18 May 2017

Trump is a clear and present danger


Who could have guessed that Donald Trump’s presidency would be like this? No one save anyone who cared to look. Only fools or the deliberately credulous can affect surprise at the manner in which, after just four months, his presidency is unravelling. 

Actually, that’s unfair because it implies the Trump administration was ever ravelled in the first place. And it was not. Nevertheless, the rest of us may dispense with the polite fiction that any of this is in any way surprising. It may be shocking but it is not surprising.  

We could see it coming, after all. It remains the case that while events will always buffet a president, the manner in which he – or one day she – responds to those events can be predicted on the basis of how they campaigned for the presidency in the first place. The campaign is a test of fitness. That’s why it is so long, so exhausting, so thorough. 

Ordinarily, which is to say in every other election in living memory, this has the effect of weeding out the delusional and the incompetent. It does not guarantee that the winner will be an attractive personality, but ordinarily it is impossible to become president without knowing something about the country you aspire to lead and having some idea about where you would like to lead it.  

In 2016 the system failed. Somehow, for reasons that remain mysterious, but can safely be ascribed to a mass outbreak of delusion and wishful thinking, it was gamed by a confidence trickster. Granting Trump the Republican party’s presidential nomination was one thing; actually electing him President quite another.

Every single American who voted for Trump should be ashamed of their endorsement. No exceptions, no pleas of mitigation. No matter how grim you might have reckoned the prospect of President Hillary Rodham Clinton, nothing she could have done would be as bad as this. Her ghastliness, if such you think it, was at least within traditional, ordinary, parameters of ghastliness. She would have broken the glass ceiling but no new ground in that regard.  

Reading reports from the White House these days, you feel a palpable sense of things falling apart. Know this, however, that no matter how bad it seems from the outside it will be much worse on the inside. 

This is an administration soaked in panic and swaddled in incompetence and, increasingly, this latter factor is used as a defence of Trump’s actions. The President doesn’t know what he is doing, so cannot be sensibly held responsible for his actions.

On Fox News, Trump shill Bill Bennett argued that “If you looked at Mother Theresa under a microscope you would see germs and bacteria”. So no biggie, then. We are all sinners, so pipe down. Trump’s remaining defenders ask us to believe that the President’s words are only noises to which no definitive or concrete meaning can be attached. He doesn’t know what he’s saying so he can’t mean it, so give the fella a break. 

And thus was the Oval Office to be judged by standards you might generously apply to squabbling children at kindergarten. Comparisons with Watergate and Richard Nixon are inappropriate. Nixon’s paranoia consumed him but no one ever doubted his political sagacity or the seriousness of his intent. Trump? Not so much, not least since there does not seem to be a single aspect of the Presidency for which Trump is in any way suited. 

Each day brings new revelations that would be laughable if they weren’t reminders that the leader of the free world simply isn’t up to the job. Reuters reported that staffers insert Trump’s name into briefing papers because unless he can read references to himself the President quickly loses interest in the material presented to him.

All the while, Trump seems determined to ruin any line that’s created to shield him: Trump confirmed that he fired James Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s Russian connections; Trump confirmed that he had indeed disclosed classified material to the Russians. 

Even so, impeachment still seems a long way off and it seems equally unlikely that the cabinet will take advantage of the 25th amendment to the constitution that allows the cabinet, with congressional approval, to remove a president on the grounds of incapacity. 

Besides, previous predictions of Trump’s imminent implosion and final demise have come to nothing. He will remain President for some time yet, but to what purpose? His domestic agenda – such as it is –  shows no signs of going anywhere while, as he reluctantly prepares for his first foreign trip as president, his domestic troubles confirm the sense that this is not a president with whom the rest of the world can do business. 

We are on the brink of discovering what happens when the indispensable nation becomes dispensable. Theresa May might have felt that she had little choice but to try and hug Trump close but hand-holding at the White House was a risky ploy in January and nothing that has happened since makes it look any cleverer. Trump must be flattered but flattering him is contemptible and humiliating in equal measure. 

That’s the quandary in which America’s allies find themselves. How can you trust an untrustworthy president? When Trump threatens to leave Nato are we to take him at his word or assume this is just another thoughtless flight of fancy? If the United States recuses itself, what will fill the vacuum?

Politics is a matter of confidence underpinned by the credibility of its actors. Guarantees must be honoured or else the system, precariously balanced at the best of times, falls apart. Just as Trump is ripping up established procedure at home, so he threatens the same abroad. That makes him the most dangerous president any of us have ever known. There is a clear and present danger and he sits in the Oval Office. 

So we have a president who is a braggart and a bully but also a childish fantasist; a Walter Mitty with the nuclear codes; a president appallingly ill-equipped for the office he holds. Know this: it will still get worse, much worse, than this.

Alex Massie is a political commentator