Much of the time, Donald Trump seems more a dark caricature of a president than the real thing. People use all sorts of metaphors to describe his bizarre behavior in office, including references to psychological disorders, comparisons to fascist dictators of past history and, of course, reality television shows.
None of these has been quite sufficient. During his campaign for president, he kept doing things that analysts agreed were the “last straw”, surely the breaking point in his effort to win the nomination. Since he took office in January, numerous events have been described as the worst day or worst week of his presidency, yet they keep coming. There is, as best anyone can tell, no bottom to what Trump is capable of doing.
Trump’s shortcomings have been well catalogued. He came to the job never having served in either public office or the military. He is stunningly ignorant about even the most basic information regarding issues, law and policy, the lives of others, or the rest of the world. Worse yet, he shows no interest in learning. Trump substitutes lies and bluster for knowledge and perspective.
The words “chaos”, “dysfunctional” and “incompetent” have become increasingly the language to describe this Administration. It’s apparent that Trump isn’t really interested in governing. While some might take comfort in that realization and in the disarray that characterizes everything that the White House does, there is a much greater danger lurking below the surface.
What Trump does care about is holding power, not being perceived as weak–note all his references to others laughing at the United States or at Republican Senators–and not being unmasked as the fraud that he is. He is not going to go quietly into the night. He will pull down the entire edifice of government before he allows himself to be humiliated.
The most serious transgression thus far has been Trump’s attack on the constitutional system. Whether or not you agree with “originalists” about the correct way to interpret our founding document, the reality is that our political system relies upon much more than just a piece of paper written in 1787. It’s also history, Supreme Court decisions, precedent, compromise, norms and civility.
Trump has unleashed an all-out attack on our entire system. He disregarded years of accepted practice when he refused to share his income tax returns. He violated the spirit of the law when he brought unqualified family members into senior positions in government. He views Congress as an annoyance rather than a co-equal branch of government. Although his firing of James Comey may not constitute obstruction of justice, it is certainly a blatant trampling of the independence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Every political observer on the planet is watching to see what will be the next attack. Will he fire Special Council Robert Mueller? Will he replace Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein at the Department of Justice? If he takes those steps and there isn’t an immediate move to impeach him, we really will be entering dystopian territory.
American presidents have enormous powers. Practices that have evolved since the Constitution was originally written have greatly increased those powers. The revered system of checks and balances is far from automatic. It only works when those in office recognize that there are limits on their powers and other officials in the political system place a higher value on the country and the Constitution than they do on personal loyalty to the president.
It’s not surprising that Trump can demand and received subservience from White House officials. As members of his personal staff, they serve at his pleasure. If they don’t respond as he wishes, he can replace them and bring in world-class sycophants. There is no one working there now–neither the relatives nor the generals–who is an effective restraining force. The first six months of his presidency should have made that totally clear to everyone.
Before Trump took office, some observers saw signs of latent fascism and suggested comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini. That Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism led others to conclude that, therefore, he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic and, thus, wasn’t a fascist.
A better place to look, however, is the psychological literature on authoritarian personalities. When you examine the characteristics of this personality type, Trump comes across as a textbook example. Joseph Stalin in the 1930s offers a clearer analogy. That was the period of his greatest paranoia, of his purges of people in the army and the communist party whose loyalty Stalin doubted. Sound familiar?
Trump acknowledges no limits on his power. He is, in many respects, a shrewd analyst of human nature, a skilled manipulator of public opinion and a person who defines everything in terms of the impact on him. He has no allegiance to the American political system, to fundamental values or to anyone else. He will do anything to hold on to power.
The “novel” in which we find ourselves today doesn’t need to have a dystopian ending, but it could. The next few months are likely to be critical. The future of American democracy depends on Trump being held accountable by Congress, the Courts and the political system. He is a dangerous man and it’s time for even his supporters to realize that he’s also a fake who has no interest in delivering on any of his promises. Whether the political system which has evolved over 230 years can hold him remains to be seen.