He’s also incredibly unreflective. He remains utterly blind to the moral problems on full display in the rough transcript of his infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Rooting out corruption in an important U.S. ally is in the public interest. Telling that ally’s leader to work with your personal lawyer to investigate your potential opponent is not. He doesn’t see that, and he never will.
Trump is vindictive beyond belief. Let’s not kid ourselves; successful politicians know how important it is to cultivate and reward friends and punish enemies. But democratic politicians also know how to put personal feelings aside at key moments or conceal their hate. Trump invoked adversaries such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif) and characterized them as “vicious and mean” and targeted them for a host of other attacks. He spoke about the need to work for the common good, but it’s hard to see how he can ever work with Democrats again.
And yet, he is right about so many things. The attacks on him from the moment he won were unprecedented, vicious and cruel. People did leak to the press and make up facts to bring him down. He has been subjected to more vituperation and scorn than any president in decades, if not in more than a century. He has been under intense, direct personal attack for so long, it’s almost hard to remember that this isn’t normal political behavior. That’s on his enemies, and it’s destroying our political culture.
His fans love the fact that he’s a fighter, and Thursday’s talk showed how much he loves to fight. He regularly referred to his legal team and congressional defenders as “warriors” and spoke of friendships being forged in battle. Most politicians ultimately want to be loved and are not capable of withstanding the type of barrage Trump endured. They find a way to make it stop, whether by changing the topic or by striking a deal with their tormentors. Trump said no other president could have withstood this level of vitriol, and he might be right.
But while Trump also wants to be loved, he won’t buy that love by looking weak. And so he fights, tenaciously and with everything he has.
Trump’s fans love that because they, too, feel under attack. Conservative Christians believe, with good reason, that progressives hate them. Blue-collar former Democrats know that many think they are “deplorables.” Republicans have been called stupid and evil for so long that it just seems normal to sit and take it, seething inside but calm as far as the world can tell. When Trump fights back, he’s fighting back for all those people, and they love him for it.
Trump haters argue that none of that matters, that his manifest deficiencies are so great we should ignore his accomplishments and his virtues. But that’s precisely what’s in dispute. Senate acquittal means the people themselves will weigh all of his faults and all of his virtues together and make their choice. That’s how it should be in a democracy.
Trump is often said to be what we get when entertainment and politics meld. There’s some truth to that, so let me conclude with an analogy to a movie that came to mind as I listened to Trump: “10 Cloverfield Lane.” The horror flick revolves around the question of whether a character, played by John Goodman, is insane or whether the Earth really has been invaded by aliens. By the end of the movie, we learn that Goodman is murderous and crazed — and that there is an alien invasion. Trump’s speech left me with a similar, frightening question: What if Trump is both unfit for office and right about the character of his foes?