It has now been almost five years since Donald Trump came down his escalator (which he misremembers as an elevator) to announce himself as America’s savior. Sometimes, Trump forgets; sometimes, he lies. By accident, he might even bump into the truth. The only important thing for us to remember is that whatever he says is reality — until he says something else.
How did we get into such a pickle?
At first, people thought that Trump would be stopped by himself. A bankrupt builder, he was shored up by crooked banks. A serial adulterer, he shacked up with a porn star while his wife was nursing a baby, and then violated federal law by covering up hush-money payments. On television, he was a goon whose weekly punch line was “You’re fired!”, delivered to an audience laid low by depression-level unemployment. He was a joke to late-night comedians stretching back to Johnny Carson. His political experience consisted of playing golf with Bill Clinton, back before he was urging that Clinton’s wife be locked up. He had never read the U.S. Constitution. He had never, apparently, read anything at all, including the dozen or so books he put his name to.
Well, a pizza guy had run for president in the previous election cycle. It seemed that at least one clown act had been baked into the roadshow called “running for president.” Trump would fold before he ever got off the escalator.
When that didn’t happen, the Republican Party would stop Trump. It put up 16 other candidates. There were senators and governors on the list, including one from a family dynasty that had elected two presidents already. Trump gave them all unfunny nicknames and rode right past them to the party’s nomination.
Then it was the turn of Hillary Clinton, memorably described as “the most qualified person in the country to be president,” even though no one could name a single thing she had ever accomplished. Hillary won the election; she got nearly three million more votes than Trump. Anywhere else in the world, that would have made her president. But something called the Electoral College said otherwise, and Trump was made president instead.
Trump ran for president as a populist, essentially co-opting much of what would have been Bernie Sanders’ platform and opposing almost every bullet point of Republican politics. He would cut taxes for the middle class and bring back manufacturing jobs shipped overseas. He would rein in drug prices and replace Obamacare with a vastly better plan for all (to be announced). He would end the Forever War in the Middle East and bring the troops home.
Exactly the reverse happened. Once in office, Trump hit the default button and let Mitch McConnell write the agenda — tax cuts for the rich, troglodytes for the federal courts, job growth for Amazon warehouse packagers, soaring drug prices, Obamacare gutted but not replaced, more war in the Middle East and a military more bloated than ever. Take away the clown act, and Trump was prepared to be Ted Cruz.
The clown act, though, was still important; it was what kept Trump’s electoral base entertained.
Demagogues need enemies, preferably helpless ones, and Trump had his own pre-selected: migrants, legal or otherwise. The problem was that, when he took office, illegal immigration was at its lowest level since the Nixon administration. But you create a crisis by announcing it and demanding that it be acted upon. In this case, Trump fell back on a variant of the biblical verse about Noah adapted for the movie “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” The “it” in the Bible was an ark; the one in the movie was a cornfield diamond that would bring back dead ballplayers. Trump’s version was a border wall, and the objective was to turn a trickle of hapless refugees into a flood.
The strategy worked even without a new wall, only a mile of which was actually built. It worked far better than anyone except perhaps Trump himself could have anticipated, in stoking xenophobic fear of “others” in general: Muslims and Jews; blacks and Latinos; gays and lesbians. Trump’s base included everyone from disaffected workers to hard-core Evangelicals. But its basic constituency, for him, was the Aryan Nation. Hatred was his message, and white supremacists were his target audience. If they could be mobilized (as they were at Charlottesville), then hatred, fear and division would spread. And Donald Trump, Prince of Chaos, could alone still the winds, as he alone had stirred them.
Trump has only one principle of operation: outrage. He stokes outrage among his supporters against the demonized other. He creates it among his opponents towards himself. Either way, he must be the center of attention. Power is not particularly what he wants, in the sense of the ability to accomplish things for good or ill; it is attention. He is not a political creature at all, shrewd as he can be at manipulating politics. He is a nihilist, a bottomless ego waiting to be fed to keep the tapeworm in his gut at bay. He is an emptiness that only an entire world can fill.
Trump will take risks that no one else would dare to because the dare is his only maneuver. To shoot down his political rival, Joe Biden, he not only risked but dared impeachment, knowing a Republican Senate would never take the dare of going against him. And he succeeded. He did shoot Joe Biden down and left fuming Democrats with no better response than to tear up some paper. They know he will come after any other candidate they put up against him in the same way. There’s no one more desperate than a clown on a highwire, and desperation is the final advantage, in business, in politics and in life, as long as you don’t lose your nerve. Donald Trump is desperate enough to take the whole world down with him.
Don’t think he won’t try if he thinks he has to.