The media, politicians on both sides of the aisle and foreign leaders have sustained the pretense for the first 16 months of President Trump’s tenure that he is rational. Out of a sense of self-preservation and a desire not to panic billions of people around the globe, they’ve all played along, pretending that there is a method to his contradictory statements, his personnel shuffles and his tweets. They’ve acted as if he understands the content of the speeches he reads off a teleprompter and knows what’s in the bills he signs. They’ve maintained the fiction that he has a working knowledge of history and economics, that he has a grasp of the Constitution, and that he remembers or cares to remember what he said a day or an hour ago.
It’s time to fess up. The weight of the evidence is that these soothing tales we tell ourselves and one another do not reflect what is really going on.
The New York Times reports, “Aides said there was no grand strategy to the president’s actions, and that he got up each morning this week not knowing what he would do.” This week? How about “every week”?
He doesn’t play chess of any dimension nor is he cleverly distracting us from one calamity with another. He acts out because he lacks the knowledge, discipline, perspective and decency to behave otherwise. Yes, we’d rather be led by any of the teenage speakers on the March for Our Lives stage — who know what they don’t know and have a good grasp of civics — than the current Oval Office inhabitant. Goodness knows the teenagers are more respectful and concerned about their fellow citizens than Trump is.
Trump’s opinion on a matter at any given time seems to be derived from Fox Pretend News hosts and his “gut” — which has led him to two divorces, extramarital affairs, a dozen or so failed businesses, multiple bankruptcies and a series of policy and personnel debacles. He is informed by nothing more than his own narcissism, racist beliefs and reality-TV existence. He is either so desperate or so out of touch with reality that he thinks what his presidency needs is more Trump. He is not going to bother paying attention to those with more knowledge, more sense and more experience than himself; instead, he’ll be guided by flame-throwers on cable TV.
All of it adds up to a president cutting the cord, freeing himself from the constraints that were built up around him. He will run the White House as he wishes. He will populate his inner circle as he sees fit. He will act like a loyal Republican when he sees his own self-interest involved but will walk away from congressional Republicans when that serves his interests and his politics. He hasn’t managed to drain the swamp — far from it. But he will continue to take actions that signal to his supporters he’s still determined to do so.
Except he really doesn’t deliver what he keeps saying he will. He signed a bill that funded Planned Parenthood but not the wall. He agreed to spend gobs of money Democrats wanted on domestic programs. He did not slash foreign aid. He did not “defund” sanctuary cities nor did he curb legal immigration. (“The bill allows the administration to nearly double the number of H-2B visas available for companies to hire temporary foreign workers this year to 129,547.”) But then again, it’s very possible he had no idea all that was in the bill he signed. After all, he thinks he has effectively repealed Obamacare by eliminating the individual mandate.
Even his steel and aluminum tariffs are largely for show; the administration exempted from the tariffs most of the top exporting countries. He probably isn’t all that certain — or doesn’t care what the tariffs actually do. Harsh? No, he still thinks the trade deficit means we are “losing money” and NATO countries pay into some giant NATO piggy bank to fund their defense.
Trump is doing plenty — but not in fulfillment of his promises to his base (sorry, a tax cut for corporations doesn’t count), nor in service of any ideology. He lumbers about tearing down democratic norms (which he likely does not know are norms, or does not care), throwing allies into confusion and panic, jolting the markets and perhaps bringing us closer to nuclear confrontation with not one, but two rogue states. There is no plan; there never was. There are no guardrails; most of the guardians have been fired.
That’s not a comforting picture, but perhaps it’s better to come to grips with the reality that we have an irrational man at the helm and a Congress afraid to do anything about it.