The Unprecedented President


Much attention has been devoted to trying to decide what psychiatric diagnosis best describes Donald Trump. Early consensus was that Trump is a textbook narcissist, but that assessment doesn’t seem nearly adequate to take in all his abnormal tendencies.

Recently, some observers have compared him to an underdeveloped child,a label which may be doing most children an injustice. Does he meet the criteria to be called a sociopath? That claim has certainly been made.

The problem with this line of thought, however, is that it’s irrelevant. Labeling him neither changes his behavior nor imposes any constraints on what he does. Whatever personal satisfaction you may take in referring to Trump as a narcissist, he is still president and he continues to do outrageous and dangerous things everyday.

Characteristics that were already evident during the Presidential campaign have, if anything, been accentuated since he took office.  Trump craves both the limelight and approval.  His attention span is so short as to make you wonder how he functions at all.  The President has no curiosity nor any inclination to educate himself about the many areas for which he has responsibility.  He is thin-skinned and quick to anger.  Yet, ultimately, none of these observations changes a thing.

Trump’s time in office has been chaotic and unproductive, but those are hardly the most important consequences of this uniquely abnormal man holding the most important job in the world.  He creates damage without knowing or caring.  He sells out his supporters without a second thought.  Moreover, Trump has neither respect nor regard for our constitutional system and the norms and values that have allowed it to function as well as it has for so long.

In the last two weeks, Trump has taken his assault on our democratic system to new depths.  After the House of Representatives passed a highly partisan and deeply flawed bill that purported to “fix” the country’s health care system, Trump led a celebration at the White House despite knowing little of what was actually in the bill and ignoring the fact that the process is far from over.  A celebration after your team has finally made a first down shows you don’t really understand what you’re doing.

Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey showed so many of  his personal flaws in vivid display.  It was clear very quickly that the President had been in a rage about Comey’s handling of the investigation of his ties to Russia.  After making various subordinates put out a clearly fictitious explanation, Trump undercut them with his own remarks and tweets, in essence acknowledging with pride that he had engaged in obstruction of justice.

Most observers at that point expected the Comey story to dominate the news for weeks. Firing the FBI Director seemed like an untopable display of misreading the political dynamics of a decision, bungling the explanation and setting up a constitutional confrontation.

That conclusion underestimated Trump’s tendency always to be able to dig the hole a little deeper.  This week, the Washington Post, working with sources within the government, revealed that Trump had disclosed highly confidential intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister during a recent White House visit.

Trump tweeted that he, as president, had every right to reveal the information. Perhaps so but remarkably bad judgment on his part.  This from a man who threatened to have Hillary Clinton locked up for her handling of classified emails.

Another important strain of the Trump presidency was illustrated in this most recent incident.  The President constantly sends subordinates out to lie to the press or at least to offer defenses that attempt to cloud and confuse.  Sean Spicer has done that so many times that hardly anyone takes what he says seriously anymore.  He has lost the only resource that a press secretary must have, personal credibility.

Worse yet, Trump sent HR McMaster, his National Security Advisor and one of the few people in the administration who has been well-regarded and respected, to offer a defense.  McMaster disputed claims that did not appear in the Post article, didn’t deny that Trump had disclosed classified information and refused to take questions.  The cost of his standing up for Trump is to leave an indelible stain on one of the only adults in the room.

While many Americans watch in horror, Trump threatens the basic institutions of this country, reduces respect for the United States around the world and allows his administration to do great harm to the citizens of the country.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to reinstitute highly punitive and counter-productive drug enforcement laws.  EPA Director Scott Pruitt is gutting the nation’s environmental laws.  Trump’s proposed budget would benefit the very rich and devastate the lives of the most vulnerable citizens.

Labelling Trump won’t change anything.  We may get some relief from late night comics, but they won’t stop his presidency.  Democrats may be able to obstruct some measures and draw attention to others, but they are still in the minority in both houses of Congress.

What the country needs, I would even say desperately, is for Congressional Republicans to acknowledge that we have a president who is unhinged and that they alone can stop him.  So far, appeals to put country before party have fallen on deaf ears.  I expect little or nothing from either Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, both of whom are amoral opportunists.

Rather, this is the moment for some profiles in political courage from rank-and-file Congressional Republicans.  Senators and Representatives know what is going on in front of their eyes.  They are neither stupid nor blind, but they must stop acting like lemmings marching in lock-step with their party leaders.  It’s time to take their oath to the constitution seriously.