Donald Trump finally did stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone. It turned out to be himself.
Picture the president stewing for 24 hours over how to take back his measured concession on Monday in which he finally said the obvious, that “racism is evil” and responsibility was not evenly shared for the deadly riot. He grudgingly said that to correct his first instinct on Saturday which was to side with the white supremacists and nationalists at the deadly riot in Charlottesville.
If he’d let that stand, of course, the elitists would have won and he’d rather be labeled a racist that let that happen. Itching to recover his manhood, he took the first opportunity to set things right on Tuesday at a press conference ostensibly on infrastructure.
There he went on a rhetorical rampage of his own, the type you hide from the children who get scared when they see an adult out of control. He brushed close to the “good Nazis” trope with his insistence that there were some “very fine people” among the Hitler re-enactors with their torches and their insignias. There were also “very, very violent” protesters on the “alt-left,” he said, challenging reporters to agree with him that both groups were equally at fault when, actually, he was rising to the defense of one. He scraped up a gum of an argument off the floor when he asserted the insignificant fact that the neo-Nazis had submitted the proper paperwork to get a permit as proof they were superior to the counterprotesters, most of whom, in fact, did have permits to march and one of whom was dead.
And now everyone around him has to decide what to do. So far, he’s been contradicted by the military, abandoned by the country’s leading executives (although typically insisting that he broke up with them, not the other way around), and been labeled a president gone “rogue” by staff distancing themselves from his outburst. Leaders of his party, realizing what a devil’s bargain they made to recapture the White House, are speaking out, although most still hide behind damning the actions but not the actor. That might change with a former apologist, Sen. Bob Corker, coming out on Thursday saying we need a “radical change,” because the president has not shown “stability” and does not understand “the character of our nation.”
Not for moral reasons but ones having to do with his own shadow presidency, Trump “friend, Mr. Bannon,” gave what’s being called a Mooch, the Sequel, interview in which he pronounced his own Charlottesville Doctrine. Speaking in the voice of “I,” Trump’s chief strategist who is shockingly parallel in power to retired Marine General and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, corrected the president on several matters, although not on Nazism, pronounced his own China policy, and called his fellow travelers a collection of clowns, not for their beliefs but their execution. He pronounced he was making major personnel changes at the State Department. “I’m getting hawks in,” he promised. “I’m getting [acting head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Susan Thornton out...” To assert his questionable authority, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a point of shaking Thornton’s hand at an event Thursday in the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Trump edition.
Psychiatrists say that a person is losing his grip on reality not when he’s a danger to others but when he’s a danger to himself. So much of what Trump does is a series of feverish efforts to be relieved of the gnawing anxiety that he’s lost face, even if those efforts will eventually cause him grievous harm. From firing James Comey to threatening Jeff Sessions to kicking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other key Republican senators under the bus, Trump no longer can tamp down his destructive impulses, even when warned about it from his usually servile staff. For the momentary sensation of feeling on top of things, he one-ups North Korean leader Kim Jung Un with the promise to unleash fire and fury the likes of which he’s never seen. He tops that by coming to the defense of skinheads. He’s yet to call the parents of the slain 32-year-old woman.
It’s now obvious that Trump is a victim of his seething resentment even as he has nothing to be aggrieved over. He is one lucky man, born into the Age of Kardashians when a cheesy TV show can give you the kind of fame that can pull you out of bankruptcy. Trump started out collecting rent. He got to raise the rents because the price of his name slapped on the side of a building went up, along with the market. He then slapped his name on the Republican Party and here they, and we, are.
The first point Trump’s friends make when you talk to them is how Trump is not a racist. What does it matter if he plays one so convincingly on TV? You have to wonder if those standing mutely before the cameras as Trump ranted can ever erase the stain of it. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao stood serenely by his side like Nancy Reagan and Gary Cohn wore the semi-grin that’s not left his face since he escaped Goldman Sachs. The scene was reminiscent of that horrid tableau when women in President Bill Clinton’s administration stood beside him in defense of his conduct with Monica Lewinsky as the whole West Wing was mobilized to destroy her.
Ivanka and Jared, who have a knack for not being in the ugly pictures, pulled up stakes in New York to come to the White House to restrain Trump’s impulses and protect him from himself. If you look at the Pittsburgh, not Paris, climate change loss, at the travel ban, at the firings and the constant turmoil, they’ve failed.
Except for family, or with his base at a rally, Trump is now ever more a man alone. It is not a role he enjoys. One confidant explained how Trump, who dislikes being on his own, falls in love with people who like him but they have to always be around to constantly reassure him of his greatness. The public got a glimpse of what it takes at Trump’s televised cabinet meeting when he was slathered with praise. That’s why staff, rather than stay behind working, clamber aboard Air Force One no matter how insignificant the trip.
His close friend and newly named communications director, the sweet but incommunicative Hope Hicks, will only let associates who aren’t critical of Trump get their calls returned. She makes Sean Spicer look like Walter Cronkite. Everyone prays that his national security staff of generals stays on to keep us from blowing up. Everyone wonders when the others will drop the laughable “it would be worse if I’m not here” defense for clinging to power. Even if new people were to come on, the White House can’t outsource the character and decency Trump lacks. Cohn put out word on Thursday that he’s not going anywhere.
Only Kelly had the decency to look down at his feet, pained, with his chin in hand, but so what? He’s been by Trump’s side for the two biggest self-crises of the administration. The problem is larger than any reorganization or new flow charts.
Does anyone still believe Kelly can make a meaningful difference? Only if he can do heart transplants.