Donald Trump is an ongoing, self-administered insult to the intelligence of the American people. Each new morning that we awaken with him as our president is a fresh reminder that in a democracy, we the people get the government that we deserve, and that we deserve Trump.
He is a clown who looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the greasepaint. He utters the unbelievable and then erupts in anger when some dare call it nonsense. He is the punishment that we have inflicted upon ourselves and upon each other. He is the price we must pay for our failure as citizens, the cost of indulging in a politics of resentment rather than rationality.
And as surreal as these last seven months have been, I fear they are mere prequel to what is soon to come. Congress is returning from its summer recess with important, must-do items on its agenda, but it has given little cause for confidence that it can do them. The president is acting increasingly irrational, with sporadic outbursts of responsible behavior inevitably followed by days of anger and petulance. His thirst for power exceeds his ability to acquire or wield it, and from that gaping chasm comes rage born of confusion.
Our system was designed to ensure that neither the legislative nor executive branch could dominate the other. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” as explained in the Federalist Papers. The Founders did not foresee a time in which neither branch was competent to perform its duties, and thus made no provision for it. We’re on our own here.
It is Trump who poses the more immediate problem. He thought that being elected president meant that he would be exalted and celebrated; instead he finds himself contradicted, mocked and abandoned. He keeps returning to these campaign-style rallies because that’s where he feels most presidential, at least as he perceives the office. He has yet to come to grips with the fact that senators and representatives might defy him, that judges might dare to overrule him, that the news media might challenge him, that in fact those institutions exist to do those very things.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on the Russia story. Trump thought that as president, he could pull the FBI director aside and in a private moment make this inconvenience go away. He thought that by installing his first and closest ally in Washington in the office of attorney general, he could make himself impregnable, and so was outraged when Jeff Sessions passed on drinking from that poisoned goblet.
And in a recent telephone conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it was McConnell’s refusal to halt the Senate’s Russia investigations that apparently launched Trump into a profane, personal tirade.
We know from Trump’s business history that when cornered, his strategy is to lash out and make things as painful as possible for everyone else involved, to make the situation all about him and what he needs, to string out and compound the agony and humiliation so that others yield and he is allowed to dictate the outcome. Again, it is the strategy of a three-year-old at the checkout counter, screaming for candy, and the problem is that throughout his life, Trump has always gotten the candy.
This time, though, it is we, the American people, who are “everyone else involved.” And if you think that Trump has any scruples about inflicting great pain on the rest of us to preserve his precious ego and self-regard, you really, really have not been paying attention.