Remember the old joke about the man who fell into the lens grinder and made a spectacle of himself? Well, last night Donald Trump fell into the lens grinder. It is not clear why he did it. A famous non-drinker, he acted as though he made a long stop at a local bar on his way to the debate.

There is a fairly obvious answer here although it seems to be little mentioned in the national media: Michael Cohen and others before him have suggested that Donald Trump never wanted to be president. Always chronically in debt, what he did want to do was to use running for the presidency as a way of “enhancing his brand”. He never expected to win. That meant that he really didn’t have to prepare and it left him free to indulge himself in his famous rallies.

That also provided a rationale for not doing something that he was, in fact, incapable to doing. A famous non-reader with an almost non-existent attention span, there was no way he could have prepared. And, in fact, a huge amount of taxpayer funded transition documents were put in dumpsters and hauled away because he refused to read them.

Then disaster struck, he won. On the night of the 2016 election when the Trumps discovered that he had actually won, his wife wept, and not for joy. Trump was trapped. He could hardly demand a recount. He had to go through with it. But, without the capacity to actually be president he was reduced to reluctantly attempting to act like one.

Trump seems to have assumed that the role of the Executive Branch was to produce documents which he could sign on television. And, for a while the people around him certainly tried to do that. In the early days of his presidency, Donald Trump was endlessly on television signing documents. Those documents, often urging one of the departments or agencies to study some subject or other, were really much ado about nothing. They did give Trump something to do that he understood.

Trump’s understanding of the presidency was severely limited. He never seemed to have understood the separation of powers. His narcissism limited his ability to understand that within the government’s structure there could be alternative sources of authority. He didn’t understand because he couldn’t understand. Therefore, his admiration for dictators. Theirs were the only systems that to him seemed rational.

When a new president takes office there are many experts that the president must recruit and appoint. Each party has its “usual suspects” who are often thrilled and energized by being at the center of power (particularly true of those on the National Security Council). Those people typically are truly knowledgeable and are highly motivated to contribute their wisdom to the new president.

For Donald Trump all that detailed advice was the stuff of nightmares because he knew almost nothing about anything and was overwhelmed by the amount of detail his advisers assumed he should know. What has happened over the last three years is that the real experts have been replaced by sycophants (think Larry Kudlow) who have created for the president a kind of content free bubble. The real governing is done by people around him.

Without pressure to really master the system and to do his job, Donald Trump settled into a routine. He apparently spent mornings away from the office talking to friends on the phone and watching Fox News. He would arrive at the office about eleven and go to lunch soon after, frequently with Vice-President Pence, and then do what ever others had scheduled him to do. Congress, thanks to Mitch McConnell was doing almost nothing so it took little of his time. Long week-ends were spent at his golf-resorts in New Jersey or in Florida.

Then came the virus, and for the first time, Donald Trump found himself the face of the government’s response to a real crisis. He just could not do it. He didn’t know enough about his own government to organize its machinery to take on a program so vast. After trying with mixed results to be a star in the “briefings” he just gave up. He has opted to just go ahead and try to pretend that the pandemic does not exist.

That brings us back to last night’s debate: Think about the things the president actually talked about. He left his bubble in Washington to come to Cleveland to mumble about the dangers from “the radical left,” from “radical socialists,” from antifida (which Biden accurately pointed out is a non-existent organization). He expounded at great length about the terrible dangers posed by voting by mail-in ballots.

Note that there were almost no facts, no detail, because Trump doesn’t have much detail. He carried his non-reality bubble from the White House to Cleveland. Trump must have been warned a thousand times that he needed to expand his base. He has refused. He just can’t do it. It is easier to stay inside his bubble of imaginary dangers.

If Donald Trump was deliberately trying to lose he would do exactly what he is doing. He is not having a good time. He never really wanted to be president, and in a way he has not been. He wants out. He would argue after last night that he just doesn’t care what people think. “Not caring” is a respectable way for a tired seventy four year old man who wants out to finally get out.

So, after January, Donald Trump will live to fight again. There will be some adjustments (he may go through a divorce), but he is still rich. He can recount the glories of being president. He can point out all the wonderful things he did when everybody was against him. And, he will be free at last!

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all