DONALD CHOSE TRUMP WORLD
We began early in 2017 with what could be called The Age of Trump. Think of those people who sat on that giant platform behind the Capitol and watched Donald Trump take the oath. It was clear that a torch was being passed. John Kennedy, in 1961, had talked about a torch being passed to “a new generation of Americans”. This time the torch was being passed to a nominee who represented not so much a return to something earlier or to a new elevated world to come, but to one man alone: A man who knew little and seemed to care little about the government he was to administer.
Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency as a Republican. The truth was that he had just become a Republican. He became one so that he could run for office. That did not mean that he personally identified with the Republican Party. At the beginning of the campaign there were two presidential party buses on the way to the Capitol. He had to get on one. He got on the Republican bus because he clearly would not be welcome on the Democratic one. If he wanted to campaign, and that was what he wanted to do, he had to be a Republican.
Trump’s inaugural speech describing a dystopia of ruined factories and of carnage defied reality and those luminaries on the platform knew it. What they were seeing was an individual who had not expected to win and who had little to say. Trump had been shot out of the electoral cannon all the way to the top of a government he knew almost nothing about. He found himself at the dais with his back to a crowd of political office holders almost all of whom knew more about the government than he did. He needed to impress them. Ruined factories and carnage sounded serious, the best he could do.
In a very real way as the people on that platform left that day, they left the government they had known and loved in the hands of a stranger. Operating in the Capitol and the White House nexus is like living in a small divided town (Actually in the early days there were two small towns. Two villages grew up, one around the Capitol, and the other around the President’s House. Much of the rest was a malarial swamp. That swamp was long ago filled in. Metaphorically, the two villages remain.).
In official Washington, everybody seems to know everybody, or they will claim to. All that marble and all those grand paintings do have an effect on people. The very atmosphere changes people. It is a world designed for serious people who play their roles in a kind of real life theatre. Learning to appear smart, aggressive, knowledgeable and important is the coin of the realm. Many, if not most, had begun preparing for this world in high school. Donald Trump had not prepared at all.
Donald Trump, who suddenly found himself in charge in that world, had to have been intimidated. The man who had hid in his gold tower faced people for whom wealth was a secondary value. The people with whom he had to work had risen by always being more verbal and brighter than others. For those people institutional knowledge was power. Their natural reaction was to try to impress Trump with that knowledge.
Trump hated being lectured to. A different president, a Clinton or an Obama, would have quickly incorporated every bit of new knowledge available. Trump was never able to take in information the same way. Always on guard to protect his vulnerable self, his reaction was to seek out people who understood his need for validation (read Steve Bannon), who would then use that knowledge to manipulate him. The people who really knew things were first ignored, driven away, and then removed.
Donald Trump has always been allowed to live in a world of his own creation. Call it Trump World. The larger abstract values that guide people in the real world have never mattered to him. So the intellectualized leadership of an Emmanuel Macron or a Angela Merkel are less attractive to him than the absolutists like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un. And, because the democratic values that guide most American political leaders mean so little to him, he has not been shy about making his preferences clear.
As long as there were no wars or serious crises, Donald Trump was able to get by. The Republicans over in the other village, in the House and the Senate, allowed themselves to become intimidated by Trump’s rallying base. The Congress caused him little trouble and in voting down his impeachment they gave him the illusion of safety.
Then the virus struck. Trump tried to imagine it away. The pandemic persisted. That led to an economic shutdown as states attempted to control the viral spread. Then two black citizens were killed by police leading to a kind of explosive reaction which may have been partly propelled by increased unemployment and by the simple reduction in human activity allowed in the battle with the virus.
And, Donald Trump skating always atop the government he was supposed to be administering, had a theoretical choice. He could continue to live in Trump World or he could begin to deal with the real world. He chose Trump World. He is now compelled to ignore the increasing pandemic, cherry-pick the small bits of positive economic news, and come to the defense of Confederate statues. That has become his campaign.
Donald Trump is still trying to have a conventional convention, in Jacksonville, Florida, one of the places the pandemic is spiking. In Trump World huge cheering audiences make for great television. It probably will not happen. Republican luminaries in the Congress are already saying they will not attend. Their number will grow.
In 2017, the voters, through the electoral vote, passed the torch to one man who was really disconnected from the Republicans, nominally his Party. Everything depended on his “growing into the job”. Given his narcissistic personality and disdain for preparation that could not happen. He did not grow, and faced with a real crisis was unable to use his government to respond. Now, with four months to go, he is trapped in Trump World!