Donald J. Trump spent his first year in the White House on a steep learning curve about what it means to be a president. He’s figured it out now: it’s a giant playbox in which his insatiable ego can command the entire world’s attention at the drop of a tweet, turn treaties and alliances upside down in 280 characters, feign wars and back off them to keep the stock market and all those big corporate hotshots who never gave him respect on a daily roller-coaster ride. Nothing’s for real and nothing has consequences, because reality itself is what Donald himself makes up as he goes along, with cues from his favorite sounding board at Fox & Friends. It’s a narcissist’s fantasyland, and a democracy’s ultimate nightmare.
Richard Nixon fell from power because he lied about what he called a third-rate burglary. Donald Trump burglarizes the country every day, nakedly exploiting his office for personal profit and charging the country for expenses. His cabinet officers fall from grace when they follow his example. He doesn’t.
Trump lies brazenly about everything — from the size of his inauguration to the Canadian trade balance to his payoff to a porn star — and calls the facts that suggest otherwise fake news and those who report them poltroons and traitors. He rewards his personal physician for lying about his physical height by giving him charge of the Veterans’ Administration. He trashes government agencies and derides the courts. He suggests that incest with his daughter might be fun. He thinks a trade war with China might be fun. He has great fun leaving us all guessing what can come next. The presidency, well, it’s the greatest fun of all.
In the terms in which he has redefined the office, Donald Trump is already the most successful president in American history. Previous presidents had to deal with Congress, public opinion and the huge executive bureaucracy itself. They had to promote an agenda, on whose success or failure they were graded. They had to manage relations with the world and maintain American interests and influence. Trump does none of these things. He ignores Congress, sneers at individual members, and suggests treason in the opposition party. He leaves vast numbers of government posts unfilled, and critical agencies unfunded. He has no domestic or foreign agenda beyond his need for daily attention. He is indifferent to public opinion, including that of the so-called base whose core economic interests he now threatens. As long as he can find a crowd to cheer him, he has all the achievement he needs. His only standard is the amount of chaos he can sow around him, because chaos concentrates attention on the one who creates it. Success requires only utter unpredictability. By that yardstick, Donald Trump is successful beyond the wildest dreams of his predecessors.
Trump is greatly abetted by the press he affects to despise. It treats him as the responsible agent of the world’s greatest power. It calls upon him to formulate policies and follow them. It criticizes him, but as a rational actor. It parses his style of governance and speculates on the deep motives that must, surely, underlie it. It calls on him to be truthful, honorable and just. It has, in short, entered Trump’s own fantasyland.
Donald Trump is neither rational nor responsible. He has no policies, merely personal tics to which he periodically returns. He does not govern. Truth, honor and justice are entirely alien to him. Perhaps he once had some connection to a reality principle, for example in bankruptcy court. But being president means creating your own reality, and everyone else’s too. That’s the only principle to which he needs to adhere.
How did we get here? The Founding Fathers wanted to create an executive strong enough to conduct the affairs of the nation. They greatly worried about the potential abuse of such an office, and so attempted to hedge it in with checks and balances. They hoped primarily to do this by means of a Congress that would be the central institution of the new government. But presidents chafed at their restraints from the beginning, and with America’s rise to world dominion, the executive engrossed more and more of the powers of government.
A determined president, these days, can be a near-dictator, starting wars that Congress must helplessly fund and bending statutes to the will of the executive. An anti-president like Donald Trump can function to all intents and purposes as a tyrant.
James Madison and company were worried about demagogues and dictators. Donald Trump is neither. A demagogue seeks to manipulate public opinion, but Trump is indifferent to it. A dictator generally has policy objectives, but Trump has none; he seeks only “wins” in the sense of victories to declare, regardless of content. A tyrant, in the classical sense, is one who simply seeks to impose his own whims from day to day, or at least compel attention to them. That’s what Trump does, and so that is the term that fits him.
Trump didn’t enter office this way. He was merely the most spectacularly unqualified and inept person ever to assume the presidency, with disturbing personality markers all around him. It was assumed, though — or at least hoped — that he would be disciplined by the requirements of the job, and guided by advisors. The stock market boom that greeted him suggested that he would prove a useful idiot to the Republican elders who would run the show. At first, it appeared that this might be the case. Trump had no idea of how the government was supposed to work, and showed no interest, not to say capacity for learning it. He wouldn’t listen to briefings. He fled to the golf course and his nightly bedtime with a cheeseburger, and holed up in Mar-a-Lago. The generals who staffed the key policy positions quickly talked him out of his idea of getting American troops out of Middle East hot spots. He liked the photo-ops that accompanied his signing of presidential orders, if he weren’t required to read them. As long as his ego needs were met, he seemed the perfect patsy.
Gradually, though, Trump discovered that the abuse of presidential power was far more gratifying than its accustomed use, and far quicker at mainlining his ego. More, he found that an ego vested with the powers of the modern presidency could shake the world via tweet as it slept, and leave it to deal with the consequences. No Roman emperor had ever enjoyed such pleasures, nor even a Reality TV impresario.
This is the world we now find ourselves in. The political norms we had taken for granted — of civility; of respect for (even if not necessarily observance of) truth; of personal conduct or at least discretion — do not apply to Donald Trump. Our political system, paralyzed by the failure of its constitutional controls, lurches from crisis to crisis. Make no mistake: Trump’s actual incompetence will not save us. We’ve had a lot of bumps on the road in 230 years of republican government, but we’ve never faced anything remotely like this.