I was away for a long weekend at a college reunion. I wasn’t totally offline. I actually poked around the web here and there. But I wasn’t monitoring the news, responding to it, in the way I normally. I was, I confess, surprised at how rapidly things were able to degenerate in just three days. The terror attack in London is not Donald Trump’s fault of course. But his response to it is hard to fathom even for him.
Actually, I wouldn’t say it’s hard to fathom. It’s not even surprising. We’ve known and seen this withering deficit of shame and grace before when he tweeted out “appreciate the congrats” in response to the Orlando club massacre last year. I’m not even sure what the word is or if there is one. But the one I am struggling to find is the experience of not being remotely surprised by the President’s action and yet marveling that the expected action – or transgression in this case – has managed to find a new depth of awfulness to penetrate and explore.
This morning Trump is on another Twitter rampage, essentially exploding months of work career DOJ lawyers have put into rebranding Trump’s “Muslim ban” into a non-controversial discretionary immigration executive action. As Trump put it this morning: “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C.”
This is more than just errant mouthing off. The entire on-going litigation turns heavily on the intent behind the orders. This was obvious in a common sense way – thus explaining much of the administration’s failure before the courts. This is almost a gift to the ACLU and other states and legal groups fighting the different iterations of the ban.
I wrote late last week that for all the horror of President Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris climate accord, the decision had all but nothing to do with climate policy or anything related to it. The mix of the deepening Russia scandal crisis and European leaders harsh rejection of him at Brussels have pushed the President into a rage and humiliation cycle that is playing out before our eyes.
Over the last six months one thing I’ve tried to focus on, wrestle with is the fact that Trump is clearly a floundering moron. (Trump reportedly asked two Presbyterian ministers, members of his own notional denomination, whether Presbyterians were Christians.) And yet, he managed to be elected President, an outcome I thought was possible but quite unlikely. This is obviously something important to mull over, for me and others. It is remarkable to remember that Trump was revealed in early October 2016 from his own mouth as a serial harasser and sexual assaulter. His own self-indictment was confirmed by a flood of accusers. Prominent members of his own party were calling on him to step down from the nomination, a totally unprecedented event. And yet he managed to emerge victorious on election night little more than four weeks later.
Turnabouts and seeming impossibilities like these have inspired many to fall back on a 97 dimensional chess theory of Trump. I think that’s incorrect. Many factors went into Trump’s victory. A big part is what is probably best described as a perfect storm of contingent events: a weakened Democratic candidate, bizarre interventions by the FBI, active assistance by a foreign state, the singularly important role of political polarization which allowed Trump to consolidate softly-anti-Trump GOP support once he’d captured the nomination.
But a and perhaps the critical factor is that while Trump is not remotely strategic, he is intuitive. And he had a particular breed of wildness that was remarkably powerful in particular political moment – let’s call it the politics of vengeance and destruction. He is like a thrashing firehose of id but ripping this way and that not by the force of water pressure but by impulse, hurt and rage. We can see that to a remarkable degree in weekends like these and actually the last week where he is doing immense damage literally to the whole world and yet much or most of the damage being to himself. He is, as always, out of control – his own control most of all. The real question is whether we remain in the political moment in which Trump’s own wild and damaged self gives him improbable political power.