There are reasons so many of us are alarmed by the upcoming Trump administration. Certainly we are concerned about the direction he and Republicans in Congress are likely to take the country. His picks detail the wreckage they hope to create, from loosened environmental laws, to mass deportations, to the implicit if not explicit favoring of whites over others. As alarming as these things are likely to be, there are far bigger areas of concern. What is more alarming than all of that? Well, there’s Donald Trump himself!
If there is something good to say about Trump it’s that he’s quite transparent and thus easy to understand. Normally this would be good, but it’s bad in this case because we know pretty much how he will behave and thus govern, and this part is awful. Trump has many issues but what is most likely to hobble him is his inability to concentrate on anything for more than five or ten minutes. This is the reason he is spurning national security briefings. He is constitutionally unable to cope with them, so he copes by refusing to get them because they are full of detail and nuance. This means he will get periodic bullet summaries at best, handled and filtered by aides. From imperfect knowledge he will make life and death decisions affecting us all, probably impetuously.
Republicans like principled conservatives. However, Trump is wholly bereft of principle. All that really matters is being noticed. He thrives on attention. He prefers positive attention but as he demonstrated during the campaign negative attention will do too. Attention is what matters and his craving for it is insatiable. He feels validated when he is talked about. One way to be more talked about is simply to be outrageous. And when you are outrageous, it’s easy to succumb to impulse. And so he does day after day. His tweets are collections of sophomoric “Hey, look at me!” thoughts. Rarely are they coherent or even consistent. Yesterday he was tweeting that Russia did not interfere with our election, contradicting our best intelligence assessments. He said if this was a problem, why wasn’t it brought out during the campaign, where it was repeatedly. You can see his general problem rather clearly: short attention span. (Curiously, these tweets have been deleted.)
In the 2008 campaign Sarah Palin was lampooned when asked which newspapers and magazines she read. She replied, “All of them.” Donald Trump barely reads. He doesn’t read any books and at best he scans newspapers. Most of what he consumes is on conservative TV channels. He’s basically friendless and it’s pretty clear he is emotionally distant with his spouses and at least some of his children. Those who complained about Obama’s religion should be outraged by Trump’s lack of morals or religious convictions. He never attends church. He has no history with faith communities. He’s clearly not a Christian. It’s doubtful he could define what empathy is, simply because he can’t understand the concept. He feels closest to those who are a lot like him, which is why he is populating his cabinet with mostly rich white guys, but these relationships are invariably ephemeral and are discarded when no longer of use to him. What matters to him are wealth and an endless need to be validated.
So what does this say about how his administration will govern? First, he will delegate a lot of stuff because it simply doesn’t interest him. Second, he’s going to piss off a lot of the people he picks to help lead the country, because he will spontaneously contradict them whenever it is convenient or gets him some attention. Doing so makes him (in his eyes) look superior and/or increases attention/adulation. No one will be allowed to outshine him and if they do they are likely to be undermined or replaced. This will mean that staff like Steve Bannon will become powers behind the throne, feeding him bullets and sound bites as it serves their agendas. They will also dish out plenty of red meat for him and his supporters that will serve the dual purpose of validating Trump’s enormous ego and the convictions of his supporters.
If Trump is playing his supporters for fools, Putin is playing Trump for the fool that he is. Both cold and real wars are very inefficient ways to extend power. It’s much easier if you can get your enemies to undercut themselves, but it doesn’t hurt when you have a sycophant like Trump who is already indebted to you.
Trump will be keeping us outraged and his supporters happy while the biggest dangers are really elsewhere. He’s already starting to make a wreck of our foreign policy: pissing off China, validating the Philippines’ dictator Duterte, undercutting NATO and even going off after our defense contractors.
We’ll see how this plays off. Trump is a true Shakespearean character that will likely wreak massive havoc unless/until forces manage to stop him. This process looks like it is already underway. Congress will be looking into how Russia influenced our election. Trump’s fervent and repeated assurances that there is nothing there somehow makes it much more likely that there is. Unless things change quickly, his businesses from which he profits will be accepting money from other countries, which would put him in violation of the Emoluments Clause of our constitution. This alone is impeachable. Given all the other baggage he’s been carrying it’s likely a number of these could be impeachable. It all depends though on if/when Republicans in Congress decide to proceed with them. As a master bully with supporters willing to literally take up arms to defend him, it’s likely they will be cowed instead.
We live with the curse of interesting times and our country is its nexus. I find that I cannot allow myself to think too much about it, simply for my own sanity. We are about to go through the most dangerous time for our country, certainly since the Cold War and likely since the Civil War. It’s unclear to me if we can rise to this occasion. If we cannot, Vladimir Putin will be ecstatic but you sure won’t be.