Trumpian Cognition and the Specter of the Russia Probe

Getty Images/TPM Illustration

When I wrote this post about Trump’s pre-Twitter, 2011-12 video blog I went back and watched a decent number of the mini-episodes. One of the things I watch for in watching these – just can’t help it – is his verbal focus and precision. (Here’s the video series I’m talking about.) Watch video of Trump from twenty years ago and it’s very, very different from the guy you see now. There was some of this in these videos from less than a decade ago. But there was something else that I noticed, something that took me a while to quite put my finger on because it’s the absence of something.

The best way to put it is that Trump is just looser. Some of this is the polarization that he has intensified and that we all now live with – more red meat and teeth gnashing. But even setting that aside he’s just looser. There are a few more moments of self-deprecation. Sometimes he’ll just do a movie review or talk about one of his movie star friends. There is that thing we almost never see in him now – humor. True humor, as opposed to mere sarcasm or viciousness, always contains a measure of self-deprecation. Viciousness and attack have always been Trump’s native language. But these other modes were at least present. They’re gone now.

Eventually I figured out what it was: there’s no Russia probe. It’s like the fish that knows nothing about water. It’s so ubiquitous that its profound effect on the man doesn’t immediately occur to me somehow. But let’s just put it squarely: President Trump never speaks publicly without the Russia probe being front and center. Never. Even when he’s bragging about the greatest economy in human history, or African-American unemployment or his increasingly obviously failed gambit in North Korea, the Russia probe is always there as the backdrop or counterpoint, whether explicitly or implicitly. And it’s usually the former.

The fact that Trump has little to do with the extremely low rate of unemployment today isn’t the point. Almost two years into his Presidency any President would be taking credit for it. But when he brags about it, most of the time it’s to point out all the great things he’s doing and not getting credit for because of the Russia probe. ‘Look at all these amazing things I get no credit show because of the Russia probe!’ Or it’s why the Russia probe just doesn’t or shouldn’t matter because of all the great things he’s doing. Remember there was a decent interval when Rudy Giuliani explained that President Trump couldn’t be bothered to talk to Robert Mueller because he was business preventing a nuclear holocaust by talking to Kim Jong-un. Good or bad, on every front, Donald Trump cannot escape the Russia probe. I think if you think about it for a moment it’s hard to think about Trump saying anything without the Russia probe and all that goes with it being at least implicitly a big, big presence. And of course usually, you don’t need to imagine. He says it.

This is hardly surprising. It’s tough to be caught. It’s tough to have no way out. But since we’ve never known a President Trump without it it can be hard to quite grasp how pervasive and all-consuming it is. I sense it has transformed him at some level, possibly melding with some degree of cognitive decline or perhaps simply warping his cognition and focus all on its own. Fear and stress change the brain. Here you have a man who far more than most people lives to dominate, lives to control. He lives in a psychic world in which there is no middle ground. His whole life has been built around that. And here you have him, under the world’s biggest spotlight and microscope, facing something he clearly cannot control and something with almost unimaginably high stakes for him and his family. It would take a person with an almost preternatural equanimity and poise not to be undone by that. “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed …”

These things are entirely beyond him. For someone who has always craved praise, deference and untrammeled power above all things, it is almost a Twilight Zone-like bespoke hell ending to the story.

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