The President Is Unraveling

Published May 5, 2020

The Atlantic

In case there was any doubt, the past dozen days have proved we’re at the point in his presidency where Donald Trump has become his own caricature, a figure impossible to parody, a man whose words and actions are indistinguishable from an Alec Baldwin skit on Saturday Night Live.

President Trump’s pièce de résistance came during a late April coronavirus task-force briefing, when he floated using “just very powerful light” inside the body as a potential treatment for COVID-19 and then, for good measure, contemplated injecting disinfectant as a way to combat the effects of the virus “because you see it gets in the lungs and does a tremendous number on them, so it’d be interesting to check that.”

But the burlesque show just keeps rolling on.

Take this past weekend, when former President George W. Bush delivered a three-minute video as part of The Call to Unite, a 24-hour live-stream benefiting COVID-19 relief.

Bush joined other past presidents, spiritual and community leaders, front-line workers, artists, musicians, psychologists, and Academy Award winning actors. They offered advice, stories, and meditations, poetry, prayers, and performances. The purpose of The Call to Unite (which I played a very minor role in helping organize) was to offer practical ways to support others, to provide hope, encouragement, empathy, and unity.

In his video, which went viral, Bush—in whose White House I worked—never mentioned Trump. Instead, he expressed gratitude to health-care workers, encouraged Americans to abide by social-distancing rules, and reminded his fellow Americans that we have faced trying times before.

“I have no doubt, none at all, that this spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America,” Bush said. He emphasized that “empathy and simple kindness are essential, powerful tools of national recovery.” And America’s 43rd president asked us to “remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat.”

“In the final analysis,” he said, “we are not partisan combatants; we are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God.” Bush concluded, “We rise or fall together, and we are determined to rise.”

That was too much for Trump, who attacked his Republican predecessor on (where else?) Twitter: “[Bush] was nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”

So think about that for a minute. George W. Bush made a moving, eloquent plea for empathy and national unity, which enraged Donald Trump enough that he felt the need to go on the attack.

But there’s more. On the same weekend that he attacked Bush for making an appeal to national unity, Trump said this about Kim Jong Un, one of the most brutal leaders in the world: “I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!”

Then, Sunday night, sitting at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial for a town-hall interview with Fox News, Trump complained that he is “treated worse” than President Abraham Lincoln. “I am greeted with a hostile press, the likes of which no president has ever seen,” Trump said.

By Monday morning, the president was peddling a cruel and bizarre conspiracy theory aimed at MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a Trump critic, with Trump suggesting in his tweet that a “cold case” be opened to look into the death of an intern in 2001.

I could have picked a dozen other examples over the past 10 days, but these five will suffice. They illustrate some of the essential traits of Donald Trump: the shocking ignorance, ineptitude, and misinformation; his constant need to divide Americans and attack those who are trying to promote social solidarity; his narcissism, deep insecurity, utter lack of empathy, and desperate need to be loved; his feelings of victimization and grievance; his affinity for ruthless leaders; and his fondness for conspiracy theories.

None of these traits are new in Trump; they are part of the reason why some of us were warning about him long before he won the presidency, even going back to 2011. But, more and more, those traits are defining his presidency, producing a kind of creeping paralysis. We are witnessing the steady, uninterrupted intellectual and psychological decomposition of an American president. It’s something the Trump White House cannot hide—indeed, it doesn’t even try to hide it anymore. There is not even the slightest hint of normalcy.

This will have ongoing ramifications for the remainder of Trump’s first term and for his reelection strategy. More than ever, Trump will try to convince Americans that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” to quote his own words in 2018.

That won’t be easy in a pandemic, as the death toll mounts and the economy collapses and the failures of the president multiply. But that doesn’t mean Trump won’t try. It’s all he has left, so Americans have to prepare for it.

Trump and his apparatchiks will not only step up their propaganda; they will increase their efforts to exhaust our critical thinking and to annihilate truth, in the words of the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov. We will see even more “alternative facts.” We will see even more brazen attempts to rewrite history. We will hear even more crazy conspiracy theories. We will witness even more lashing out at reporters, more rage, and more lies.

“The real opposition is the media,” Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, once told the journalist Michael Lewis. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

We will see more extreme appeals to the fringe base of Trump’s party, including right-wing militias. For example, after hundreds of protesters, many of them carrying guns, descended on the capitol in Lansing, Michigan, to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, Trump, summoning the ghosts of Charlottesville, described the protesters as “very good people.” Some of these “very good people” carried signs saying tyrants get the rope and tyrant bitch and comparing the governor to Hitler.

We will see a more prominent role played by One America News (OAN), a pro-Trump network that the president has praised dozens of times. And we will see the right-wing media complex go to even more bizarre places—not just people such as InfoWar’s Alex Jones, who literally threatened to eat his own neighbors if the lockdown continued, but more mainstream figures such as Salem Radio Network’s Dennis Prager, who declared the other day that the lockdown was “the greatest mistake in the history of humanity.”

Watching formerly serious individuals on the right, including the Christian right, become Trump courtiers has been a painful and dispiriting thing for many of us to witness. In the process, they have reconfigured their own character, intellect, and moral sensibilities to align with the disordered mind and deformed ethical world of Donald Trump.

And we will see, as we have for the entire Trump presidency, the national Republican Party fall in line. Many are speaking out in defense of Trump while other timid souls who know better have gone sotto voce out of fear and cowardice that they have justified to themselves, and tried less successfully to justify to others.

What this means is that Americans are facing not just a conventional presidential election in 2020 but also, and most important, a referendum on reality and epistemology. Donald Trump is asking us to enter even further into his house of mirrors. He is asking us to live within a lie, to live within his lie, for four more years. The duty of citizenship in America today is to refuse to live within that lie.

“The simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions,” Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said in his mesmerizing 1970 Nobel lecture. “Let that enter the world, let it even reign in the world—but not with my help.”

Solzhenitsyn went on to say that writers and artists can achieve more; they can conquer falsehoods. “Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art,” he said.

But art, as powerful as it is, is not the only instrument with which to fight falsehoods. There are also the daily acts of integrity of common men and women who will not believe the lies or spread the lies, who will not allow the foundation of truth—factual truth, moral truth—to be destroyed, and who, in standing for truth, will help heal this broken land.

Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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