Donald Trump is hitching one last ride on Air Force One, with a planned 21 gun salute to see him off. If anyone ever told him about Caligula and his Praetorian Guard, he might be rethinking the wisdom of this, but Trump could never go out except in a blaze of vainglory.
I think of Richard Nixon, leaving the White House in August 1974 on a helicopter that would take him to a private departure from Andrews Air Force Base.
Nixon gave us a brave smile, bizarre and pathetic under the circumstances of a forced resignation, but nonetheless something he had to stitch on — a politician to the last. And he gave us a wave to go with it, awkwardly swift, as if he would like to have wiped off the sky with it. Nixon put the country through a lot of hell, and Watergate may have been the least of it.
In many ways we are still paying for him, and Trump is arguably part of the price. But with all the relief of seeing him off, and all the disgust at what he had done, there was at least a smidgen of feeling for a man fallen from such a height. When he sacrificed his chief minions in a desperate bid to halt his own fall and said he was sorry to do it, you could actually believe that he meant it a bit. Wicked as he was, he was humanly so. You could see in some sense a man who had lived an American tragedy, and brought it on himself.
The same will not be said of Donald Trump. He has been analyzed from almost every perspective in the psychiatric handbook, but the diagnosis that will do is sociopath. A sociopath is one who sees others as only a means to gratify his interests and appetites, and who discards those he exploits without hesitation as soon as they no longer serve him. Such a person can be highly functional, and to all appearances even sociable. He can be a successful businessman or at least a nimble borrower and serial bankrupt; a TV host and personality; a man-about-town and friend of former presidents and pedophiles; even a president himself. Donald Trump has been all these things, and, until the last of them and quite recently, a success by his own measure: he has gotten what he wanted or needed out of each successive incarnation.
Trump’s niece Mary, herself a psychologist, has described his upraising as someone who was taught early that failure was the only sin. No doubt we are all shaped by childhood experience, but we are not simply defined by it: not everyone born to a Fred Trump is fated to become a Donald Trump. At a certain point, you are who you are, and how you got there is less important than what you do. In Donald Trump’s case the result has been uniformly catastrophic. No one, as it seems, who has lived with or worked for or associated with him has been anything but the worse for it. And that would seem as good a definition as any for having encountered a sociopath.
Notoriously, what Trump has always demanded of everyone about him is the unquestioning subservience he calls “loyalty,” namely, complete subjection to his wishes and unstinting devotion to fulfilling them. This is what he directly asked of his FBI Director, James Comey, as related in Comey’s sworn testimony. The concept that Comey, as head of the Justice Department’s chief law enforcement agency, might have any higher obligation — say, the public welfare — simply did not and could not occur to him. And, by extension, the notion that Trump himself, as the man chiefly charged with that welfare, had any responsibility beyond his own will and interest, was utterly alien to him. The country had put itself in the hands of something worse than a dictator, since even a dictator can have objectives beyond himself. But a sociopath does not, and a sociopath is, in political terms, a tyrant.
The remarkable thing about Trump is the extent to which he was able to command the loyalty he demanded, long before he ascended to political power. Of course, he bestowed rewards and paid for results. The extent to which he corrupted those who served him, however, cannot be simply explained in these terms. His personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, has testified that he personally threatened some 500 individuals who in one way or another crossed Trump’s path, not merely with suits or harassments, but bodily harm. This is not the way a practicing attorney usually behaves. And Cohen has confessed that he did so willingly, as someone for whom Trump’s wish was an unquestioned command. We can say that Cohen was a shyster and a hoodlum and is now a liar, although I don’t think that simply explains the case. It is in any event hardly unique. Four-star generals and U.S. senators suffered similar degradation at Trump’s hands, and the work demanded of them was often far worse than the errands Cohen was dispatched on.
There is a particular case that stands out, however, and hopefully will not be matched again. That is Trump’s now former vice president, Mike Pence. Pence’s job was simple: to serve under all circumstances serve as Trump’s verbal shadow. The task was simple, but not always easy. Trump would contradict himself from one day to the next, having no settled policy or purpose except self-aggrandizement, and little enough memory of what he might say from moment to moment. Pence, though, never missed a beat, seconding the boss with uncanny devotion, praise and echo in one. His performance was so good — and so shameless — that, alone in the circus of Trump’s servants, he escaped Trump’s public ridicule.
His hoped-for reward, after eight years of moral prostitution, was succession to the presidency. The pandemic upended that, turning Trump’s likely reelection into a decisive defeat. His efforts to overturn it uniformly failed and led, finally, to the Constitutionally-mandated tabulation of state certifications in Congress on Jan. 6, a ritual presided over by a vice president whose sole function was to announce the tally. When Trump ordered Pence to void it on the basis of his rejected claim of fraud, his loyal servant could not do so without being deposed from the chair. Trump thereupon incited an insurrection against Congress in which the Capitol Building was occupied by an armed mob that, among other things, called for Pence to be hanged from a gallows presumably erected for the purpose. Pence’s peril was not his alone. His wife Karen, his elder daughter Charlotte, and his brother Greg were together with him in the building. All might have been killed. As it happened, the mob missed sight of Pence by a matter of seconds. Trump had all but ordered the assassination of his vice president and, at discretion, most of the members of his immediate family.
He then sat down to watch the outcome on television. Let’s just say that again: an American president sought to overturn a national election and then egged on a mob to kill his vice president and family for failing to do it for him. Of course, a mass slaughter of others, including the entire Congress, could have well ensued too.
Never in modern history has the sitting head of a country attempted to provoke such a thing against his own people. It is now being said that Donald Trump has been the worst president in American history. No. He is simply the most depraved man in the country. And, unless local courts can successfully try him for lesser charges he will, to our lasting shame, escape all but symbolic punishment.
That will damage us more than he ever could.