of his press conferences just descended into lengthy verbal battles when reporters inevitably started asking him questions he didn’t like. I say ‘inevitably’ because, well, let’s not beat around the bush here. His presidency was almost always in a screaming tailspin. And he took great umbrage whenever anyone had the gall to point that out. Because when he’s confronted by a critical question it just reminds him that as much as he wants these people to fawn over him, it’s just not going to happen; the press are just going to keep shining a 1000-watt prison-yard spotlight on all his awful qualities and poor choices. That’s when he sees red and goes on the offensive, trying to tear them down. He’s like an incel whose soul is so appallingly ugly that they have no chance of finding love, and so they then conveniently decide that all women are actually evil bitches and they don’t even need female affection in the first place. Sadly, this kind of response stems from an age-old psychological mechanism for protecting your pride. It abounds in people who never had the normal childhood growth-experience of learning how to deal with disappointment in a healthy way. And then if you’re sufficiently twisted, this is what happens when you end up consumed by that desire for something you cannot have: you feel a violent hate for the group you perceive to be withholding it from you, and you seek to belittle and revile them so that you can kid yourself that you’ve ‘taken the power back’ from them and they’re in fact not even worth wanting anything from. A disturbing feedback loop which just increases in intensity over time. The longer you are ‘forced’ to go without, the more your animosity builds and builds. Perhaps even to the point that you’ll find some pretext to threaten a reporter with prison time once an interview turns combative, and, in the next breath, you’ll then revealingly make the bitter throwaway comment “go have fun with your story. Because I’m sure it will be the 28th horrible story I have in Time magazine.” Surely no connection to be made there, is there?
I will say, the one thing you can’t deny about Trump is that he’s remarkably indefatigable, even when sparring with a hostile press corps for like an hour straight. Most politicians try to avoid open press conferences as much as possible because they know they’ll flounder or shrivel under sustained questioning. Or else they have labelled seating plans taped to the lectern and only go to friendly faces who’ll lob them softballs… To give the man his due, you can’t say that about Trump. He has a certain fearlessness when it comes to this kind of thing. He just barges headfirst into the fracas. I don’t mean to say he’s giving good, intelligent answers in his own defence or that he’s coming across well. Far from it: he has all the dignity and composure of a cantankerous barfly yelling gibberish at everyone who complains about his odour. But all the same, Trump’s willing to go toe-to-toe with all comers and not give an inch, and it’s not hard to see why that endeared him to his followers. He tries to dominate everyone he comes into contact with (e.g. his cringeworthy grab-and-yank handshakes with foreign leaders, where he does his best to dislocate their shoulder) and there are plenty of simpletons out there who are impressed by that ‘alpha male’ bullshit. It satisfies some primal leader-worship thing in them when they see him supposedly winning a pointless shouting match. It’s just toothless, inarticulate bellicosity on his part, but it does the job. Somewhere deep in the ancestral recesses of their brains, it gets registered as “our tribe has a strong chieftain; our tribe is secure”, and they feel a bit better, a bit safer without quite being able to explain why. It’s a pleasant feeling and they come to associate that pleasant feeling with their fandom of Trump. This is one way that very strong emotional ties to a particular political figure can be formed.
These same people also like it when he starts the name-calling and the insult-slinging which is his bread and butter. Just as he is quintessentially a poor person’s idea of a rich guy — almost like a caricature of a vulgar tycoon stamped into human form — he’s also pretty much a stupid person’s idea of a tough guy. Or, at least, a tough-guy politician. He’s willing to make fun of his opponents in cutting, personal ways that are usually seen as taboo. Being willing to cross this line is somehow seen as passing a test of courage by his supporters. I suppose their implicit logic is that it’s really the only one that can be levied on a non-contact sport like politics: do you have the balls to take verbally assaulting your debate-foes to the next level? Furthermore, they see Trump’s sharp tongue as being evidence of a sharp mind. He’s outsmarting people with his much better comebacks, is the idea. The reality, of course, is that to recur to my previous comparison, he’s about as adroit in any battle of wits as a drunk heckler. You just pick something mean and offensive to yell at someone and then keep yelling it at them, between hiccups and vomit-burps, until they turn around and leave in disgust. But to him and the hyperdolts who love to watch that, that counts as a victory. He apparently just shut that person down with sheer masculine force of will.
Predictably though, because Trump’s an unstable man-child with an unbelievably fragile ego, he’s someone who can dish it out but cannot take it. As with a million other things, this is an attribute which his supporters would despise in a regular person encountered in everyday life, but oddly decline to even notice about him. He more or less has a fucking conniption whenever he feels like he’s been insulted. How many times did he whine to high heaven about Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of him on SNL? Now, I wouldn’t deny that SNL can go way beyond lampooning into really just vicious and repulsive territory. (For instance, anyone with an intact frontal lobe understands Jeff Sessions is a contemptible guy, but I remember seeing a skit where — ostensibly just mocking his physical appearance — he’s implied to be some kind of freakish human-animal hybrid who gives kids nightmares and even has a long rat tail or some shit. I don’t know how anyone can watch that and not feel dirty. It’s not satire: it has no message to convey or legitimate critique to advance. It really is just playground-level recreational cruelty. If there was a conservative-leaning version of SNL and it degraded figures on the left in that way, liberals would lose their minds with indignant fury.) However, based on the snippets I’ve seen of Baldwin’s performances, it doesn’t appear that SNL is any harsher or more meanspirited towards Trump than Trump is to his political and ideological enemies. Not by a long shot. Which is why it’s so embarrassing that when that kind of stuff comes back his way, the big bully turns into such a hypersensitive little crybaby. How can anyone possibly respect that?
And what’s even worse is that he’s so petty he’ll hold onto these grudges pretty much forever. Y’know, it’s funny, I’ve read that people used to talk about Bill Clinton having an impressive command of the facts, in that he was able to memorize and then rattle off all these policy details or statistics. Well, Trump actually has much that same power of recall. I know it’s surprising, but trust me he does. He just doesn’t — probably cannot — apply it to the execution of his duties as president. (And, really, why would you bother trying to? You’re only doing probably the most important and consequential job in the world… Might as well half-ass it out of sheer laziness.) What he does instead is maintain a meticulous mental rolodex in which is recorded the names and crimes of everyone who has ever criticised his conduct or insulted him or committed any kind of perceived slight against him whatsoever, no matter how small. And he’s permanently waiting for any opportunity to revenge himself on any one of them in any way possible, no matter how infantile a form it must take. You see him pouncing on some seemingly random celebrity via Twitter, right when they’re embroiled in some scandal and he can kick them while they’re down, and of course it turns out that in some magazine interview from like 2010 they said something disobliging about him in passing. And you just think to yourself: my god, what kind of pathology must you have to be so stupendously wealthy and to then attain the single most prestigious position possible and yet still dwell on how bitter you are about some barbed remark some stranger made about you a decade ago.
And sometimes it won’t be even as clear-cut as that. Sometimes the bizarre vendetta he’s waking from its hibernation is based on some snub that’s so microscopic and meaningless that it’s basically impossible to put your finger on as an outside observer. I don’t know how it makes you feel that the President of the United States allocates so much brainspace to such trifling score-settling, but I’ll say this: if this guy was your neighbour, you’d want to move ASAP, wouldn’t you? Rather than have to hear him complain once again about how your Christmas decorations were clearly intended to clash with his and he considers that a grievous personal attack on him and he’s not going to let this one go and anyway look at you with your cheap car and your eyesore wife and don’t think for even a second that blah blah blah…
I don’t want this to sound rude or unfair, but I’m honestly just not sure how else to put it: all signs point to the fact that Trump has the intellectual curiosity of a fucking mollusc.
(Alright, you got me. Maybe I did want to be just a teensy bit rude. Please don’t deny me one of the small joys which serve as a bolstering pick-me-up when you’re discharging ??,000 words about someone you violently detest.)
There’s a couple different ways in which that judgment’s true, I think. The most pertinent to his role as president is that he seems almost allergic to ingesting new information with functional import. This is vital stuff we’re talking about here: wide-ranging data about what’s happening in the country, classified intelligence amassed about internal threats and foreign adversaries, and so on. A president must be well-versed in such things and always up-to-date about them, because that allows them to make better, more educated decisions. Whereas Trump seems to view this aspect of his job as unimportant. He admits that he skips as many daily briefings as he can. And of course it was reported that even when he does submit to be briefed on something, his staff have learned that everything must be condensed down into slideshows with lots of colourful charts and pictures in the hope of holding his attention for longer than five minutes straight. Not to put too fine a point on this, but that’s a technique which exasperated elementary-school teachers also take refuge in. I mean, I’ve heard it said that likening Trump to a child is overdone by his haters because they’re such an unoriginal hivemind… To which I would say, the stupefying surfeit of reasons to objectively compare him to a child is surely the culprit instead. A man in a position of massive responsibility who acts like a little boy demands to be mocked for it, in other words. You can hardly blame the people taking up that invitation.
I suspect it’s not just that Trump has no desire to learn the things he ought to know. And not just because he finds the briefing process tedious, which it probably can be, but also just out of a fundamentally ingrained predisposition. It’s more so that he thinks he shouldn’t even have to. He is someone who’s clearly quite prone to magical thinking, and never more so than when it comes to notions of his own superiority. He believes he’s not subject to the same requirements or limitations as other people. And in this case, that manifests as him deciding that he doesn’t really need those reams of dull, practical information at his disposal in order to make smart decisions. He can just wing it and trust his gut. His business-honed instincts are so exceptional, so infallible that he need only eyeball a problem and make a snap-judgment and it won’t ever steer him wrong. And, hey, when you’re ultimately assessing almost any given matter from the standpoint of what will benefit you most politically, it’s not surprising you’d be uninterested by preconditions and outcomes. You need only concern yourself with the public’s perception of whatever you choose to do. This is why more effort is put into marketing the decisions than making them. And the great thing about this slipshod approach is that when it does sometimes come back and bite you on the ass, you can just try to cover it up. Simply fudge things a bit after the fact, to make it seem like you were actually well-informed and knew what you were doing all along. And naturally this will be done with such exquisite subtlety and sophistication that it’s basically undetectable, à la sharpiegate.
I just don’t understand how any American, of any political stripe, can read about Trump’s aversion to briefings and not be disturbed. A president intentionally keeping himself underinformed about crucial things, solely because he has a short attention span and a lack of self-discipline? A president who won’t even bridge the gaps in his own knowledge by leaning on experts, because he feels threatened by them having the upper-hand and as such can only seek to deride and diminish them? What a scandalous state of affairs. The insurmountable problem with Trump is that this is a guy who wanted to be president for the shallowest and most superficial of reasons. He just coveted the lofty aesthetic trappings. He was looking forward to the grandeur of walking down the steps from Air Force One or of intoning “my fellow Americans” into the television cameras set up in the Rose Garden. Really, he wanted to play the president in a movie. He didn’t want to be the president in real life. He has no taste for the decidedly unsexy hard work of actually running the country, nor does he feel any need to try and cultivate it in himself. The only thing worse than laziness or ineptitude is the conscious, steadfast refusal to remedy your shortcomings and rise to an occasion.
All the dismissive hand-waving about how, don’t worry, a president is really just a ‘figurehead’ or just a ‘face’ is just flat-out wrong. People like that simply do not understand the full breadth of decision-making which falls to the executive-in-chief. Much of which is their sole and incontestable authority. Yes, once upon a time, there was the quaint notion that in any period of relative stability and normality (e.g. outside of wartime), the president’s power and influence should properly recede and they should really just serve as a rudder steering things in the right direction and occasionally provide a tiebreaking antidote to gridlock, whilst congress deals with all the nuts-and-bolts stuff. I’m sure it’s debatable whether that principle was ever put into practice or whether it was always just lip service and/or daydreams from the kind of people who think that ‘separation of powers’ should mean what it says. But it definitely doesn’t bear even the slightest resemblance to the role as we know it today. The ‘imperial presidency’ model which currently exists is one where, as the name suggests, the president is empowered to exert surprisingly minute control over many areas of government — for one thing, firing off volleys of executive orders to circumvent congress is just the done thing now — and no-one blinks an eye when they do. I suspect there’s even a fair share of Americans who, whether they’d state it plainly or not, rather want the president to have this sort of monarchal supremacy and to exercise a comforting “the buck stops here” finality in their edicts. (Well, at least, they want that when their party wins the presidency…) The danger is that when a president doesn’t take their job and its awesome power seriously, you have all these important things being decided by someone who’s rendered themselves incapable of sound judgement. So you end up with a cornerstone of the government being made out of fucking compacted sawdust. Things are bound to collapse sooner or later.
To switch gears now, I think there’s something to be said about how Trump’s… hmm, how to put it… literary deficiencies are talked about. Because it’s such an easy target for ridicule and so often availed of in that manner. Obviously it’s no secret that Trump doesn’t read books, doesn’t like or particularly care for books in any way. And, true enough, this bibliophobia is not exactly the trait you’d most wish for in a president. Buuuut I also don’t believe it’s the fatal flaw that a lot of snobby commentators assert it is. I don’t think you need to be working your way through your fourth re-read of the entire western canon in other to be a good leader. It’s much, much more important that you have the sort of practical wisdom which is actually quite difficult to just strip-mine from a stocked bookcase. It’s instead derived principally from hands-on experience, from your own store of common sense, and from direct tutelage by mentors, and then it’s moulded by the quality of your character. (And the capacity for this wisdom isn’t owned by any one political leaning or school of thought. It ought to be non-dogmatic and fundamentally syncretic. If something is true, it’s true. If something is useful, it’s useful. Its origin or wrapper is irrelevant. Listen, just don’t let the distorting, mistrustful lens of partisanship obscure the obviousness of obvious things and you’ll be halfway down the right path already.)
I think we also all understand that when presidents talk about their reading habits, there’s typically a bit of… well, creative enlargement. I don’t know when the expectation was cemented that a president ought to be reading five different doorstop biographies of their distant predecessors at any given time, but I’m of the opinion that it is, y’know, a bit much. Especially when you consider that it should also really be coupled with, for super bonus-points, a carefully curated smattering of whatever contemporary fiction and non-fiction is currently in vogue, to suggest that — endearingly enough — you’re engrossed by the same mass-market bestsellers as the average joe. Remember when Obama was supposedly reading ‘The Girl on the Train’ one summer? Give me a break. Some aide earned their paycheck that day, that’s for sure. (I suppose you have to admire the chutzpah of telling everyone that their boss, between fielding calls from foreign leaders and defusing potential catastrophes, can’t get enough of this zeitgeisty potboiler thriller.) They’re smart enough to know that saying you’re returning to your dogeared copy of Tolstoy doesn’t exactly make you seem relatable to middle America.
Anyway, yes, Trump’s apparent inability to read for pleasure is unideal but there’s something past that which is infinitely more troubling. The loathsome metastasis of it comes in the cliched form of anti-intellectualism which Trump’s populism folds into its mix. Don’t just distrust all ‘elites’, particular distrust those who chiefly deal with language: journalists, authors, academics, etc. Because when your whole political style is based upon prattling on in the right tone of voice to amp up a rally crowd, you can’t have anyone unpacking what you actually said, can you? You’re just playing a role, you’re just saying whatever the hell you have to in order to get a reaction and make that vast swell of morons think you’re on their side. You can’t afford to have these comments parsed and dissected in the harsh light of day, because then people might see how hollow they are, how absurd they are, how many times you’ve contradicted yourself and promised chimerical nonsense. This is the tension at the heart of the populist gambit: you live and die on how well your gab performs, but you cannot ever afford to be taken at your word. That’s why you sow enmity towards any institution that will prompt people to do so. You make war upon the very concept of meaning, try mightily to destroy it. In that way, you seek to make yourself politically unsinkable because ultimately your voter base will be bonded to you on a subconscious emotional level that precedes and transcends and even overmasters language. Trumpism is no longer a set of policies that either will or will not be seen through; Trumpism is just that gratifying told-you-so glee which effervesces in your chest when you remember that all the liberal PC sheep told you this heinous candidate you’d glommed onto would never become president… but then he did!
“Sure, I may have said I’d do this or that or the other thing and then reneged, but no matter which specific pledges fall through, just remember that I’m realizing an abstract, totalizing philosophy called Make America Great Again, whose success is unmeasurable and unfalsifiable and which has no codified goals or endpoint. Merely by saying I’m doing it, I am doing it.” It’s all-encompassing and self-fulfilling, and that’s its mind-bending brilliance. With infomercial sleight of hand, it dressed up promising-nothing in the glittering facade of promising-everything, which made it a no-lose proposition for Trump. (One of the few transferable skills he did actually learn in the business world is how to rip off the buyer whilst still minimizing risk for yourself. A charming little trick, I’m sure you’ll agree.) It doesn’t make sense to you or I but it’s not intended to. In fact, the more you try to understand it, the less you can or will. Its impenetrability is why it works: practically the only way to interface with it is to buy into it or not buy into it. That’s why it somehow makes perfect sense to the people who believe in it like a religious prophecy. You have no problem following along once you’re on the other side. It actually becomes very straightforward. Let me explain. By being for MAGA, you are MAGA, and MAGA can fix any problem because a MAGAfied country has no problems by definition, and by pursuing MAGA, you automatically create MAGA. That’s simple maths. And wait, yep, just divide this by that and carry the one, and you know what you end up with? #KAG. That’s right, even though eventually Trump told you it was tragically impossible to do any of those fantabulous country-greatening improvements he sold you on, because of the Democrats’ evil obstructionism, he also actually did make America great anyway and now he needs you to cast that re-election ballot to keep it that way. I don’t know why you’re scrunching your face up. That’s logic so rock-solid you could pour it into a foundation pit and get planning permission to build a high-rise on top of it.
I’m sure you see how this all works, how the trap gets sprung. It’s Schrodinger’s greatness mixed with a splash of the Dickensian, wouldn’t you say? Because it’s simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times, depending on which one is more useful to the rhetoric you’re using in that particular moment. That way you get to not only tout the utopian transformation you’ve inaugurated, but you can also scaremonger about the imminent end-times too. It’s the political equivalent of a double-barrelled shotgun. The country is now so gosh darn amazing you have to vote for me again or that’ll vanish; the country is in such dire straits and so on the precipice of becoming a decrepit, freedom-less, socialist hellhole that you must vote for me to save yourself and your children. Again, you can understand why if you’re in Trump’s shoes you’d want to do everything in your power to stop people paying attention when any journalist worth their salary explains how this self-negating sophistry makes no sense at all. It’s like when David Copperfield sued that dude to prevent him publishing a book which revealed how famous magic tricks were done. Just as a magic trick has no power when it’s explained and demystified, Trump’s baffling verbal jujitsu disintegrates like wet tissue paper when you see it pulled apart. Whether that’ll be enough to deprogram the indoctrinated MAGA faithful over time, we can only hope. The problem is that as anyone who studies these things can tell you, the more ludicrous a cult’s creed is and the more it gets exposed as such by outsiders, the more its members tend to double down and become even more zealously committed. The parallels to this situation are plain. It’s a dispiriting catch-22 to ponder.
One of the things that make Trump so ineffective and so vulnerable as a president is his eagerness to believe anything that either directly or indirectly compliments him.
There are times when this is just an internal process in his mind, where he decides to believe that he is somehow capable of extraordinary, improbable, unprecedented deeds simply because of… well, I suppose just his inherent superhuman magnificence really. Anyone else would have failed to get [BLANK] done, but Trump is Trump, this amazing luminary capable of anything, and so it’ll be a doddle for him. A prime example of this thinking can be found in the way that he tries to befriend foreign dictators, such as Kim Jong-un. (Let’s put aside, for a second, the additional factor that this probably also stems from Trump’s affinity for and envy of them and their kingly, iron-fisted style of governing.) Certainly no-one would deny that in the strange realm of diplomacy it can sometimes be wise to pursue at the very least a publicly cordial relationship with even leaders of odious regimes — simply as a practical matter, in order to hopefully make negotiations easier and more fruitful because those leaders can then save face with the perception that they weren’t bullied into any concessions. Such is the unlovely calculus of realpolitik. You do whatever you have to do to massage the situation and manipulate your opponents in exploitable-later ways. Clichéd as the metaphor has become, it really is all just chess. And no-one kicks up a stink or raises a moral objection when a pawn is sacrificed to open up a cross-board strait to a lonely, cornered queen, do they? There’s an understanding that the game will have to be played hard, and played to win. But I don’t think that Trump can take refuge in this excuse. I don’t think anyone could attribute an attempt at tactical amiability to his conduct towards Kim Jong-un. Not when you read about the lavishly oleaginous letters Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged or the things Trump is reported to have said behind closed-doors during the summits. This was clearly far more ‘mutual admiration society’ than charm offensive. For his part, Trump may have been sincere during the lovefest, but I’m guessing that Kim Jong-un couldn’t believe his luck that his current American counterpart was such a gullible fool. (Whenever any western power tries to make nice with North Korea in order to get something done — surely one of the most well-tread dead-ends in all of 20th/21st century international diplomacy — I’m frankly just reminded of the fable of the scorpion and the frog… It’s pretty maddening to watch. It really has become a case of “Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us
twice seventeen times? Our bucket of shame runneth over.”)
But, all the same, Trump truly believed that he had done what no-one else could manage: win over Kim Jong-un and forge a real personal bond with him. And, just to emphasize the point I’m trying to make here, he believed this because he thought this impossible feat would redound to his credit. He imagined the world would see him as this powerful, charismatic alpha who’s such a force of nature that, lo and behold, he can even make ice-cold strongmen tyrants like and respect him. I’m sure he probably also told himself that there would be secondary benefits too. Getting those tyrants to esteem him will result in them… hmm, let’s see… really wanting to cooperate with him and thus be more inclined to grant concessions they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s complete fantasy, of course. But extreme egotists tend to have an extremely distorted view of reality. They are capable of anything they attempt; they can trick or seduce or enthrall anyone they meet; they are the glorious sun around which everything else revolves. It ain’t called a god-complex for nothing, you feel me?
Furthermore, when I mentioned Trump being made vulnerable by being so egotistically-credulous, here’s what I meant. He’s so desperately ravenous for any scrap of validation/approval that he fully buys into and internalises anything said to him under the guise of flattery. During his presidency, I used to think it was very funny how he’d periodically go on a retweeting spree where he’d fill his feed with the most preposterously hyperbolic ass-kissing you could imagine. The kicker was that you’d click through to the random ‘patriotic American’ accounts behind these tweets and I swear to god that nine times out of ten they were the most blatantly fake people/accounts you’ve ever seen in your entire fucking life. And we’re talking looooooow-effort fakes at that. It was so beyond absurd. The only available photo of them would be their profile picture of some generic, smiling, photogenic white person, which had clearly just been ganked straight from Google Images or Facebook or maybe even some stock-photo repository. Often, too, it would deliberately have been made very low-res — sometimes to the point of almost looking pixelated — presumably so that it would be harder for the real owner of the photo to reverse-image search it and find anyone who had misappropriated it. The other dead giveaway about these accounts is that they both weren’t very old and practically their entire output would be comprised of directly tweeting simplistic positive messages at Trump forty times a day. You know the kind of thing. Telling him he’s a genius and a maverick and a brave warrior-king battling valiantly against the forces of evil. Insisting that he’s outwitting all his foes and single-handedly reforging America into a shining city on the hill once more. Reassuring him that real Americans love him with all their hearts and will never fall for the ‘lies’ about him and that his sublime and spotless legacy makes children cry with pride. Et cetera, et cetera. And, of course, these accounts somehow have like 40k followers to give them a veneer of notability. A phantom audience probably sourced from all the other bots that are trying to catch Trump’s eye in the same way.
And, as I said, at the time I found it comical that Trump so frequently dips into this massive stream of slavering adulation whenever he needs a nice little ego boost or he’s in panic-mode and wants to prove that his latest scandal hasn’t damaged him in people’s eyes. It just seemed so transparent and ridiculous and pitiful. It’s the type of crutch that someone with the emotional-intelligence of a teenager would rely upon. However, at some point I read this great article — I wanna say it was on the NYT maybe — which suddenly made the whole thing seem extremely… unfunny. I should have bookmarked it because naturally I now can’t find it again with my decidedly amateur-level google-fu, especially given that there have been approximately ∞² articles written about all things related to Trump and social media. But anyhow I remember the gist of its analysis was that they had been tracking these bot-armies and how/why their collective messaging periodically shifted emphasis, and it seemed probable that foreign adversaries (i.e. Russia et al) were using them in a very targeted way to give positive reinforcement to all Trump’s worst instincts, to make him believe he enjoys greater national support on certain things than he actually does, and even to try and subtly mould his thinking about various topics. And when I read that, something clicked into place and I could see how dark this was. I don’t doubt that foreign intelligence agencies have always sought to gauge and, during rare moments of opportunity, affect any given president’s mindset. But something tells me that these efforts have had very small goals and were executed with considerable difficulty. Probably achieving meagre success in the end too. Yet here’s a case where their target is such an unbelievably narcissistic simpleton (a.k.a. supremely easy mark) that he will habitually go out of his way to voluntarily seek out and ingest, in substantial quantity, their attempts to psycho-manipulate him. And not only that, but it will make him happy to do so! I mean, holy mother of fuck. That’s really something. Imagine how overjoyed you’d be if you were some Kremlin intelligence officer tasked with burrowing your shadowy tendrils of influence into the American president’s brain. All you have to do is use fake tweets of praise as the silver platter on which to covertly serve up your emotional conditioning. What an absolute breeze. All your years of training in the most devilishly complex and refined forms of long-distance spycraft are surplus to requirements. You’d probably kick your feet up and be like “shit, I can start taking a lot of naps on the job now. Not really much left for me to do…”
I don’t think that a president being active, or even very active, on Twitter is necessarily a bad thing. (Though A) if they were smart, they’d use it solely as a one-way broadcasting medium, like leaving messages on a presidential noticeboard, and B) if I was among a president’s team of PR handlers, I imagine I’d advise them that it’s better to retain their mystique than to spew out every other half-baked or intemperate thought onto Twitter and show people that you’re unnervingly all-too-human after all.) That being said, if you happen to be as much of an easily-swayed, self-obsessed person as Trump, then… yeah, spending too much time on Twitter, and thus excessively marinating in campaigns of subliminal suggestion, arguably does have worrisome national security implications. Maybe congress should pass a law which states that when you become president your smartphone is pried from your clutches and replaced with an old (and very offline) flip-phone. That way, not only are you insulated from meme-based psyops on social media, but also if you’re lying in bed at 2AM and you think of some stupid, diplomatic-incident-inducing shit you want to tweet out about that Indonesian leader who snubbed you during a UN group photo, you’ll instead be forced to just text it to your Secretary of State or whoever — in the hopes of receiving the classic mollifying “yep, you’re so right…” text back — and then go the fuck back to sleep. In fact, this principle could be exported worldwide really. Give everyone in a position of power a goddamn original Motorola Razr and let’s get some geopolitical tranquillity on the go. Less tweeting out spur-of-the-moment antagonistic statements which rile up other nations, and more trying to beat your high score on Snake. That’s it, right there. The solution which has been eluding us all this time. I’ll be more than happy to receive my Nobel Peace Prize in the mail, thanks. The prize-money itself you can just Paypal me, I guess.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe that there’s something inherently objectionable or offensive about a wealthy individual becoming president. (I do however think that there’s something to be said for the fact that the vast majority of presidents, stretching all the way back to the founding of the republic, were already rich when they took office. And also that it’s just considered an almost unremarkable fact of life that that should continue to be so. A working-class president is practically an oxymoron. And if only that was where the boundaries of the plutocratic ended. But no. Sadly no. Of course no. As evidenced by the permanent preponderance of millionaires in congress and cabinet positions, national politics as a whole is the playground of the moneyed. This should be a lot more upsetting to a lot more people than it currently is, I tend to feel.)
What I’m getting at is: I don’t find Trump loathsome because he’s a billionaire. I find him loathsome because of the way that his wealth and status have discernibly warped his thinking. Especially in terms of how he views the common man. This is a guy who has always been detached from the unwashed masses, always been elevated above them; he doesn’t spend time with them, doesn’t talk to them, doesn’t understand them or the realities of their existence. His classism is baked into him at a fundamental level. You can deride me as an armchair psychologist if you like, but I’d conjecture that when Trump thinks about ‘poor people’… which to him would probably encompass everyone languishing below upper-middle-class… he feels a repulsion and a sort of deep, subconscious fear. It’s like when someone sighted a leper in the distance back in the days of yore. Obviously, the reason lepers were execrated and shunned is because onlookers pictured themselves having leprosy and were consequently scared out of their minds. You hate what you fear. It’s an age-old point, but cannot be restated enough. What Trump is most terrified of is not being rich and famous, and every regular person is afflicted by that woeful ‘condition’. Think about that. Thank about what that means. When he looks at them, he’s looking at something he would profoundly hate to be. Even if it’s an impossibility that Trump would ever find himself deprived of all his olympic-sized swimming pools full of money — not least because it’d probably take longer than his remaining years just to straight-up incinerate every last dollar — we can still viscerally dread impossible things, in the dark, merciless corners of our mind. Trump’s public persona is so intrinsically tied up with the image of him as this ultra-wealthy tycoon that if he were ever to lose that, he would basically have no identity left. Hence, it would be a kind of death for him. Contemplating something like that will have a serious effect on you. I bet he has had lifelong nightmares about running out of money and no-one being interested in him anymore. Short of some muckraker pilfering his therapist’s notes, we’ll never know for sure, but that really is a hunch I’d put money on.
In a similar vein, he also has a screamingly intense, self-absorbed fear of losing face by being short-changed in any way. This is why he looks down on anyone who would do a selfless good deed: they are pathetic chumps who let themselves get taken advantage of. No matter what, the Trumpian mantra is “what’s in it for me?!” Life is just some absurd zero-sum game to him. You’re either dumb enough to get exploited or you’re smart enough to be doing the exploiting. (This is the lens through which all con-men view the world, in point of fact. You justify your behaviour by telling yourself society is so brutally dog-eat-dog that your targets would do the same thing to you if they could/thought of it first. And so by pre-emptively villainizing your pool of victims, you even try to actually make yourself feel good for having victimized them. Those random strangers had it coming, okay?) This leads to him seeing other people as merely means to an end, and he shamelessly evaluates them in terms of how useful a tool they will be. When you scroll through the list of the figures close to him, it’s fascinating how obvious it is which ones understand this core truth about him and which ones don’t. The naive ones almost always get burnt badly, because there’s no-one in his orbit he won’t bleed dry and then coldly discard if necessary, regardless of what their connection to him is or what they’ve done for him in the past. Although, to be fair, the non-naive ones tend to get burnt too. But they’re sometimes at least savvy enough to make sure they were using Trump while he was using them, and so they end up walking away having extracted something of decent tangible value from their relationship with him. That’s about the best you can hope for. Even still, whether or not that’s worth enduring his sullen, needy company and going through the wringer of being associated with his toxic brand, I really don’t know.
Trump is also extremely preoccupied with the prospect of publicly failing and thus being seen as a ‘loser’. (He’s hard and fast proof of the claim that if you look at the insults a person most readily resorts to or considers most hurtful, you’re glimpsing what they’re most afraid to be.) I’m sure this contributed to why, beneath the surface, he always seemed in such acute discomfort as president. Because he was so unfit for the role and to such a glaring degree too. He was positively suppurating incompetency all the livelong day, and none of the desperate deceit he employed to conceal it ever worked. I mean, I personally don’t know enough to say whether he was a good CEO or a bad CEO during his time in private enterprise. The many articles detailing his companies’ bankruptcies and the volatile fortunes of his business dealings do rather incline one to a certain opinion. But I would need to read a lot more deeply about it, and also ascend several tiers in financial literacy, before I could ever offer anything beyond guesswork. Regardless, my point is that the thing about helming a ship in the private sector is that your day-to-day conduct and decision-making largely happens behind closed doors. As long as you’re ultimately profitable on your quarterly earnings report-cards, then who cares what else went on?
It would seem that Trump came to the Oval Office with that mentality. The problem is that as president you do your job in a fishbowl. Every little fuck-up of every kind is exposed to view. They add up quickly and gain momentum in the messaging battle before you know it. And when Trump tried to point to his positive economic numbers and use that as — oh boy, am I really about to make this hacky pun? — the trump card that would sweep all those embarrassments away, he discovered to his horror that it had no such power. You can’t just wipe that slate clean. The mammoth self-humiliation he had accrued was still there, utterly undiminished. This is Trump’s hell: being ‘successful’ by the metrics he values and fixates on most but then still being looked at as a laughing stock and a failure anyway. This phenomenon flummoxes him and enrages him, and makes him retreat even further into his persecution complex.
Despite the rumours floating around, I assure you that I’m just a normal guy. I put my trousers on one leg at a time, hand to god. I forget the Netflix password at the most inconvenient times. If you challenged me to start pointing to and naming all the countries on a blank globe, I would quite quickly be sweating through my shirt. I sometimes say I drink black coffee when asked, because it undeniably sounds way cooler, but I actually don’t. Honestly, it’s more milk than coffee by the time I’m done making it. And like anyone else, I try to derive joy from a bunch of different places — to diversify my happiness portfolio, if you will. Spending quality time with friends and family and being nourished by their company. Dedicating myself to creative pursuits and eventually seeing the fruits of my labour. Kicking back and enjoying a good book. Sometimes, when I remember that I have limbs, I even resort to moderate-intensity exercise for a quick-fix of endorphins. But just between you, me, and the bored NSA drudge reading these words in real-time as I type them into this draft document, I’m frankly not sure that anything sparks more joy for me than thinking about how much egg is right now caked on the faces of everyone who once talked about Trump secretly having an incredibly shrewd tactical mind. I mean, it’s pretty great. It’s like a very small IED went off beneath the omelette station at the DeploraBall.
Remember how all Trump’s apparent blunders were really just elaborate veiled ruses, misdirecting his opponents superbly? Remember how Trump wanted everyone to underestimate his abilities because it suited his long-term goals? Remember how all the ‘lamebrained naysayers’ just didn’t understand the game of 4D chess that was being played? Yeah, well, all that talk fell away pretty goddamn quickly, didn’t it? Even just a year or so into his term, no-one with any shred of credibility could suggest he might actually just be some prodigy of slyness, some camouflaged mastermind, anymore. And now that we’re post-Trump, we can say it definitively. The dream is dead. There was never any grand design. No trap he was waiting for the perfect moment to finally spring. No satisfying reveal like at the end of a heist movie where it seems like the protagonist is totally screwed, but then he grins at the camera and there’s a sequence of stitched-together flashbacks to previous scenes where you’re shown them from a different perspective and you suddenly realize he’d been covertly setting into motion the real plan all along and the failure of the red-herring plan was completely intentional to cover it up. None of that shit. When Trump did things that made no sense, they were exactly what they seemed. The madness was the method, because it was the only one available to him. He was always just an impulsive dolt, nothing more. At this point, anyone can plainly see that. Even a despectacled Velma from Scooby Doo would be able to see it. And like, listen, that chick needs LASIK, fucking stat. (Or at least those glasses with the cord that hangs down on the back of your neck so that if they fall you don’t lose them. I don’t mean to scold her, it’s just that Mystery Inc. really shouldn’t have to maintain a separate budget just for replacing or repairing her eyewear. For one thing, I don’t remember them ever getting paid for solving shit, and there’s a lot of expenses tied to being a mobile small-business, so money’s gotta be tight.)
When considered from a certain standpoint, it’s actually quite fortunate that Trump is such a helpless slave to his own whims. One of the things which attenuates the potential dangerousness of Trump is the fact that he seems constitutionally incapable of not saying the ‘quiet part’ out loud. Even when he tries to pull off some kind of duplicitous ploy, he still cannot stop himself from also disclosing his shitty, selfish, utterly cynical motives for it. Thus piercing any power it may have had to actually trick people. Like when he kept weighing in during the Democratic primary and shouting about how Bernie Sanders was once again being screwed over by the DNC machine — nugget of truth to that, mind you — and how awfully unfair it was that they were putting their thumb on the scale. At the same time, he lets slip how he wants Bernie to be his opponent in the general election because a ‘socialist’ is unelectable and therefore it will be an easy win. So now you know exactly why he’s theatrically bemoaning the treatment Bernie received. I mean, sure, it was obvious anyway and anyone with an ounce of sense would have strongly suspected it, to the point of nigh-certainty really, but Trump doesn’t even leave you with mere suspicions and speculation. He makes sure to state plainly what he’s up to, what he’s underhandedly seeking. I’d say it’s nice of him to spare us the miniscule effort required to figure this out ourselves, but he’s doing it because he can’t help himself, so he doesn’t deserve credit even for that.
Another Bernie related example would be Trump ‘wondering’ aloud whether aggrieved Bernie diehards are going to take this screwjob lying down or whether they’re going to make the DNC pay. You’d probably assume that his angle here is him hoping to induce them to stew in their own resentment and sit home during the general election out of spite. And yet, it’s even wackier and more ambitious than that. He makes it clear that he’s trying to recruit them as Trump voters (e.g. here and here). Regrettably, this effort was not as foredoomed as one might think, given the utterly bizarre phenomenon — which Trump mentions being aware of — where some small percentage of Bernie supporters become so embittered that they apostatize and jump ship over to Trump, because Trump was also selling a certain kind of revolutionary rhetoric himself and I suppose if you’re sickened by status quo politicians you’ll perhaps take any self-styled outsider you can get your hands on. I know, it’s very stupid. But when you’re of the cast of mind that you have to vote for someone in an election, people will employ some truly fucking topsy-turvy reasoning to talk themselves into quote-unquote ‘lesser evil’ choices. Something to be glad of though: Trump is surely harming his ability to scoop up this electoral flotsam because his clumsy attempts to emotionally manipulate them are so overt. No-one with any self-respect could fail to respond to that with but a disdainful chuckle and a middle-finger.
A totally different example that springs to mind is the way that Trump made sure to point out to his fellow Republicans the partisan utility of his endeavour to deter and prevent mail-in voting. From what I’ve read, it actually appears to be dubious, when subjected to statistical analysis, that mail-in voting tends to favour the Democrats in any truly substantial way, but Trump believes very, very strongly that it does. And so, it must be thwarted at all costs. Yet, instead of just sticking to the usual canards about rampant voter fraud and whatnot, he goes a step further and says the thing you’re supposed to keep implicit, the thing you’re supposed to dance around however possible. He decides to forcefully remind the GOP of their self-interest here. (As if they could have forgotten, being the party consistently pursuing disenfranchisement and voter suppression. But Trump has a habit of hilariously wasting time pushing at open doors.) That’s why he went on Fox News and blurted out that if the Democrats succeed in attaining the “levels of voting” they wanted — that is, high voter turnout because all the devious obstacles to voting have been eliminated — “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” He also stressed it in various tweets for good measure (e.g. here and here and here). He’s a big believer in the principle of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, it would seem.
I’m sure there were many long-time Republican operatives who privately cursed his name and wanted to wring his neck because of this kind of thing. They’ve been patiently toiling for decades, steadily chipping away at voter rights where possible and making it harder for likely-Democrats to cast ballots where possible and all the time sticking to the tried-and-true party line about just wanting to bring about fairer, more secure elections. Disciplined. Methodical. Careful. Gradually getting shit done to aid their party’s electoral chances, but in the clever surreptitious way that makes the gains more useful and more durable. And then this big, blundering palooka lollops in and fucks it all up forever. He has made it so that disingenuous rhetorical body-armour is useless now, by stressing to anyone who’ll listen the corrupt, partisan motives behind the whole effort. It’s enough to break your heart, ain’t it? Spare a thought for those poor hacks who now have to restart the propaganda battle from square one. I’ll be launching a GoFundMe for them presently. I hope you’ll consider donating.
The other form in which Trump’s quiet-part-out-loud-ism manifests itself is when he ends up admitting to something he really shouldn’t be admitting to. Sometimes it happens because he’s a braggart who seeks to toot his own horn whenever possible, even when — unbeknownst to him — it’s self-incriminatory. Other times it’ll simply be because he’s just a congenital motor-mouth no matter the context. His stock-in-trade is talking and he knows that; I have no doubt that he’s been able to talk his way out of more than a few sticky situations in his pre-presidency life. That’s presumably why it’s so ingrained in him, the idea that he can always maintain control by merely blathering on and on and repeating himself and contradicting himself and digressing into inexplicable tangents, and thereby drown the matter in the verbal equivalent of fire-extinguisher foam.
He wants to produce such a surfeit of pull-quotes that they all get lost in the shuffle. You see him trying to do it all the time. It’s one of his trademark gambits, and quite a novel one too. Most politicians, when a conversation starts veering into a danger-zone, clam up and choose their words very carefully, like they’ve just been teleported into a hostile deposition. Trump does just the opposite. He hopes that if he disgorges enough concentrated, meaningless yakety-yak, it’ll be so aggravating to unpack and decipher that it’ll bamboozle his foes into exasperation-paralysis. Or maybe that the process will just be so time-consuming that it’ll be a bitch to keep up with. He was sometimes doing multiple rallies a day, and keep in mind he’s speechifying for, say, about ninety minutes each time. It’s a volume attack. He is just vomiting sheer tonnage of words into the record, and by the time journalists have gone through those particular transcripts with a fine-tooth comb and pulled out all the stupid nonsense he said and written up thorough, well-evidenced explanations for why it’s so stupid, he’s already done four more rallies and several new scandals have broken and best believe we’re into the next news cycle. That alone can be enough to help Trump skate by. By the time it gets reported on properly, it already feels like yesterday’s news, and consequently a lot of people won’t even pay attention to it.
(As a related aside, if there’s one thing Trump does understand well, it’s that in the twenty-first century we find ourselves in a cultural phase where there is constantly a hyper-fixation on the present moment. Everyone only wants to read the most up-to-the-minute news stories. They just want to follow what’s happening right now. It applies to so many things too. For instance, people will only read someone’s tweets from the last day or so; everything before that might as well not exist. And, okay, yes, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with focusing on the new. But when our post-internet severally truncated attention spans mean that that’s all we can focus on, it functions as a gentle, almost impalpable abortifacient for any understanding of the recent past and its connection to the ongoing present that might have been gestating in our minds. We are then, perforce, pattern-seeking creatures no longer. You cannot perceive patterns when you’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. This state of affairs benefits someone like Trump immensely. He doesn’t want you keeping track of how many times he’s contradicted himself on a given policy stance, or to start connecting the dots with all the bigoted things he’s said and what kind of person it paints him as. This is why Trump’s presidential campaigns are like a runaway freight train blasting down the tracks at two-hundred miles an hour: if you keep people tethered to that dizzying momentum, you never give them a chance to stop and catch their breath and contemplate what’s going on, you just keep ramming some new event or some new controversial remark into their mental RAM and immediately overwriting what was there before. It’s a method of ensuring people are simultaneously completely riveted and completely unreflective. It’s so overwhelming to just keep up with what’s happening that that’s about all you can manage. And Trump knew that was his only path to victory as a candidate. He’s trying to win you over with high-energy spectacle and entertainment, not substance. He wants you tuning in to every single rally, as though they’re the episodes of some weird new reality show of his. And so, he dispenses with just cranking out the same old stump speech like most politicians do, and instead goes for that freewheeling rambling style which means there’s a reason to watch each new public appearance, because you never know what crazy shit might be said.)
So yeah, Trump’s verbal bombardment tactic is very effective at keeping the press a step behind. The problem is that, funnily enough, it does actually require a certain level of mental prowess to be able to never stop talking but in a way that’s unerringly devoid of real content, that’s truly just headache-inducing white-noise. You have to be really, really focused on making sure you say nothing at all. Otherwise you’ll eventually end up saying something very revealing as you frantically search for the next sentence to fill the silence with. Especially if you have a mind as free-associative as the former president’s. The reason why Trump could never be a careful speaker is that he’s not a careful thinker: he gets distracted easily while he’s talking, even just by random things that pop up in his brain, and so he finds himself abruptly hopping from one topic to another over and over. And, like I said, that’s a dangerous game to play. Sooner or later, you’re going to speedily reach into the canvas sack of bullshit for yet another handful to lob out there, and in your haste you will fumble and end up pulling something out of the open lockbox next to it, the one labelled ‘inadvertent confessions’.
Some personal favourites, for perusal at your leisure: needlessly admitting that he shitcanned James Comey because Comey was overseeing the investigation into Russian interference with Trump’s election, needlessly admitting that his administration was comprehensively withholding evidence from his impeachment trial, needlessly admitting he was blocking funding to the U.S. Postal Service in order to sabotage mail-in voting, needlessly admitting that he gave Russia classified intelligence sourced from the Israelis, needlessly admitting that he paid Stormy Daniels six-figure hush-money which many people suspected to be a campaign-finance law violation, needlessly admitting that his idiot son was indeed trying to personally source Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton during a Trump Tower meeting.
These are just a small portion of his unforced errors. They are knee-slappers, yes. They are delectable, yes. Almost like miniature works of art, each and every one. And, again, I have to stress, the best part of all was that they just never stopped coming. Because his whole presidency was like a long, slow, blindfolded walk across a football field densely strewn with rakes. I suppose you might imagine that one would theoretically get tired of seeing him stepping on a rake and it smacking him in the face. But, as it turns out… not so much. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
I guess let me kinda sum up my feelings about him by saying this. There are, and have been, many politicians I have strongly disliked over the years. Some I have even abhorred to such a degree that it turned my stomach. But Trump really is in a different category. (He’s always tried to elbow his way into the uppermost echelon of everything, by any means necessary. Well, congratulations Donald, you take the top spot when it comes to loathability.) The reason being that although sometimes he’s not the most severe offender I’ve ever seen in a particular type of awfulness, he’s nonetheless putting points up on the scoreboard in every one. He is, in that sense, the total package. You know what I mean? Like, honestly, I’m honestly asking you, what are the redeeming qualities of this man? What are his small, overlooked aspects of honour, of righteousness? I have learned so much more about him than I ever wanted to know, and I genuinely cannot cite you even one.
As I say, the incredible thing about him is that in a single figure you have the embodiment of most — if not all — of the worst qualities afloat in the gloomful, marshy, fetid corners of the contemporary American psychosphere. It’s like those dark mists drifted into the empty mould of a man and coagulated there, and out stepped Donald J. Trump wearing an ill-fitting ten-thousand dollar suit and a wolfish grin. He is a man of his times in the worst possible way. That will be his legacy. He is a wretched walking-talking amalgam of everything that the United States should endeavour not to be. And yet it’s more dire than that. He’s not just a horrible sort of exemplification. He is a destroyer. He is rippling with an aura of moral fucking antimatter. He harms all the good things he comes into contact with. It happens automatically. It’s just his nature.
Even worse than what he is and what he represents is the fact that he’s provided an example of how you can be all those things and still get away with it. He has paid no price. He has dodged all attempts at punishment or removal from office. Moreover, he doesn’t even personally own up to any of it. You would need an electron microscope to find any trace of shame in him. For real, try to recall even one single time during his presidency when he genuinely apologized or even just seemed palpably contrite for something he had done. Pre-presidency, he was forced to say sorry for the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape fiasco. He delivered the tepid apology like someone was holding a gun to his head and no one bought it for a second, but I suppose he did at least say the words. But then he was enthroned as supreme emperor and the ceiling on his ego soared into the highest reaches of the heavens, and so regret and penitence had to be abolished, even retroactively. So he decided not merely that he was no longer sorry for what he did, but that in fact it didn’t even happen. I’d have to really sit down and ponder it, but I don’t think you could conceivably negate a previous apology any more than that. It’s really remarkable in its sheer absurdity and witlessness. Someone should have let this imbecile in on a crucial little trade-secret of spin: when you acknowledge that you did something and even explain why, you can’t then deny the event’s existence later on. It’s kind of an either-or.
Some people say he’s this way because he views public expressions of remorse to be a sign of weakness, and thus inimical to the projection of indomitable ‘strength’ he’s so obsessed with. I think it’s not even as calculated as that. I think there is ample evidence to suggest that he just does not feel the same prickings of conscience that normal people do. Accordingly, the urge to apologize just doesn’t arise. He simply views things as falling into one of two categories: “good for me” and “not good for me.” He doesn’t evaluate a possible course of action on ethical grounds; nor, often, does he even consider its practical achievability; it really is solely a weighing up of how much he stands to benefit. He’s like those peculiar phototaxic bacteria that have no actual ability to think or even perceive their surroundings, but nonetheless are biologically programmed to seek out light and automatically move towards it. In Trump’s case, ‘light’ is an ironic misnomer though, given he can’t stop himself plodding towards shady personal gain.
Listen, a lot of indispensable words have had their effect blunted and their usefulness diminished over these last four years because certain irresponsible people have trotted them out at every opportunity, applying them to things which didn’t even remotely fit their definition. I don’t doubt that a lot of those people had good intentions and just got too caught up in the disorientating fervour of the moment, but damage was done nevertheless. Of course, one has to concede that this process began a good while before the advent of Trump. Still, there’s no question it rapidly accelerated and reached its crescendo during his presidency. All I can say is… it was very depressing to watch happen. (It will take time for us to restore the proper gravity and arrestingness to these words. But it will be a worthy project, because they are too vital to be allowed to languish in their cheapened state. They must be reclaimed and their points resharpened. The first defence against evil is the ability to properly describe it. Because otherwise there may one day be an even bigger, scarier wolf who attacks, and when the boy hollers “holy fuck, there’s a nazi running for office,” no-one will even look up from their phone.)
I point this out in order to underline the fact that I really try not to resort to the following language unless it’s truly warranted, but at a certain point the unbearable spadeness of a spade forces your fingers to magnetically hone in on the right keys and type out S-P-A-D-E. The guy is just utter fucking scum. There’s something so plainly monstrous about him. He’s a callous mad-king with a god complex. There is practically nothing he would not do or say, no line he would not cross, no betrayal he would not countenance, to advance his own interests. He would solipsistically put himself above what’s best for the country he’s supposed to care about in a heartbeat; even if it meant disfiguring it forever for only a small personal boon in return, he wouldn’t hesitate. We know this, because of how many times he actually did it. There is probably even an argument to be made that there is no other president in living memory who openly showed as much disdain and disregard for the internal health of the United States. I really think Trump might well take the top spot there. He proved he would rather see the country metaphorically burn to the ground than relinquish the ultimate ego-handjob which the presidency provides.
I don’t know if you ever had the same experience, but it drove me crazy when I’d hear people scoffing and saying that Trump is no worse than any run-of-the-mill rotten politician, he just conceals it less and is more willing to troll the opposition with incendiary statements. These people are so ‘wised-up’ that they’ve decided they can just keep their eyes closed; they don’t need to actually look at things; they’ve seen it all before, they know the score; politics stays the same, deviations are always fads, fears are always overblown; American democracy is an infallible self-correcting gyroscope; basically, pal, don’t worry about it; everything’s fine or will soon be fine. The sad truth is that there were a lot of people like this, and they provided Trump with much-needed cover. They helped normalize him and downplay his transgressions. They mocked the ‘rubes’ who were ‘dumb enough’ to believe Trump might be a different animal, might pose a new kind of threat. All because they found the shrieking about Trump grating and they thought they’d seem cool and edgy and freethinking if they took a contrarian stance. They should have been focusing on the objectionable things which were being shrieked about. (I generally strive to be as fair and even-handed as possible. Which is why when I say that everyone who droned on about “Trump Derangement Syndrome” should now have to superglue a dunce cap to their heads as punishment, you can rest assured that I’m exercising a maximum of judicious restraint.)
Personally, witnessing someone as profoundly morally defective as Trump really put things into perspective. As many grievances as I have with, for instance, Boris Johnson, living in Britain and hearing him all the time referred to as “our Trump” started to get a bit annoying. It’s just such a fatuous comparison to make. Trump really is in another stratosphere in terms of dangerousness and intolerability. Don’t get it twisted, that doesn’t make me want to see Boris join the swollen ranks of the unemployed any less adamantly. It’s just a matter of being able to see things clearly, which is sorely lacking in this time of rage-blindness and rampant false equivalences. That monstrousness at the heart of Trump just isn’t there in the same way with Boris. To be sure, I think Boris definitely has that cold-blooded ruthlessness which is endemic in the Conservative Party, where — to quote this unforgettably perfect phrasing from a friend of mine — they’d stab their own grandmothers in the
back front for even a whiff of power. He also harbours a fair few noisome, retrograde ideas, to put it mildly. He’s someone who I’d wager spends at least a few minutes every day privately lamenting that he didn’t become Prime Minister of the Britain that’s now in a century-deep grave. For reasons of aesthetics and stature and grandeur, yes, but also for quite obvious other reasons too. I mean, look, one can’t help but suspect that he finds the pain of non-white and poor people to be… minimally troubling. (As, again, Tories often do. It really does sometimes seem like you’re discreetly handed a complimentary canister of empathy-anaesthetic when you join that party.) But then you compare it all to the explosive iniquity of Trump and you realize how important it is that we be willing and able to point out something new when it emerges. Because, just to take one thing, the Boris Johnsons of this world aren’t would-be dictators. They aren’t trying to destroy the very concept of truth, to incite violence against their ideological opponents, to cripple and erode all the institutions which check their power. They aren’t trying to prevent voting on a wide scale and then invalidate those votes when they can’t, to overturn elections that they lost, to provoke mobs into storming the seat of government. It isn’t a difference of degree, of style. It is a categorical difference. It’s the difference between a huckster and a highwayman: you’ll find it is at least possible to abide one, but not the other.
What it’s been like watching the Trump presidency
I have been following the Trumpian theatrics extremely closely since the start of the 2016 presidential election cycle until, well, now. I don’t mind saying that although I’ve always paid significant attention to American politics, I haven’t ever followed it this closely day-to-day before.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this was because the chaos and transgressions of the Trump administration were impossible to look away from, both in the sense of being important to stay abreast of and in the sense of being fascinating. It would be trotting out a tired cliché to describe any particular instance of Trump’s antics as seeming like a slow-motion car crash, and it would be insufficient too. That would fail to capture the bewildering constancy of scandal which, more than any one of them taken by itself, is my takeaway from his presidency. His entire tenure was an almost unbroken sequence of actually very high-speed highway pile-ups. You never got a breather or a chance to digest what had just happened. It was relentless. It was exhausting. It gets to the point where you stop even paying attention to each individual impact: your eyes just defocus and take it all in as a panoramic whole, and you think to yourself “this can’t be right! Somehow, some way, I must actually be glimpsing a distant world where all the lifeforms look like cars, and the only way they know how to move or talk or attempt any particular action whatsoever is to aggressively ram into each other.” Like, imagine if someone crop-dusted whatever planet the Transformers™ come from with that crazy ‘bath salts’ drug which was turning homeless dudes into cannibals a few years back. Picture that shit in your mind. That’s 2017-2021 in the White House. All the pundits are saying it. That exact analogy. You must be out of the loop. Perhaps a little more Politico and a little less TikTok is in order. That’s my solemn prescription for you.
His whole administration was a circus. Just so dysfunctional and incompetent, and prone to fumble spectacularly almost every time a major decision-point came up. There were instances where I’d try to gameplan out in my mind the range of possible options they had, and I would just be aghast at how they managed to somehow combine the worst aspects of several of the worst options into one vile, chunky emulsion. It’s almost… I don’t know, impressive really. Their commitment to innovating even while failing. It’s yet another reminder of how much of an effect leadership truly has, even inadvertently: once an ethos of foolishness and sloppiness and panicked rashness and corner-cutting is exampled by the president and his right-hand cronies, it gets disseminated top-down like the psychological version of a firmware patch which is automatically installed on every computer networked together to make them more compatible with each other.
The thing about it is, this all seems even crazier when you consider the composition of his administration. Now there’s no denying that Trump clearly wanted to fill any and every position with a family member. (To be fair to him, when you say hysterical things about your business empire such as “I built what I built myself” despite having gotten a $60 million loan from your father, you’re obviously someone who won’t be able to even mentally grapple with the notion that nepotism might be bad. There’s only so much we can reasonably expect from a man with such a dumpster-fire of a mind. This is a long-established principle in jurisprudence for good reason.) Or failing that, because so much of his family has sought to distance themselves from him and his toxic notoriety, he would have liked to fill cabinet seats with either personal friends or really just any random mope whom he owed a favour to.
However, although he did manage to slip a few people in these categories through, it’s also true that someone was evidently level-headed enough to convince him that administrations can’t function unless they’re populated by at least some professionals who are fit for their assigned roles. And, accordingly, there were a fair number of people toiling for him who, although I can’t say I particularly like them or their politics, I also can’t deny that their career histories indicate that they’re passably experienced and capable. On paper, at least. Because then they get roped into working for the Trump administration and it’s suddenly like they can’t find their own asses with both hands, a floor-length mirror, and the PDF of an ass-finding manual open on a nearby iPad. And like I explained earlier, that’s not at all a coincidence. Under Trump’s watch, things inexorably descend into total amateur-hour disorder. He has the opposite of the golden touch; in a sort of reverse-alchemical feat, it’s like everything he touches becomes lead and it seeps into the water system and gradually poisons everyone and makes them dim-witted and sluggish. It’s real fucking Roman Empire shit. And even in those rare shining exceptions where someone in an important position actually did their job properly/made the right decision — please hold your applause; recall the twice-daily accuracy which even a broken, ticktockless clock has — Trump would be asked about it the next day during some tarmac press scrum and that would be its undoing. He’d be A) so mad that he was only hearing about it now (which was usually his own damn fault for being such a hands-off, checked-out president) and B) so desperate to project an impression of absolute control that he’d brainlessly declare on the spur of the moment that actually that wasn’t true and even if it was it would be reversed just as soon as he got back to the office. And that was that. He’d kill positive developments simply because of pride. Imagine how bad morale must be when everyone knows they might get pointlessly sabotaged by the head honcho at any moment…
And let’s not forget how utterly riven with internal strife the administration was from day 1 right up until day 1,461. The infighting never stopped. It really never, ever stopped. It was like fundamentally baked into the structure and functioning of the administration itself. I’m not saying that it’s unusual for there to be some
‘disharmony’ childish squabbling inside any administration from time to time, but has it ever been so wide-spread and dramatic and publicly conducted? It seemed like at any given time there were at least two or three feuding camps, each semi-covertly jockeying for advantage and trying to shaft their rivals. Everything was subsumed by this perpetual civil war. And of course the cherry on top was that Trump himself was the wildcard presiding over all this discord. He was the locus of ultimate power which they all gravitated around and someone whose ear they were forever hoping to bend. Catch him in the right mood and maybe you’ll be able to plant the seed for that prospective policy shift that’ll benefit you. Trump’s about as much a policy wonk as I am a scholar of ancient Sumerian irrigation techniques, so you don’t need to actually deploy any evidence or clever reasoning, just butter him up with compliments or make him think it was somehow his idea all along or tell him it’ll boost his approval numbers. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy, make-the-founders’-ghosts-very-queasy.
He really makes me think of Logan Roy from ‘Succession’, I must admit — and, yes, I’m 1000% sure I’m the very first person to ever make this startlingly original comparison, don’t bother @ing me. He just ticks all the same boxes: increasingly mentally addled, impulsive and short-sighted, unwilling to cede control even when it’s self-destructive, both extremely paranoid about betrayal but also genuinely surrounded by self-interested vipers seeking to manipulate him, depressed at having no-one he can really trust, capriciously alighting his favour on this faction or that faction depending on the day, et cetera. Although, actually, I suppose the big difference would be the fact that Logan Roy does have some degree of Machiavellian prowess. I’m sure Trump thinks he’s able to play puppetmaster but I have little doubt that his underlings got the better of him more often than not. (His understanding of how to coerce someone is no more sophisticated than a schoolyard bully’s. As someone who’s spent his whole life having the upper-hand, who’s never truly known what it feels like to be the underdog, it makes sense that he only understands how to crudely throw his weight around from a position of strength. But this is only one side of the coin when it comes to the art of manipulation. It’s also, one could argue, the lesser half.) The simple truth is that Trump is not very cunning and not very smart, but he’s positive he’s both, which I bet makes him an easy mark for mind-games. Especially because some of the amoral power-hungry shitbags he surrounds himself with actually are both.
The other thing of note about this administration is what an absolute sieve it was in terms of, shall we say, unintentional/forced transparency. Not only did we have a steady stream of weaponized leaks as rivals sought to embarrass each other, but there was also all the fallout from the high degree of staff ‘turnover’ — to use the silly PR euphemism they take refuge in to make it sound less like haemorrhaging — this White House experienced given its particularly quick burn-rate for new hires. It was an amusing thing to watch, at least. While you’re working in the administration you tell everyone who’ll listen that Trump’s the greatest and you make it clear you’d take a bullet for him without hesitation, and then either you fuck up or Trump simply gets bored with you and you get unceremoniously fired and replaced. Then six months later you reemerge as a noble dissident releasing a disgruntled tell-all book about how unfit Trump is to be president and what a grade-A shitshow that place was. (And naturally you reap
thirty pieces of silver a fat payday from a publisher for your trouble. What a sordid little racket. Talk about getting to have your cake and eat it too.) I mean, seriously, how many books from ‘insiders’ of some description came out during Trump’s term? It’s nuts. You could dedicate a whole corner of a bookstore just to them. What other administration has that ever happened in? And it goes without saying that practically everyone who didn’t come out with a rushed cash-in book during those four years will release one ASAP now. This is going to be an administration that has absolutely, positively no secrets left by the time everything’s said and done. And aghast as we all are given the partial details we’ve already gleaned about Trump’s instability, imagine what it’s going to be like when we have the true, full, most vivid picture of what a dangerous manchild he really is.
One thing which never faded for me was just the sheer surrealness of Donald Trump being fucking PRE-SI-DENT of the United States. I know everyone was shouting that from the rooftops at the beginning, but after about a year or two it really shocked me how normalized it became for so many people, how they seemed to lose touch with what a sick joke this was. In some quarters, it seemed like it even became a blasé thing to bring up. There was this sort of “yeah, yeah, we all get it, we all see how crazy it is. Why are you still talking about this?…” vibe going on.
Personally, I felt like I never fully got away from the skin-crawling weirdness and/or wrongness that accompanied watching him standing up at a podium with the presidential seal and giving a televised address about something of national importance. (And of course it’s only made more bizarre given he has that trademark slowed cadence and emphatic over-enunciation of an obnoxious prick talking down to someone who doesn’t speak their language, despite ironically also having the broken, jagged syntax of someone who woke up from a coma and had to relearn how to speak.) It’s like my brain indignantly refused to accept and co-sign the reality of it. Perhaps because it seemed so much like some lame scene from a movie parodying America. I mean, it’s the type of thing which writes itself: a country mostly comprised of people living paycheck-to-paycheck/being exploited by billionaires and their megacorps decided to elect Donald Trump. Someone who’s not just obscenely wealthy because of the same system which keeps them shackled in wage-slavery, but who then even had the gall to make being a tacky, callous, out-of-touch rich guy into a sort of marketable character too, so that he could milk yet more money from them via his TV shows and his branding deals and whatever else. These people are getting fucked twice and they’re too busy binging reruns of ‘The Apprentice’ and buying funny, kitschy merchandise with Trump’s face on to notice, let alone care. The guy has entertainment value to them and they end up handing him the keys to the kingdom come election time. This is how easily poor people can be taken advantage of. It’s so boringly, straightforwardly tragic that it almost doesn’t even register on an emotional level. I suppose because it’s also just so damn preposterous. If you saw it playing out up on a cinema screen, you’d roll your eyes and think “oh yeah, really clever social commentary, guys! What brilliant satire, so subtle and complex!” And yet sixty-three million Americans decided that not only was that hacky scene NOT stupid, but in fact it was so awesome that they wanted to step through the screen and live in it for four whole years. The rest of us are just unpaid extras, standing nearly out of frame with Munchian looks of horror on our faces.
What’s also really interesting to me is that Trump’s supporters are generally the kind of ‘patriotic’ people who highly venerate the office of the presidency itself. To them, it has an all-important, nation-uplifting dignity and stature to it. Sitting above the fracas of congress, you have this one leader who speaks on behalf of the country and is empowered to have the final word on what should be done to protect it and further its interests. It’s supposed to be reassuring, I guess. Whereas, to me, the outlandish overlap between president and temporary-king-with-executive-omnipotence under the present ‘imperial presidency’ model is very disturbing. I’m for stripping it of as many excessive or gratuitous powers as possible. But then again I didn’t derive tutelage on the true nature of patriotism from 80s action movies. Nor do I feel any urge to confrontationally chant the name of my own country whilst I’m in my own country and surrounded by only my own countrymen. Nor do I experience fits of rage when people don’t stand and salute rectangles of symbolic cloth. So some things are bound to go over my head.
As much as they enjoyed Trump’s crudity during the campaign, it’s clear that these aforementioned people were expecting that Trump would rise to the occasion and shape up and start acting ‘presidential’ once in office. Maybe not traditionally statesmanlike per se, but at the very least he’d be like a CEO who puts his head down and gets on with capably running things with an air of sober professionalism. (It’s funny that Ross Perot tried the exact same “only an accomplished businessman knows how to save this country” shtick back in the 90s and, despite being a far more palatable candidate and his legions of almost cultishly committed devotees, never got anywhere near the same traction ultimately. Although to be fair it was a third-party run, so obviously it’s apples to oranges. But it’s also funny that Trump’s fleeting, aborted presidential bid in 2000 was conducted beneath the banner of Perot’s ‘Reform Party’. In other words, he was once hoping to piggyback on Perot’s outsider-momentum from the preceding election cycle and then sixteen years later he trounced Perot’s performance entirely… Never forget that history has a keen sense of irony.) Well, so much for that pipe-dream. Trump was just as clownish when sitting behind the Resolute Desk. Whatever was dignified or grandiose or inspiring about the office of the presidency, he managed to strip it away in no time at all. He made it seem like a grotesque charade, and for the rest of our lives it will probably be tinged with at least a residual hint of that. So good job, you proud flag-hugging patriots, you took something you claim to care deeply about and shoved a lubeless stick of dynamite in its every orifice. The next few incumbents will have to try and pick up those exploded pieces and put it back together again, Humpty Dumpty style. For all the talk about how the liberals want to desecrate the sacredness of the presidency and chip away at its importance, you succeeded where they never could. And you have no-one but yourself to blame.
There were times where I realized I was becoming numb to Trump’s misdeeds and the constant idiocy he spews out. I still knew that they were disgusting, but the actual feeling of disgust they sparked had become weak and distant. A sort of outrage-fatigue had kicked in. How could it not? There were just too many things to react to. An overwhelming, synapses-saturating superabundance. And, even worse, there was never the sense of relief at seeing him pay the price for what he did, so there was never any catharsis or resolution to help you recalibrate back to emotional equilibrium.
It now just seems quaint and slightly ridiculous that people labelled certain previous incumbents as “Teflon presidents” because none of them enjoyed a level of miraculous untouchability which even nearly approaches Trump’s. It really seemed like there was nothing he could do or say that would conclusively doom him. And then this was made even crazier by the fact that he’d openly boast about it too, which requires an almost inconceivable level of reckless arrogance. I remember watching his infamous remark that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone” with complete impunity and just finding it chilling. It was a real oh-fuck-we’re-through-the-looking-glass-now moment. Because the crowd laughs and cheers, blithely ignoring that the abstract “someone” he’s envisioning killing in that scenario is just some unimportant, expendable nobody like… hmm, oh yeah… any one of them. He literally makes a gesture like he’s firing a gun at them right as he says “someone”, just in case you needed a comically obvious subconscious tell to hammer it home. And, I repeat, they cheered him. That is so dark one hardly knows what to say. These are the type of besotted idol-worshippers where if Trump stomped on their face they’d thank him and consider it the highlight of their life.
The way he seemed to operate in a strange sub-dimension where consequences don’t exist was simply incredible to behold. Nothing ever seemed to really stick to him. Partly because he had set the bar so low that it was no longer shocking when he was offensive or incompetent. And partly because there was so much scandalous shit that just as you were getting worked up about this thing, he had already done the next thing and you were catapulted into starting to be incensed about that, but then the news is suddenly breaking about the next repugnant thing, and so on. Later on, you’d try to recall that string of events and it’d just be such a blur in your memory. It was like a carpet-bombing campaign where, by the end of it, it has become next-to-impossible for war crimes investigators to retroactively pinpoint where any of the individual bombs landed or how big each one was or what kind of damage they did. There’s just a ruined landscape stretching out before you, pounded flat and uninhabitable. That’s really all you can see and all you can say.
I will say that in those times when it came on, I very purposefully tried to fight against the growing numbness to Trump’s endless abuses and degradations. I think it’s important to ensure that the fucked-up shit your leaders do never stops appalling you and/or making you mad. But especially in the case of Trump. Because his whole objective is to normalize the spectacle of a president being a scumbag. To make it utterly mundane and expected. Listen, there are many things that have ended up working in his favour which I strongly suspect were unintentional. I mean, in a sense you could posit that his entire political ascendency was principally due to ‘right man, right place’ good luck. He stumbled into a national moment which was profoundly ripe for a brazen con man to brazenly ply his trade in. But this is something which I really think it’s undeniable he has pursued as a calculated strategy.
He wasn’t just trying to shift the ‘Overton window’ on what kind of policies you can propose and for what reasons, he was hoping to make it seem unremarkable that a president refuses to obey the laws laid down either by congress or even simply common decency. That’s why he never apologizes for anything. That’s why, in point of fact, he tries his best to avoid even addressing the scandals in his wake. He just waves them away as trivial nonsense stirred up by a crazed press. It’s not that he wants to hide them; he wants them to be right there in the open, but to nonetheless attract no punishment or meaningful censure, so that he’s able to keep doing it. On an intuitive level, he understands the psychological gambit which all would-be dictators must master sooner or later: the best and most lasting way to achieve a bubble of immunity for yourself is not to go to the trouble of meticulously hiding all your crimes, it’s to confidently show you have no problem with them being publicised, and to implicitly make clear your confidence derives from knowing that nothing will happen anyway. You therefore basically will that state of affairs into reality. The people hoping to hold you accountable start to doubt themselves in the face of your certainty, and so you dupe them into thinking nothing can be done. It’s very dispiriting and discombobulating. And that’s all there is to it. That’s the whole trick. It’s really very simple. That’s what’s so scary about it. As long as you’re in a position of high authority and behind-the-scenes you’re able to insulate yourself from some minor blowback already (for example, by having the spineless Republican Party in your thrall), you just have to have the insane degree of stubbornness and bravado needed to pull the rest off. Hell, you might even go so far as to say it’s so easy even an idiot could do it…
I can’t help but feel like there is going to be so much about these four years which will be so totally baffling to people who didn’t live through it that it’ll almost be considered like a black hole, almost kind of just written off. It’s going to seem like such a bizarre hiccup in the timeline, don’t you think? Just some unsettling anomaly that stands alone and can only really be talked about in its own terms. I picture those futurites basically just throwing their hands up and exclaiming “there’s no chance we’re going to be able to understand what the fuck was going on with people’s minds during that time… maybe it was mass hysteria or shared psychosis or the air pollution impairing their cognition, who knows?” and that’ll kinda be their only real takeaway. It’ll be hard to blame them for it either.
I also think that they’re going to have a very low opinion of us because of it. You know how now and then you read about some crazy shit the government managed to get away with back in, say, 1910 and you inevitably wonder if people were… y’know… maybe just dumber back then? Like, you’re not even meaning to insult them, the question just pops into your head unbidden. Were they just more simple-minded? Or more credulous? Or… what? You just cannot understand how they let the wool get pulled over their eyes like that or how they enthusiastically consented to such totally preposterous laws. Well, I can tell you right now, I had the realization in real-time at various points throughout these last four years that people are rightly going to do the exact same thing to us. They’re going to wonder what in the world could have been wrong with us, what exactly was faulty in our gray matter or deficient about our souls, that we let a sleazy huckster with despotic fantasies get his grubby little mitts on the nuclear codes.
None of it is going to make sense to them. None of it is going to add up. Just to take one seemingly-small thing: the way that Trump has no talent whatsoever when it comes to lying but still insists on issuing the lies-of-the-day personally. (Even when they could easily have been punted to his spin-doctors and then safely puked out to the wide world in the sterile, mind-numbing language of press-release-ese.) What really gets me about the manner in which he lies is how childlike it is. This is what I was getting at earlier when I said he just doesn’t have the mental acuity needed for any kind of true subterfuge. The only thing he knows how to do is flatly deny an unfavourable fact. It’s like if you caught a little kid scribbling on the wall or something like that, because when you ask them whether they did it, their little half-formed brains don’t even understand that they need to offer an alternative — and, ideally, exculpatory — explanation for how those drawings ended up there, they just get all wide-eyed and keep saying it wasn’t them. It doesn’t matter that there’s so many fucking sticks of Crayola scattered around their feet that you could melt them down and reform them into enough statues to open a psychedelic waxworks museum. They’ll just keep shaking their head and hope you somehow buy it.
Consider this one tweet which really perfectly typifies Trump’s style of lying: “Don’t let the FAKE NEWS tell you that there is big infighting in the Trump Admin. We are getting along great, and getting major things done!” That’s from the very beginning of his presidency and it was a formula he would go on to recur to hundreds of times. There are websites which archive his tweets and statements; go look at his long list of denials and you’ll see for yourself how eerily alike they are; his brain is like a factory-line conveyor belt which only ever yields the same thing. He doesn’t know how to prevaricate or cleverly fabricate something outright or even do the old ‘limited hangout’, proffering some half-truths in the service of a larger deception. And whilst this kind of fundamentally artless dishonesty can be adorable in small children, it’s just creepy and perplexing in a grown man. He is the embodiment of the adage that “the only thing more offensive than a liar is a bad liar.” I don’t know how much Trump paid for his diploma at the ‘Baghdad Bob School of Totally, Definitely Duping those Dumbass Suckers’ but he should look up whether his credit card company lets you file a chargeback against such prestigious learnitoriums. Hopefully he didn’t pay for it with a gift certificate.
One day, our grandchildren are going to study unbelievably transparent and ridiculous tweets like that one. They’ll be sitting there in their Political Science class. It’s gonna be yet another unprecedentedly warm summer’s day, drowsingly so in fact, and they’ll be trying to resist the temptation to just zone out and imperceptibly start watching funny viral videos via their implanted Apple Brainlink Mini™. And when their teacher starts reading out these tweets to them, our descendants are undoubtedly going to conclude that if the ‘leader of the free world’ believed he could hoodwink people with pitiful tripe like that, we all just must have been dumb as rocks “back then”. And if their teacher is worth their salt, he or she will also point out how similar these tweets are to those spine-chillingly absurd “everything is fine, carry on citizens!” announcements which besieged third-world despots used to blare out over the radio even when everyone in their countries knew firsthand that tanks were rolling down the street and breadlines were measurable in kilometres. Because the highest form of control over your citizenry is to browbeat them into doubting the evidence of their own eyes, to anoint yourself the sole arbiter of truth.
That’s why every single time there’s an injurious news story about his administration, no matter how well-sourced or otherwise evidenced it is, Trump pops up to inform the public that every jot and tittle of it is utterly, flagrantly untrue. He doesn’t even let a couple go past his bat, just for the sake of believability. He’s desperate to make you understand that it’s not just that there’s some anti-Trump bias which leads to him getting a bit too much negative press, it’s that anything at all which casts him in a bad light is false, and the only pronouncements you can believe are his unfailingly self-congratulatory ones, and… basically… to cut to the chase… the only person you can trust is him. It’s the same tactic that cult leaders use to reshape how their indoctrinated followers see reality. (I know I’ve compared him to a bunch of different unsavoury things in the last few paragraphs alone, but, well, he’s a real hydra of scumbaggery, I don’t know what to tell you.)
Putting one’s finger on what was the ultimate scandal
I would say it’s already sufficiently remarked upon by others, but just to lay it out plainly: counterintuitive as it may seem, Trump’s powers of invulnerability are actually maximised when he’s dealing with many scandals at once, rather than some lone one which can draw everyone’s sustained attention and scorn. I know that sounds a little whacked out, but it’s true. When he’s being attacked for so many things simultaneously, it has a weird way of cancelling itself out. It’s akin to the concept of ‘nuclear fratricide’ in military strategy. If you have too many bombs landing on roughly the same target area at roughly the same time, they might start blowing each other up before the real cumulative damage can be done. The very first detonation might destroy the subsequent bomb which is still in-flight/seconds from impact and then that explodes prematurely and in turn destroys the bomb flying behind it and so on, a daisy-chain of nullification extending all the way backwards. And so too, there are times when there are so goddamn many scandals swirling around Trump that it’s disorientating and hard to keep track of each one and they start overlapping and blending into one another and then after a while they all just sort of collectively fizzle out. I watched this happen, repeatedly. It was beyond exasperating.
So, believe me when I say, I could zero in on about a hundred disgraceful things that Trump did during those four years and let loose about them at great length. There is truly a bountiful cornucopia to choose from.
But here’s just a few choice examples which spring to mind in this moment:
- Trump disdainfully labelling America’s war-dead “losers” and “suckers”, according to reports. (Imagine if Obama had done that. Holy fucking shit, the aftermath would have gotten ugly. The Republicans would have gone downright apoplectic. I’m talking foaming at the mouth and bug-eyed and hands creeping towards scabbards type-of-thing.) This is viscerally repugnant in a way that’s hard to quite put into words. And, remember, these comments are from a guy who not only has never known anything besides titanic privilege and ease, but who also specifically evaded the Vietnam draft because of the phony ‘bone spurs’ which some compliant quack diagnosed him with. Whatever your feelings about the Vietnam war, there is surely a distinction to be made between a mere draft-dodger and an actual principled draft-resister, and there’s no mistaking which Trump was. He’s just an upper-cruster who’s always been accustomed to buying his way out of any potential hardship or danger. Just throw some money at it and make it go away. A little malingering and you’re off the hook. I’m sure he didn’t even think twice about it. “Let all those poor people go off to war! I’m needed here, to mismanage my businesses and run them into the ground…”
- His recurrence to racist dog-whistles. I’ll never forget when he told three POC congresswomen to “go back” to their own countries, in retaliation for them having the blood-boiling temerity to issue critiques of American society. But, of course, they were born in the United States. They just happen not to have white skin. Which to Trump, and his followers smitten with ‘show your papers’ laws, means that their citizenship is in some fundamental sense forever provisional or suspect and must be continually proven and re-proven.
- Using his presidency to surreptitiously enrich his own businesses, and imagining that no-one will notice or object. Trump doesn’t believe in conflicts of interest. Not because of some naive “what’s good for General Motors is good for America” outlook. But because the underlying ethical precept itself is simply beyond him. And remedying that would be impossible: it would be like trying to teach astrophysics to someone with severe brain damage. He just takes it as a given that everyone should be seeking to fatten their bank account at all times and in any possible way, and so using the spoils of the presidency to do so is no big deal. (This is why it’s so important that the electorate always demand that any businessman-politician meaningfully divest from any holdings that may influence the execution of their duties.) This one was kind of an ongoing background scandal for all four years which was regularly being reported on but never seemed to gain enough outrage-traction to snowball into the major issue it deserved to be; perhaps because it was just patient, slow-motion bilking rather than some shocking smash-and-grab style embezzlement. Apparently he “spent one out of every three days as president visiting one of his luxury resorts, hotels or golf courses.” That’s a lot of fucking taxpayer money to funnel into your own business empire. Not to mention, the residual revenue-increasing publicity boost for those venues that will persist for years to come is incalculable. I mean, did you know the name of his Mar-a-Lago resort before he became president? Now everyone does. He made it his ‘southern White House’ and it can now use that lofty reputation to significantly raise its rates and also never suffer an unbooked room again. And then there’s all the ways that his prestige was leveraged by others in order to secure better terms and opportunities during his company’s overseas dealings. (Hmm, I wonder if there’s anything that could be problematic about foreign governments or powerful private individuals thinking they can get on a president’s good side by excessively patronizing his businesses or giving them a really, really, suspiciously good deal when they’re seeking to expand… No, surely not. Perish the thought, you paranoiac.) It’s all a tangled web of self-dealing. It makes you feel dirty just reading about it. Trump handed the reins of his businesses over to his children — on paper anyhow — but it’s clear the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of their amoral money-grubbing. And the idea that they weren’t running this stuff by him for approval is just silly. Trump is not someone who will ever give up control if he can help it.
- Pardoning Blackwater mercenaries convicted of horrifically massacring fourteen unarmed civilians in Iraq. This one is just indicative of Trump’s core philosophy here. When Trump talks of the need for law enforcement and the military to “get tough” or “show strength” or “be allowed to do their job” or whatever, which he often does, what he means is they’re too constrained by namby-pamby, bleeding-heart rules (READ: human rights) and should be far more promiscuous with the use of force. This is why neither police brutality nor war-crimes seem to bother him in the slightest. He only understands things in terms of power: he thinks police officers and soldiers ought to be as ruthless and bloody as possible, because then they’ll be feared even more and thus more effective at intimidating those he believes need to be intimidated. Such as, oh I don’t know, his political foes maybe. This is the expediency which occurs to all dictators-in-the-making eventually. The simplest, easiest way to suppress unrest and criticism is, and always will be, with a slowly advancing shield-wall of riot police windmilling their truncheons.
- Pulling out of the Paris Accords. That act of wanton stupidity was the crowning achievement of his crusade against environmentalism, but there’s no question that he was an absolute disaster in this area all round. Given that he promised he’d gut the EPA and leave it as a withered shell of itself before even becoming president, it’s no surprise that he ended up choosing Scott Pruitt to head it. A guy who not only doesn’t buy the science on climate change, who’s not only so old-school corrupt it’s genuinely staggering, who’s so willing to bend over backwards for the polluter industries that even the term ‘regulatory capture’ seems insufficient, but he’s also such a colossal perpetual fuck-up that by the end even Republicans started to be embarrassed by him and some were even calling for his resignation. Putting him in charge of the EPA was tantamount to leaving a particularly dim and mischievous chimp in front of the control panel for a nuclear reactor: you only do it if you want to be very sure that things will go very badly very quickly. Trump also appointed Rick Perry as the head of the Department of Energy, which oversees renewable energy initiatives, despite the fact that Perry had previously called for its total abolition. Are you starting to see a pattern, perhaps? Trump fully understands that saboteurs are most effective when working from the inside. And elsewhere his moves were pretty much just as subtle as those two. Proposing the largest ever expansion of offshore drilling, where almost all U.S. waters would be opened up to the tender mercies of oil and gas companies. Preventing the publication of inconvenient research about contamination by dangerous chemicals. Revoking or crippling just about every regulation concerning clear air, clean water, endangered species, pesticides, toxic waste dumping, automobile fuel efficiency, etc, that he could get his hands on. Basically he was determined to be a bit of a hitman for that poor old ‘welfare queen’ Mother Nature, in order to save a few thousand coal-mining jobs here or forestall the closing of some heavy-emission factory there. Just so he can hold a little press conference afterwards to trumpet the fact that he’ll protect already-doomed jobs — in *cough cough* swing states — at all costs. If you happen to be one of those unfortunate bastards who live on the planet Earth, and you’ve noticed that it’s in somewhat of a highly precarious moment right now, this presumably ought to leave you shaking with rage. It’s just that when our grandchildren’s grandchildren are living in cramped arcologies, breathing recycled air and eating nutrient paste and squinting up at artificial sunlight, I fear they’ll be quite aghast if they find out that you weren’t.
- His insistence that schoolchildren be subjected to ridiculous “pro-America” propaganda courses. I mean, that’s some shit straight out of the 1950s. It was also extremely predictable. At a certain point, authoritarians usually realize that trying to convince the whole adult population is ultimately a dead-end because there’s no good argument for why they should agree to be subjugated or taken advantage of, there’s only hit-or-miss demagoguery which hopes to confuse the issue in a swirl of emotion and appeals to one’s worst instincts. It’s after that epiphany that they make a play for the vulnerably plastic minds of the young, hoping to inculcate useful nonsense there. The best way to forever impair their burgeoning capability for critical thinking is to make them believe that some things are too sacred to find fault with. The importance of thwarting this effort speaks for itself. Imagine if there was a proposal to give kids inhalers filled with aerosolized mercury. The pushback should kinda be on about that level, I would say.
- Having peaceful protestors outside the White House tear-gassed and dispersed so he could do a ludicrous photo-op. It was inevitable that Trump would one day emulate his political idols, such as Vladimir Putin, but this move was nonetheless jaw-dropping. The reports that he was hiding down in an underground bunker like a feckless yellow–bellied coward during the George Floyd protests obviously really dinged his pride, so he promptly had protestors exercising their first amendment rights forcibly removed. (Remember that when he whines about being censored and pretends to be an advocate for free speech. It’s ‘unfettered access to Twitter’s privately-owned service’ for me, and ‘indiscriminate use of rubber bullets’ for thee.) All so he could hopefully look like a defiant badass as he’s striding along with his pack of underlings in the aftermath — the official photos that were released are clearly trying to look like stills from some corny action movie, and will make you cringe so hard you might rupture your skull from the build-up of internal pressure. Oh, and also so he could hold up a bible in front of a church. Despite the fact that no-one, not even his evangelical supporters, actually believes he’s genuinely a practicing, believing Christian at all. Like many of Trump’s stunts meant to bolster his own ego, it succeeded only in further embarrassing him and making him seem like some tin-pot dictator.
- Trying to coerce a foreign leader into damaging Trump’s political rival. (And this move was made all the more repugnantly vulturous because it involved pressuring someone who’s in an acutely desperate situation, given that part of their country has been invaded and occupied by a hostile neighbour. That’ll make you want to do whatever you can to avoid displeasing or alienating any and all potential allies, even if they make untoward requests.) What else is there really to say about this one? It’s an open-and-shut case. It’s a textbook abuse of power that’s so inexpiable it should be an instant career-ender, otherwise we ought to finally abandon the already terribly shopworn fiction that holders of high office can and will be held accountable for extreme transgressions. And so, yes, it probably won’t surprise you to hear me say: it should unquestionably have led to his conviction/removal during the first impeachment. Watching his Republican allies employ whatever labyrinthine ‘logic’ they could to avoid calling a spade a spade during those hearings was distinctly Kafkaesque. All the evidence is laid out right there in front of everyone, there’s a phonecall transcript and all this copious other relevant testimony, but they’ve still gotta find a way to persuade you that Trump withholding a tremendously valuable White House visit until the Ukrainian president digs up some dirt on the Biden family is not, in fact, in any way, under any possible reading, an inappropriate quid pro quo. It really is an impossible task. You’d almost feel sorry for them if they weren’t such contemptible little toadies consciously misleading the American people in order to curry favour with their liege.
- Refusing to punish China for putting its Uighur population into brainwashing camps where other horrific forms of abuse are also alleged to occur, in order to protect trade-deal negotiations. As well as, per John Bolton’s memoir, telling them he thought rounding up an ethnic minority and interning them was “exactly the right thing to do.” (One of the only potential points of comparison between Trump and FDR you’ll ever come across.) It’s just sickening. Really, truly sickening. And just take a second to imagine, if you dare, all the other evil deeds or plans Trump may have expressed approval of to other leaders behind closed doors. Imagine what he may have said to Duterte or Erdogan or MBS or Sisi. This isn’t just meaningless, throwaway small talk that only serves to build trust or rapport. It really, really matters when an American president privately tells you that he not only has no problem with some fucked-up shit you’re doing in your country, but, hell, it’s actually pretty smart and, you know what, maybe he’d do the same if he was in your place ha ha ha. That implication of granting something between a blind eye and a green light can have a major impact. And, keep in mind, it also dovetails nicely with Trump’s efforts to publicly erode the moral stature of the United States itself. Who could forget when he declined to criticize Russia because his own country isn’t “so innocent” either. Famously, presidents always seek to stress America’s exceptionalism when it comes to being just and benevolent and honourable. So what is Trump trying to achieve with comments like those? He’s trying to create space to manoeuvre. He’d rather the U.S. abdicate any claim to superior standards of moral behaviour, so that he can behave immorally and no-one will bat an eye. That’s why he’s hoping to dissolve distinctions. He doesn’t want the U.S. to try to be a global leader in this regard, he wants it to blend into the pack. And a lowly, brutal pack at that.
Anyhow, my point being: he’s done so many breathtakingly despicable things that someone should really press charges against him for asphyxiation. Yet the most damnable indictment that can be laid at his feet, in my opinion, is that he failed the nation during a hyper-deadly pandemic. This is partly because of good old-fashioned incompetence. His principle skill, after all, is not doing things well, but elaborately telling you how well he’s going to do them beforehand. He’s like a shady used-car salesman whose silver-tongue means he can sell jalopies to dopes and make them think it’s a bargain, and then he’s never there when they bring it back to the lot because it’s falling apart two weeks later. (See: that beautiful, impenetrable new border wall he promised he was going to build lickety-split by bringing his construction expertise to bear. Well, in the end he managed to erect his big black eyesore — funny that he complains about wind turbines spoiling the view — across less than a quarter of the 2000-mile southern border. And, of that, only forty miles is actually addressing sections of the border where there wasn’t any physical barrier already. The rest is just replacing existing measures. Oh yeah, and Mexico isn’t gonna pay jack-shit for it. Not now, not ever. Unless Trump was willing to muster an invading army and straight-up raid the Mexican government’s coffers, he was never going to get a single penny and he knew that from the get-go.)
It wasn’t just incompetence though. Trump consistently put his own ego and his own single-minded focus on placating his base ahead of doing what was best for the country during the pandemic. In that sense, it wasn’t just a failure, it was a betrayal too.
To take the biggest thing: the revelation which came out in the Bob Woodward book ‘Rage’ that Trump was told how bad the virus was going to be way back in JANUARY of 2020. And then he spent months intentionally downplaying it and peddling ridiculous fantasies that it would soon disappear entirely when giving public speeches. He claims that he was attempting to avoid fomenting panic. That’s obviously a wise and necessary objective. Yet it must be coupled with letting people know what they’re truly in for, so they can get ready for it. Otherwise they’re going to get ambushed by it and the resultant damage will be multiplied exponentially. But if you look at his statements during that early period, it’s perfectly apparent that his message was not “our country is about to go through a very serious challenge, we need to gird ourselves for sacrifices, but your government is well-prepared and we’ll all get through this if we work together,” it was “you don’t need to worry about this, it’s all overblown, look at the negligible numbers of infected people, the Democrats are just ginning this up to attack me with.” And those two things are worlds apart. Like, even the Hubble telescope couldn’t peer at one from the other. The reason why he tried to trivialize what was happening was merely because he didn’t want his shining presidency overshadowed by a crisis. He didn’t want the bad press. He didn’t want anyone thinking there was something that he couldn’t control. That’s all it was, he was just serving his own political ends. No more and no less. Plain and simple. And in doing so, he caused Americans to be lulled into a false sense of safety and complacency during that crucial beginning period when strenuous countermeasures could have made all the difference.
And, by the way, that moronic line he kept repeating about how the warm weather would… I don’t know… cook the virus particles I guess and make COVID suddenly vanish? Allegedly, this was said early on to Trump by the Chinese President Xi Jinping during a phonecall. And so not only was he stupid enough to believe misinformation from the reprehensible foreign government which enabled/covered-up the outbreak in the first place, he then VOLUNTARILY DISSEMINATED it to the American public and even gave it the added weight of seeming like it was actually his own assessment. I mean, it just absolutely beggars belief. There are almost no words to properly describe what a dereliction of duty this is. The President of the United States willingly and knowingly became a megaphone for Chinese propaganda which had the effect of encouraging the American people to be dangerously dismissive about an impending pandemic. Ask yourself this: if, hypothetically, the Chinese government wanted the COVID outbreak to devastate the U.S. to the greatest extent, could they possibly have engineered an easier, more risk-free, more bang-for-your-buck approach than using Trump to relay false information which will lead to less national readiness all-round? Then ask yourself this even more important question: isn’t it perhaps even more damning if that isn’t true, if Trump wasn’t covertly used to harm his own country, but did so simply because of his own fucking quintessential anencephaly? Something to contemplate in your idle moments, I’d say.
Then there’s the fact that for the longest time he was too macho to even wear a mask in public. By setting that example, he would have spurred millions of his most pig-headed followers to do so too and thus saved countless lives. It’s utter madness that he refused to do it. There was no good reason not to. None. Not even the shadow of one. It would have cost him nothing and been so immensely beneficial. As usual, it was just his own conceitedness that got in the way of his responsibility to best serve the country. He was only worried about image management: he didn’t want to seem weak or afraid because he was donning protective gear. Bear in mind this is a man who’s strangely obsessed with reminding everyone how amazingly physically healthy/robust he is. (Even though he’s in his seventies, shuns exercise based on comically childlike reasoning, goes for weirdly secretive doctor’s visits, has to take cholesterol medication, and maintains a fast-food heavy diet. Just yet another cognitive dissonance him and his love-struck disciples must wrestle with.)
Y’know, it’s the type of thing you expect from someone like Vladimir Putin. Everything has to be subordinated to the continual effort to make you look like a tough guy, like some kind of all-powerful, invulnerable ubermensch. With Putin it’s photos of him riding a horse shirtless or doing judo or hunting in the wilderness. Trump doesn’t have such… taxing options available to him, because, well, have you ever seen him stiffly walk down a slight incline or ever seen the intensely weird stationary double-handjob motion which is the only way he can approximate dance? If so, you know that he has all the physical prowess of someone who’s recovering from an emergency surgery which fused every single vertebrae together. So with Trump it’s just photos of him going maskless or it’s his insistence that he’ll keep shaking people’s hands regardless. But it serves the exact same purpose. He wants to seem both coolly unbothered by danger and preternaturally unaffected by it. There’s no question that he has the strongman leader’s instinctual understanding of the paramount importance of self-mythologizing.
(By the by, this kinda touches on why I think the scenario of Putin holding kompromat over Trump’s head is —though distinctly possible, because Trump’s a deeply reckless person — a superfluous postulate when it comes to explaining his alarmingly
Russophilic Kremlinphilic behaviour. Quite probably, Trump does as Putin wishes/refuses to criticize him simply because A) Trump admires Putin and wants to be respected by him, and B) Trump thinks like Putin to a large extent, so the overlapping interests are inevitable. You hardly need to employ the cattle-prod of blackmail when you can just rely on someone’s naturally-arising sense of affinity with you instead. Besides which, Trump is also constrained by his need to strenuously pretend that Russia isn’t really our “number one geopolitical foe” — word to luckless ol’ Mitt for that much-maligned but ultimately prescient remark — because that denial buttresses his claim that they didn’t commit all the election interference in his favour in 2016.)
And then there was his hobby of undermining his own scientists and advisors. They’d make recommendations; he’d ignore them. They’d make public advisory announcements; he’d contradict and negate them. And why? Why sabotage your own handpicked COVID task force, especially when the nation is in such dire straits? Now, there’s a maxim that you should never automatically assume the worst motives when explaining the actions of those you dislike. The idea being it’s bad form in terms of civility and it’s also exactly the kind of lazy heuristic than can lead to intellectual sloth. I don’t dispute any of that. I would simply tell you that Trump is one of the notable exceptions to that aforementioned rule. He just is. So why did he consistently denigrate and overrule his own scientists? Why did he frequently engage in asinine squabbling with Dr. Fauci, both overtly and also behind the curtain? It’s no more complicated than that he cannot brook anyone taking his limelight, even for a second, or disagreeing with him about even the minutest particular. No-one, no matter what your role in government, can clash with the self-serving bullshit he’s trying to peddle in any given moment. That takes precedence, always.
Talking of which, why was he so dead set again lockdowns and mandating mask use and the like? And not just against imposing such things himself on a federal level but, incredibly, even demanding that states dissolve their own such initiatives? The warped political profit-motive is not very hard to divine here. It’s solely to service his re-election campaign, and does so via two avenues. He scores easy ideological points with his right-wing voter-base — who would screechingly oppose being temporarily confined to their homes even if there was lava flowing down the streets and man-eating, genetically-modified-to-be-heat-resistant crocodiles swimming in it — because he shores up his pro-liberty credentials. Additionally, and more crucially, Trump was trying to protect the booming economy which he knew was by far his most valuable re-election asset. It’s generally understood that however many failing grades adorn your first-term’s report card, if you can at least point to eye-popping economic growth, you might well scrape by into a second one. (Though Trump was hoping that not too many people would realize the undeniably impressive surge he presided over was partially due to the momentum that Obama handed to him like a gold-plated baton when leaving office. The thing about that famous “it’s the economy, stupid!” slogan is that it actually derives from the much longer, much less snappy one “show them a simplified economic chart with the line going in the right direction, and pray they’re too stupid to ask any follow-up questions!“)
Naturally, this desperate attempt at bubble-wrapping his precious unemployment numbers, and et cetera, was an utterly futile endeavour. Lockdown or no lockdown, the economy was fucked. That’s just the bleak reality. It was either going to fall into a woodchipper or be carefully lowered into one, but the bottom line is that it was definitely going in there alright. (I go into more detail about why that’s the case in this previous post.)
The bottom line is Trump valued the economy over Americans’ lives. And don’t for a second kid yourself that he viewed it as some kind of twofer. Y’know, something like “a defibrillated economy is good for me AND the country!” I really can’t emphasize and reaffirm this point enough: Trump is pathologically single-minded in his self-absorption. If you doubt this, just refer to the fact that when it came to the development of a vaccine, his main concern was that it be released before November, so he’d get sole credit. Even if that meant rushing the human trials and recklessly releasing something unfinished.
Nor was he even chasing the distorted and rotten moral logic that the Republicans were hanging their hats on without ever having the balls to state outright. The notion that we have to accept some extra people dying unnecessarily, so that we can keep businesses afloat and thus the financial outlook and quality of life of those who do survive will be bettered overall. (What a stunning coincidence that the party owned by and beholden to Big Business should end up telling the little guy that, actually, yeah, look, we know it sounds crazy, but we ran the numbers thrice, we swear, and it turns out that your hypothetical future wellbeing depends on sacrificing everything we can to ensure the Fortune 500 are safeguarded.) Don’t even get me started on this devil’s bargain. I mean, talk about simply chasing some damned ‘mess of pottage.’ Only the human limescale encrusted in the upper echelons of the GOP could think something like this is a worthwhile tradeoff. When morgues are overflowing, the average person doesn’t give a shit how many retail locations the [BLANK] Corporation had to close, they just want their perished loved ones back. And the dead themselves are whispering up through the soil, in the direction of the
hallowed slimy halls of the RNC headquarters, “money is meaningless if you’re not alive to enjoy it, you heartless motherfuckers.”
For his part, Trump definitely doesn’t really shed any tears about how the economic downturn actually affects people. He doesn’t empathise with their pain, lacks even the ability to do so. He just wrings his hands at the bad headlines and the dip in his internal polling numbers. It’s all just strategy and manoeuvring and self-preservation to him. Of course, he’s been careful to say things like “even one death is too many” — that being one of several stilted, perfunctory proof-of-compassion comments you can very clearly tell he’s been coached to sprinkle into his rants. But the skyrocketing number of deaths countrywide means next to nothing to him. The only number he watches closely and loses sleep over is the fucking Dow Jones index, because if it were to somehow rebound miraculously it might help him come election time.
Listen, I’ll grant you, it’s a phrase that has become so overused (and often used melodramatically) that it’s understandably lost its bite. But, still, it’s sometimes the only one that fits the bill. And so I don’t mind telling you there’s really no question in my mind that Trump has blood on his hands for selfishly impairing the fight against COVID. If there’s any karmic justice at play in the universe at all, that will eventually be the main thing he’s remembered for. This putrid egomaniacal clown-emperor, who cares above all else about manufacturing an impressive lasting legacy for himself, should never be allowed to escape or obscure that hideous black mark. His entry in every encyclopaedia or history book from now until the twilight of eternity should begin with the death toll he oversaw and enabled. I want him sentenced to the exact opposite of damnatio memoriae. That would be too merciful. What he did should be publicized far and wide in four-hundred-point font and no-one should ever be allowed to forget it. I hope a band of righteous vandals even chisel it into his gravestone one day.
Don’t get me wrong, there has already been a lot of anger directed towards Trump for this, but I would venture to say that it’s likely only going to build and intensify even further as time goes on. I’m talking about once we all have the clarity of hindsight. So many people who lost someone they know are understandably still so wrapped up in grief and sadness that they simply don’t even have the brainspace to fully grasp how badly their president betrayed them. But in time that latent rage is going to be unleashed in its entirety, I think. And then there’s all those people who will be plagued by that dreadful ‘long COVID’ thing from now until, well, sadly, who knows. Imagine what it’s going to be like for them, as they’re gulping down the daily cocktail of medications which are simultaneously taming their ongoing symptoms and bankrupting them, and they have to keep seeing Trump’s smug face on their television screens. How unbearably infuriating it will surely be. For men like Trump, there’s no such thing as having even the bare minimum of decency to keep a low profile after disgracing yourself and costing/ruining countless lives. There’s just infamy and the greedy reaping of its rewards. Like I said, I suspect there will soon come a point where this won’t be tolerated in the way it has long been.
Trump was always destined to do a lot of damage, no matter when he became president. But it really is such an incomprehensibly cruel joke on fate’s part that he should be helming the ship when COVID hit. More or less, he was the absolute worst possible person to be given ultimate authority during the absolute worst possible time. (If ever there was a slam-dunk proof for ‘O’Toole’s corollary of Finagle’s law’…) It’s like, there’s definitely no good time to get struck by lightning, but if you happen to be running from your burning home and patting your still-aflame pajamas out when you get zapped by a cruelly gratuitous thunderbolt… you would probably throw a dirty look towards the heavens and yell “alright, that’s a bit fucking much, okay?”
This whole thing has shown how unbelievably important it is that we have stable, competent leadership; especially during a catastrophic worldwide emergency like a pandemic, which is just about the ultimate stress-test for government. Leadership that has the humility to listen to the science and be strictly guided by it. Leadership that has enough sense and decency to realize that all other petty considerations must be set aside until this moment of colossal peril has been outlasted. You stop thinking about newspaper opinion polls and re-election prospects. You stop thinking about what the Fox News talking heads will say about this choice or that choice. You stop thinking about how best to strike some iconic pose of Churchillian steadfast determination as you’re talking to your team and you hear the whooshing chatter of the White House photographer’s shutter behind you. You stop thinking about yourself altogether. The only thing you expend your mental energy on is how to take every reasonable, effective measure to reduce deaths that you possibly can.
That’s just talking about mindset and attitude though, which are just the basics. Or to put it the way a logician might: getting those things right is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success here. The thing is, even if all his other character flaws could have been magically stripped away, Trump still would not have been up to the job, not by a long shot. The reality is that he’s just radically incompetent. He was destined to flounder badly even if he’d been blessed with the four most tranquil and prosperous years a president has ever overseen. So if you throw a once-in-a-century public health disaster at him, you’re pretty much triple fucked with sprinkles on top. He undeniably looked waaaaay in over his head every time he talked at length about the pandemic. And that’s putting it mildly. He seemed like an overwhelmed, clueless guy who was just barely keeping it together — I swear, there were one or two times where he was very palpably surfing the edge of a full-blown meltdown — and simply relying on making shit up as he went along. He didn’t know what he was doing and he was hoping nobody would notice.
I bet even the people who voted for him privately got the heebie-jeebies watching him stumble through those painful, meandering press conferences and flubbing decision after decision. (Whereas everyone else whose political allegiances don’t cause them to grade Trump on an ultra-generous curve were, no doubt, rather horrified and terrified in equal measure.) No matter how good you’ve gotten at lying to yourself, when you’re witnessing such stark ineptitude at such a pivotal time it has to register on some level. It just has to. I don’t care how hardcore of a partisan you are, you’re going to at least feel a pang of anxiety at seeing that. The brain knows what it sees and it’ll start chewing on the infelicitous implications whether you want it to or not. But you know what? You only have yourself to blame. You put him there. Who could forget all those useful-idiots back in 2016 who essentially just shrugged and said “gee, I dunno, maybe he’s not all that bright or all that qualified, but he sure is entertaining, really livens politics up with his outrageous antics.”
Well, how funny is it now, you fucking dummies? How amusing was it — whilst nursing homes were becoming heaving mausoleums, and supposedly unbestable young people were having COVID-induced strokes — to see your president brainlessly musing out loud about whether it might be wise to inject bleach into one’s veins? I mean, really, tell me. Give me the skinny. Were you cracking up? Did your sides hurt from guffawing? Were you still posting “lol nothing matters” memes then? Are you truly that far gone, that monstrously nihilistic? Here’s an important truth that you should try to rid of its stale husk of clichéhood and properly heed: the eyes of history really are upon you. And you will not be forgiven for having kneecapped the country you claim to love during such a hellish event, simply because it seemed like it would be cool to put a snowflake-triggering buffoon in the White House.
Oh yes, turns out putting a moronic reality TV star in charge actually had consequences. Turns out your protest vote against the establishment came at a horrific cost. Turns out that it’s not like just slapping an inflammatory bumper-sticker on the country in order to piss off the liberals and the news media. Turns out that during a dire crisis, the competency of your elected leaders really does matter a hell of a lot. It was literally the difference between life and death for so many of your fellow Americans.