Donald Trump has dominated discussions of American politics since his June 2015 speech announcing his presidential candidacy. He sparked the first of a seemingly endless series of media controversies in his political career in that speech when he said that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” It was such an outrageous observation that a Washington Post opinion piece predicted that this rhetoric would “ keep the Republican Party out of the White House.”
Since then, Americans have sought some hidden meaning behind the erratic actions of the man who now sits in the Oval Office. His tweet Tuesday night warning that his “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s (and that “my Button works!”) has prompted more of the same. But nearly a year in, it turns out that the truth is hidden in plain sight: Trump’s actions appear angry and impulsive because Trump is angry and impulsive. Computer programmers use the term WYSIWYG — “what you see is what you get.” The real secret of the Trump administration is that it is the WYSIWYG presidency. There is no grand plan or veiled purpose. There is no wizard behind the curtain — just an old, irate, obnoxiously ignorant man.
Some see a strategy in the president’s outbursts. To his supporters, his brash actions and hateful speech are calculated to show that he “tells it like it is” — that the billionaire is a man of the people. (Or, rather, of the right people: White nationalists and other extremists view many of the president’s moves as coded signals of support.) To others, Trump’s command of the public conversation suggests he is either a master persuader, bending public opinion to his will, or a maestro of distraction, drawing attention away from where it could harm him most.
None of these explanations is convincing.
True, Trump has sometimes profited from his attention-stealing antics. He rose to prominence within conservative circles by backing a conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. And slurs against Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech were followed by polls showing that a plurality of Republican primary voters supported him, elevating Trump as the dominant figure in the race.
Yet other instances of the president’s freewheeling style have seemed ill conceived. What master persuader would have recounted his election victory and bashed the media for the umpteenth time in front of a Boy Scout National Jamboree? What strategic calculus informed the president’s endorsement of two losing candidates in Alabama’s Senate special election? And why spread baseless conspiracy theoriesabout charges such as massive vote fraud in the 2016 election — which he won? In fact, the biggest political “distraction” involving Trump may be how his lightning-rod-like ability to attract scandal and alienate potential allies has made it harder for congressional Republicans to enact their policy agenda.
The difficulty of finding a plausible rationale for Trump’s behavior leads some to conclude that he is irrational — literally unable to control himself. A few observers have speculated that he might be mentally deficient in a clinical sense, suffering from dementia or even a variant of syphilis. North Korea’s Kim evoked these views when he described the president as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” But such armchair diagnoses run far beyond the evidence — including the fact that the president does not suffer the level of impairment required to diagnose a mental disorder.
Others see a more sinister possibility: that he intends to seize on a “Reichstag fire” moment to consolidate his power, in a manner reminiscent of the rise of the Nazis. (Google Trends search results show that U.S. interest in the term “Reichstag fire” peaked in the frenzied first few weeks of the Trump administration.)
The president’s relentlessly appalling xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism invite such comparisons to unsavory regimes. So does his proud assumption of the motto “America first,” a slogan with anti-Semitic overtones and Nazi-sympathizing origins . His attacks on the media (even individual journalists) and interference with the FBI and the Justice Department demonstrate disdain not only for commonly accepted ideas of what behaviors are “presidential” but even for elementary standards of democratic citizenship.
Yet it seems unlikely that Trump intends to institute a dictatorship. One factor — far from the most important, but overlooked in many Twitter jeremiads — is that he simply seems to be too lazy to do so. Someone who can (as the New York Times reported) routinely spend four to eight hours a day marinating in cable TV news makes for an unlikely candidate to overturn a constitutional order. Another is that he has little incentive to do so while he is secure in his position and his family is free to profit without fear of reprisal. Were either of those factors to change, the story might be different — and we would have to hope that the institutions that were weak enough to allow Trump to become president would be strong enough to thwart such ambitions.
Seeking hidden plots misses the point. There is no real distinction between the onstage and offstage Trump. He is not acting. The Trump who publicly ranted about Mexican immigrants and refugees during campaign rallies is the same one who, as president, privately ranted on phone calls to the Mexican president and the Australian prime minister about those issues. Even when his staff briefly succeeds in getting him to stay on message, he soon flaunts his independence by going off-script to reveal that his good behavior was a charade.
He has no ideology besides a half-glimpsed vision of national “greatness.” He has no grand strategy, just a profound need to demonstrate that he is a winner, a dealmaker and an influence wielder. And having suffered few consequences of importance to him for his behavior so far in his short political career, he recognizes few limits to his whims. He will ignore his critics and follow the applause he receives for his reckless actions as far as he can.
The search for meaning in Trumpism reflects the desire of both his supporters and his opponents for the president to be what he is not: profound, larger than life, grandiose. Trump’s self-evident pettiness defies those sensibilities. Recognizing that there is no greater meaning may help us address his challenge. Reflecting on how such a small man ever came to occupy such an important office may inspire us to prevent a repeat performance.