I’ve spent a lot of time pondering why Donald Trump inspires in me such revulsion. Much of that time could have been devoted to work, or spending time with my family, or watching paint dry, all of which would have been infinitely more enjoyable. Sure, there are lots of very obvious and well-founded reasons. But I feel a particular loathing for Trump that I don’t feel for indisputably worse human beings (and yes, there are people who are actually worse than Donald Trump; more on that in a bit).
So after all that thought, I’m beginning to think I know why. I can only speak for myself of course, but I suspect there are a great many Americans who feel the same way, which accounts for the palpable groundswell of very personal and well-deserved hostility toward Trump, which feels so different from politics in the recent past, even at their most poisonous.
It’s his complete and utter insignificance.
I’m not saying that we are not living through deeply important, unprecedented, and massively impactful times. We are. It’s just that the figure at the center of them is an absolute cretin of earthshaking proportions, and that is hard to come to grips with.
PREDATORS AND PRETENDERS
Much as I abhor him, Trump is far from the most coldblooded and terrifying ogre on the global scene. We can start with Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Bashar al-Assad, and Robert Mugabe, just for an appetizer. For all his many faults, our so-called president has yet to behave as badly as those boys, though I’m not ruling it out over the long run. (Liberal hysteria, you say? Who in June 2015 thought Trump would even win the GOP nomination?) And that’s just the present day; if we want to go into the past, there are of course the usual genocidal all-stars who need no introduction. Again, my hostility toward Donny Boy does not blind me to the fact that he is a piker in comparison with such amoral, mass murdering monsters.
But here’s the thing about all those guys. They were at least proper villains: formidable, serious individuals who had earned their place as despots to be reckoned with. Trump, by contrast, is an unmitigated buffoon. The mere fact that this bozo is our head of state, commander-in-chief , and in control of the nuclear codes is gobsmacking. When I look into my heart, that is the thing about Trump that hits me on a very visceral level, in a way that far more capable and accomplished villains never have or ever could. In that sense, WaPo writer Dan Drezner’s phrase the “beclowning of the presidency” could not be more apt.
I am enraged that we have to devote so much time and energy to this blithering nincompoop. “What does Donald Trump think about the Paris Accord?….What does Donald Trump think about healthcare?…..What does Donald Trump’s latest tweet mean?” It makes me furious on a daily basis that I have to worry what Donald fucking Trump thinks about ANYTHING. And yet that is what the collective brainpower of the entire American punditocracy—indeed, the thinking class of much of the world—is forced to do. We have willingly saddled ourselves with a deranged toddler king, and thus spend much of our time desperately parsing and predicting and wringing our hands over what His Royal Fatuousness believes at any given moment.
Don’t get me wrong: Trump is terrifying, no doubt. I am not dismissing him as a joke unworthy of our attention. On the contrary: the very fact that he is so unqualified, so clueless, so out of his depth, is the heart of the problem, especially since his ignorance is yoked to a despicable and dangerous right wing agenda. (No surprise, really. I suppose a naïf might theoretically arise in the service of a benevolent ideology, but the crude simplicity of reactionary politics more readily lends itself to a simpleton standard bearer.)
I’m not saying every dictator throughout history was some sort of genius. Saddam Hussein, for example, was an uneducated killer who had hardly ever been out of Iraq, but he was still a savvy and ruthless warlord who rose to power within the vicious Baath Party. Tsarist pretensions aside, Putin is a coldblooded KGB apparatchik more than a global visionary, but no one rises to the top of that organization by accident or luck. Trump has no such CV. He is a dimwit who blundered into the Presidency almost by accident with the help of millions of Americans who were at best woefully misguided (I’m being generous) and millions of others who abetted him with their apathy, not to mention a myopic media, a craven Republican Party, and possibly Russia, to a name just a few of his accomplices.
Even those benighted far-off kingdoms and ancient empires that have historically suffered under monstrous child-kings had the excuse of being hereditary states. Kim Jong-un is bedfellows with Trump as an erratic dunce apt to install his horse as a member of parliament, but North Koreans can at least comfort themselves that he was born into the job. By shameful contrast, the United States willingly installed our infantile tyrant-in-chief.
It goes without saying that the Hitlers, Stalins, and Kims of the world deserve a special place in hell, along with all the other mass murderers, pedophiles, child abusers, and people who talk on their cellphones in public toilet stalls. Trump doesn’t meet that elite criteria (though a Hades-adjacent condo is surely awaiting him). But he is uniquely infuriating in his combination of unearned arrogance, cartoonish megalomania, prideful ignorance, malignant narcissism, despicable values, and willingness to spread poisonous bile into our collective cultural bloodstream. And so we are all forced to deal with Trump all day every day, whether we want to or not.
Donald ought to be in his glory with this state of affairs. His infantile, all-consuming mission in life—his prime directive—is to be at the center of attention at all times. And Lordy (as Jim Comey might say) has he gotten his wish…..and it does seem that the gods are punishing him by granting it. As we speak, Trump is arguably the most mocked human being on earth, on pace to secure that title for all time. It’s a fitting fate for a man with a pathological dread of being ridiculed. (Note the number of times that he has referenced what he clearly considers the ultimate nightmare of “being laughed at.”) All evidence suggests that he is mostly miserable as President, which warms my heart and serves him right. It’s very possible that he blithely began this quixotic foray into presidential politics as a mere marketing ploy, then found it spinning out of control to the point where he couldn’t stop it, and is now trapped in a job that he doesn’t remotely want and is ludicrously ill-equipped to do. We are all paying the price for that bad joke gone terribly awry, but it’s mildly mollifying to know that Trump hates his life too.
THE RIGHTFUL STATE OF THINGS
There has always been lots of loose talk in America that what this country needs is a leader who’s not a politician. Fran Lebowitz, with characteristic wit, pointed out the fatal flaw in that facile argument on The Tonight Show, as did Louis CK in a memorable appearance on Conan. (Both bits were pre-election and both depressingly prescient.) I think when making that wish people imagine Kevin Kline’s Dave, or even Jay Bulworth, not the troll currently occupying the Oval Office. Perhaps they should have been more specific.
I’d like to remind everyone that two short years ago, when Trump descended the royal escalator at his gold-plated castle on Fifth Avenue, he was an utter joke, and had been for three decades. He was a D-list reality TV celebrity, which was itself a surprising second act in a professional life of fraud, failure, and malfeasance. He wasn’t a real estate mogul, but he played one on TV. His primary business was licensing his name to crap: apartment buildings, casinos, and golf courses, but also steaks, vodka, neckties made in China, second-rate pro football leagues, fake universities, and a string of ridiculous, ghostwritten autobiographies. He was a walking punchline for the New York press that rightly knew him as a pompous windbag and shameless wannabe desperate to be allowed into the club with the cool kids. He had staked his entire public image (and self-image) on being a billionaire, but his business career had been a string of serial bankruptcies and byzantine lawsuits starring unhappy former partners and stiffed vendors. Everyone in New York City was on to his game, no one would loan him money, and he was generally regarded as a boor and a joke by serious real estate developers and other wealthy people. He crowed endlessly about his financial acumen, but as many economics experts have pointed out, if Donald had merely taken the millions he inherited from his father and parked it in the S&P 500 he would have made more money than he did with his numerous, oft-disastrous business ventures. He was a Richie Rich cartoon come to life….a poor person’s comically distorted idea of a rich person. Late night talk show hosts openly praised the comedy gods for putting Trump in the presidential race, and pleaded with him on camera not to drop out, and deprive them of A-plus comedic material.
Who’s laughing now, as they say.
But that was the proper state of affairs, the absolutely appropriate response to Trump as an aspiring politician. Now, through sheer daily, mind-numbing repetition, we are inevitably becoming accustomed to the words “President Trump.” (It still makes me queasy every time I hear it.) It’s like having to hear the words “President Carrot Top.” “What does Carrot Top think about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?….What does Carrot Top think about immigration policy?” The presidency is unavoidably conferring upon Trump a certain gravitas—unearned, it goes without saying. But seeing him amid the trappings of the office is slowly, bit by bit, desensitizing us to how very very wrong that is. But now we are all enrolled in Trump University.
THE SLIDING SCALE OF REPUBLICAN AWFULNESS
I actively disliked Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush to varying degrees, but at least they worked their way into national politics through elected office at the state level, among other achievements. Yes, Reagan was dismissed as a lightweight—an actor, no less!—but by the time he ran for the presidency he had already transformed into a serious public figure, and been president of the Screen Actors Guild and governor of California (paving the way for the Terminator). No one ever seriously wondered if he could in fact even read. Bush 43 was similarly scorned as a birdbrain and a dilettante, but he had at least been an Air National Guard pilot (sort of), a graduate of both Yale and Harvard (nepotism and the gentleman’s C notwithstanding), and the governor of Texas. When he was in the White House I was wont to call him “The Evil Chauncey Gardiner,” but now that comparison is beyond obsolete. Compared to Trump, Bush was Winston goddam Churchill.
Schwarzenegger ought to hold the crown as least likely national-level politician, but he was a self-made man and then some. Improbably, he rose from being a champion bodybuilder with a Prince Valiant haircut and an impenetrable, ridicule-ready Austrian accent to become—first—the biggest movie star in the world (which was already pretty surprising) and then the well-regarded if flawed governor of our most populous state, one that would be the sixth largest economy in the world were the Bear Republic an independent country. (He even laid out that hilarious-at-the-time plan on camera in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron.) I didn’t think Mitt Romney was the best man to lead America, and I damn sure wouldn’t let him babysit my dog, but I didn’t feel physical repulsion at the idea that he might occupy the Lincoln Bedroom, or fear for the Constitution, or lay awake nights worrying that he might start a thermonuclear war in a fit of pique. I wouldn’t piss down Ted Cruz’s throat if his heart was on fire, but even he is not quite as repulsive as Trump. His politics are abhorrent, his personality (such as it is) makes my skin crawl, and I’m not among those who are bowled over by his alleged smarts either. A Princeton pedigree and a talent for debating begin to lose their weight as intellectual credentials when deployed in the service of ideals as vile and openly hypocritical as his. (Not unlike Newt Gingrich.) But Ted Cruz is still at least a douchebag on the spectrum of the reality-based community….which was why even Lyin’ Ted was vanquished in the primaries by Trump’s schoolyard insults. When a candidate emerges that makes even Ted Cruz look normative, you know we’re in uncharted waters.
Trump is not uniquely awful. Sure, there was a lot to be furious about in how he campaigned for the presidency: his pandering to the most vile, base instincts of humankind; his racism, xenophobia, and jingoism; his shameless lies, ad hominem attacks, and empty promises. But there have been plenty of demagogues in history, many of them trafficking in the same neo-fascism to which such behavior lends itself. But most of them at least had the common decency to be mustache-twirling villains who were aware of the cons they were running. I really don’t think Trump is.
In addition to Being There, another frequent cinematic comparison during the campaign was A Face In the Crowd, Budd Schulberg’s brilliant story of a drunken ne’er-do-well who is elevated to national prominence only to become a demagogic monster. (Directed by the morally compromised Elia Kazan, and starring a astonishing Andy Griffith in far and away his best ever performance. Judging by that one film, Griffith could well have had an amazing career as a dramatic actor. But I won’t quibble with the comforts of Mayberry RFD, which run through my childhood like Pop Tarts and Tang.) Face has become a ready touchstone in American cultural life, applied to everyone from Will Rogers to Bill Clinton to Oprah with varying degrees of accuracy (and sometimes completely inaccurately). But it has never felt more on target than with Donald J. Trump.
But Lonesome Rhodes—Griffith’s character—at least had skills. Yes, Trump is a con man too, plain and simple, like Lonesome: that is the one thing he indisputably does well. But even there he seems to be a kind of idiot savant. He is less like a conniving, brilliantly devious grifter who delights in fleecing the rubes than a wanton sociopath who believes his own bullshit.
I am tired of hearing that Trump is smart, or that we underestimated him, or that we continue to do so. What we underestimated was the gullibility and moral vacuousness of the American people. He is not smart. In fact, he seems to be actively stupid. All he has is the animal cunning and instinct for the jugular of a schoolyard bully, albeit in spades. That served him very well in the campaign; in office, not so much.
The added fact that he won—ahem—the presidency over an infinitely more qualified candidate only makes matters more infuriating…..and that that candidate was a woman introduces the likewise crazy-making issue of misogyny about which I have already written at length in this blog. Regardless of what one thinks of Hillary Clinton, even her harshest critics have to admit that she had the experience and qualifications to be President. (I refer you again to Fran Lebowitz and the White Pages under “plumbing.”) In fact, for some of those critics—the Bannonite “smash the state” faction—that very experience was part of the problem. For others, the main problem was simply her vagina.
KAKISTOCRACY ÜBER ALLES
The fact that Trump is an utter tool, a psychological trainwreck, barely literate, and wildly unqualified to be a detention hall monitor let alone President of the United States remains maddening and unfathomable to me. I’m not saying I would prefer a brilliant, evil genius in the White House. I wouldn’t. But at least that would not make me livid at the universe for the incomprehensible injustice that this man is somehow our leader.
Under Trump we are now indisputably a kakistocracy, as Michelle Goldberg has sagely written: ruled by the very worst and least qualified. Fittingly, he assembled a Cabinet that seemed to belong in dystopian science fiction, each officer seemingly the very worst person imaginable to head their respective departments. A climate change denier for head of the EPA. A Christian fundamentalist anti-public education zealot to head the Department of Education. An oil industry apologist to head Energy. A Goldman Sachs vampire squid to fill Alexander Hamilton’s seat at Treasury (who, as a bonus, is entangled with Kremlin money laundering, as I noted last week). I was actually weirdly relieved to hear Steve Bannon admit—brag, in fact—that those Cabinet members were chosen for that very reason, the likelihood that they would eviscerate their respective departments, part of his avowed Leninist campaign to destroy the US government. It would have depressed me more to think that Trump & Co. genuinely believed these were the best people for the job.
Once even people on the right largely disparaged Trump as a joke not worthy of serious consideration. Remember during the primaries when there was talk that Trump would destroy the Republican Party as we know it, that the Grand Old Party might split into a white nationalist party with him at the head and a more mainstream Conservative Party that reflected traditional GOP mores? How naïve that view now looks, and how unjustifiably generous toward American conservatism. Instead of splitting in two and salvaging its semi-reasonable wing, the American right—in a Faustian bargain—went all in with this despicable snake oil salesman and purveyor of racist bile, even as he violated in person and policy every tenet of its alleged philosophy. A thrice married, proudly unfaithful serial philanderer and inveterate Manhattan sybarite with no discernible religious belief (let alone record of churchgoing); a former Democrat who is all over the map on trade, taxes, fiscal policy, and numerous other once doctrinaire Republican positions; a man who on foreign policy swings from Know Nothing “America First” isolationism to jingoistic Curt LeMay “Bomb them into the Stone Age” misadventurism at the drop of a red trucker hat: this is the beast to whom the former Party of Lincoln sold what remains of its soul.
Almost six months into the Clown King’s chaotic reign, rationality and reason would suggest that the right ought to dump Trump post haste, for numerous reasons. Instead they appear to be doubling down. Tribalism in American today is such that the right (with a few notable exceptions) has closed ranks around Trump as its last best hope, covering its collective ears and shouting la-la-la-la to drown out the pitiful cries of its conscience, for those conservatives who still have one. We all know that Trump did and said numerous things that would have sunk any other presidential candidate—one strike and you’re out, as Ed Muskie or Howard Dean could tell you. (Oh, but they’re Democrats.) But once he became the last Republican standing, Trump benefited from the ruthless messaging of the Republican machine. Trump is a human wedge issue. Like abortion, gay marriage, or gun control, he has become a binary, in-or-out litmus test on which there is precious little middle ground, if any.
Ironically, by winning the election, Trump may wind up destroying the GOP much more thoroughly than if he had lost. It will depend largely on when—and if—the Republican Party ever decides to cut its losses and jettison this toxic, golden-combed-over albatross. That, of course, is what some on the left openly hoped for: the Susan Sarandon segment of the Bernie Sanders movement who argued that a Trump victory would be better in the long run than a Clinton one because it would hasten the revolution. We shall see. But there is no denying that along the way Trump is doing possibly irreparable damage, none of which is made up for by the promise of a possible revolutionary victory on the distant horizon.
During the campaign, many many people—especially in Republican circles but on the far left as well—floated the lazy, disingenuous idea that “both candidates are bad,” implying that they were equally so and therefore did it really matter who won? How can anyone possibly look at the flaming shitstorm that has been the last 150 days and still believe that? Trump’s hardcore followers do, of course, which is a Salem witch trials-level of mass hysteria. As an admirer of Hillary Clinton, warts and all, I have always rejected that false equivalency full stop. But for those who had severe criticisms of her, during the race I used to say, “OK, for the sake of argument, let’s say both candidates are bad….but one is bad like acne and the other is bad like leprosy.” So we chose our illness, and we are all infected now.
It is somewhat comforting to think that Trump may well go down in history as the worst, most vilified, most justifiably ridiculed US president ever…..a fate worthy of O. Henry, or Roald Dahl, or Greek mythology. My fear is simply that he takes all of us in and the whole of Planet Earth down with him.