The measure of someone’s character is best taken not in the times of success, but in times of adversity. Since Donald Trump’s life took a pronounced turn for the worse after the November 6th elections, Americans have been afforded their first real opportunity to assess his performance in the face of such adversity.
He’s failed the test. And he continues to fail.
Having just lost his Party’s smothering dominance of the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a consequence, facing the certain prospect of prolonged—and pitiless—investigations into his own criminal acts and those of his immediate and extended family, Trump’s behavior over the last few days confirms everything many of us have always known: This so-called President and his presidency are nothing more than a sick and dangerous joke, riven with gross incompetence and gone badly awry.
Retreating into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment is how it’s being described. But the truth may be even simpler than that. This is how incompetents behave when they are not up to whatever task they’ve taken on.
Donald Trump has not one iota of civic involvement in his entire life. He has never pursued any activity that was not geared, directly or indirectly, for his own benefit. The concept of public service is a wholly alien concept to him. So, when called upon to perform a simple human gesture, such as standing in a memorial to fallen soldiers at Belleau Wood, or laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, he balks. He shakes his head in puzzlement. He doesn’t get it. There is no sense of obligation on his part, because there is no sense of shared humanity. He simply doesn’t care.
But his actions in Europe and at home this week are just symptomatic of a deeper problem—the same dearth of feeling and empathy he brings to issues involving human contact render him wholly unfit to the tasks associated with the U.S. presidency. Someone with no real sense of obligation to his fellow countrymen cannot pretend to have any real policy goals.
The “policies”—such as they are—that Trump has followed have been spoon-fed to him by the far right wing of the Republican Party, which understood that he would swallow whatever they plated before him—as long as it satisfied his one real, wholly narcissistic goal, which was to be perceived as “powerful.” Trump is acutely aware that these people are the ones who keep him in power, so he caters to their every wish. That is why Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon and others of their ilk—themselves outliers even from the worst fringes of American politics—continue to dominate the tenor of this Administration’s “policies.” Trump simply doesn’t care who is harmed by those policies, which is why everything he does is typically at the extreme end of outrageousness. Kidnapping children? Check. Threatening allies with senseless tariffs? Check. Sidling up to Russia and North Korea? Not a problem. It’s what “his people” want, and that’s all that matters.
This was all so easy for Trump with a compliant Republican Congress, only concerned about getting big tax cuts for their corporate masters. Nobody important to him really cared about what he did or said, and as far as the Democrats and the media were concerned, well, they could chase his Twitter feed day after day. There were some setbacks, like his failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they could be blamed on someone else. Not him. Never him.
But now Trump has a real big problem. He’s lost his Congressional lapdogs, and they’ve been replaced with snarling, unmuzzled hounds, about to bite him from a hundred different directions. They are going to be looking into everything that he does from this point forward.
So what does he do? He has no idea. It’s all self-defense and self-preservation at this point. He’s looking on helplessly, lashing out indiscriminately, as his people jump ship. They see what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s never had an agenda, beyond preserving his own “entitlement” to power. Remember, this is a President who barely “works” two hours a day. He spends the bulk of his time watching TV or playing on Twitter. It’s not that he’s abandoning his day job—he never worked the job to begin with.
The LA Times article linked above emphasizes Trump’s sudden retreat from assumed “presidential” formalities and rituals, such as the wreath-laying at Arlington. But further down in the article is the really telling example. Instead of attending himself, Trump sent Mike Pence to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Trump’s absence, experts said, is notable, and a glaring affront to many Asian leaders.
“It matters more in Asia than other regions because ‘face’ is so important,” said Matthew P. Goodman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former White House coordinator for Asia-Pacific strategy during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. “Your willingness to go out there is a sign you’re committed and not going is a sign you’re not.”
This summit, and the agreements that are reached there, have major implications—huge implications—for our country’s economic future and its place in the world. And while Trump ignores it, Putin is there for Russia, Moon is there for South Korea, Modi is there for India and Xi Jinping is there for China, “attending meetings across the region looking to broaden their country’s influence in the South China Sea and expand multilateral trade agreements.” Meanwhile, Trump is in his bedroom. He doesn’t do “policy” not just because it’s too hard to understand, but because he’s never really cared about it.
The LA Times article suggests he’s sulking, striking out in an irrational fury. He appoints Matthew Whitaker to try to blunt the Mueller probe, and it blows up in his face. He looks to his dwindling list of also-rans to replace his DHS Secretary, and comes up with someone even the GOP Senate may reject. His wife is apparently now making unilateral personnel changes at the White House.
There’s no doubt Trump is “bitter” and “resentful” at the way the midterm election turned out for him. But it seems just as likely he’s frozen with fear that his own wholesale incompetence and unfitness for the presidency is finally about to be revealed.