Published December 20, 2020
Donald Trump’s descent into madness continues.
The latest manifestation of this is a report in The New York Times that the president is weighing appointing the conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell, who for a time worked on his legal team, to be special counsel to investigate imaginary claims of voter fraud.
As if that were not enough, we also learned that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was pardoned by the president after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, attended the Friday meeting. Earlier in the week, Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, floated the idea (which he had promoted before) that the president impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election in several closely contested states that voted against Trump. It appears that Flynn wants to turn them into literal battleground states.
None of this should come as a surprise. Some of us said, even before he became president, that Donald Trump’s Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering him, was his psychology—his disordered personality, his emotional and mental instability, and his sociopathic tendencies. It was the main reason, though hardly the only reason, I refused to vote for him in 2016 or in 2020, despite having worked in the three previous Republican administrations. Nothing that Trump has done over the past four years has caused me to rethink my assessment, and a great deal has happened to confirm it.
Given Trump’s psychological profile, it was inevitable that when he felt the walls of reality close in on him—in 2020, it was the pandemic, the cratering economy, and his election defeat—he would detach himself even further from reality. It was predictable that the president would assert even more bizarre conspiracy theories. That he would become more enraged and embittered, more desperate and despondent, more consumed by his grievances. That he would go against past supplicants, like Attorney General Bill Barr and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and become more aggressive toward his perceived enemies. That his wits would begin to turn, in the words of King Lear. That he would begin to lose his mind.
So he has. And, as a result, President Trump has become even more destabilizing and dangerous.
“I’ve been covering Donald Trump for a while,” Jonathan Swan of Axios tweeted. “I can’t recall hearing more intense concern from senior officials who are actually Trump people. The Sidney Powell/Michael Flynn ideas are finding an enthusiastic audience at the top.”
Even amid the chaos, it’s worth taking a step back to think about where we are: An American president, unwilling to concede his defeat by 7 million popular votes and 74 Electoral College votes, is still trying to steal the election. It has become his obsession.
In the process, Trump has in too many cases turned his party into an instrument of illiberalism and nihilism. Here are just a couple of data points to underscore that claim: 18 attorneys general and more than half the Republicans in the House supported a seditious abuse of the judicial process.
And it’s not only, or even mainly, elected officials. The Republican Party’s base has often followed Trump into the twilight zone, with a sizable majority of them affirming that Joe Biden won the election based on fraud and many of them turning against medical science in the face of a surging pandemic.
COVID-19 is now killing Americans at the rate of about one per minute, but the president is “just done with COVID,” a source identified as one of Trump’s closest advisers told The Washington Post. “I think he put it on a timetable and he’s done with COVID … It just exceeded the amount of time he gave it.”
This is where Trump’s crippling psychological condition—his complete inability to face unpleasant facts, his toxic narcissism, and his utter lack of empathy—became lethal. Trump’s negligence turned what would have been a difficult winter into a dark one. If any of his predecessors—Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, to go back just 40 years—had been president during this pandemic, tens of thousands of American lives would almost surely have been saved.
“My concern was, in the worst part of the battle, the general was missing in action,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, one of the very few Republicans to speak truth in the Trump era.
In 30 days, Donald Trump will leave the presidency, with his efforts to mount a coup having failed. The encouraging news is that it never really had a chance of succeeding. Our institutions, especially the courts, will have passed a stress test, not the most difficult ever but difficult enough, and unlike any in our history. Some local officials exhibited profiles in courage, doing the right thing in the face of threats and pressure from their party. And a preponderance of the American public, having lived through the past four years, deserves credit for canceling this presidential freak show rather than renewing it. The “exhausted majority” wasn’t too exhausted to get out and vote, even in a pandemic.
But the Trump presidency will leave gaping wounds nearly everywhere, and ruination in some places. Truth as a concept has been battered from the highest office in the land on an almost hourly basis. The Republican Party has been radicalized, with countless Republican lawmakers and other prominent figures within the party having revealed themselves to be moral cowards, even, and in some ways especially, after Trump was defeated. During the Trump presidency, they were so afraid of getting crosswise with him and his supporters that they failed the Solzhenitsyn test: “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”
During the past four years, the right-wing ecosystem became more and more rabid. Many prominent evangelical supporters of the president are either obsequious, like Franklin Graham, or delusional, like Eric Metaxas, and they now peddle their delusions as being written by God. QAnon and the Proud Boys, Newsmax and One America News, Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson—all have been emboldened.
These worrisome trends began before Trump ran for office, and they won’t disappear after he leaves the presidency. Those who hope for a quick snapback will be disappointed. Still, having Trump out of office has to help. He’s going to find out that there’s no comparable bully pulpit. And the media, if they are wise, will cut off his oxygen, which is attention. They had no choice but to cover Trump’s provocations when he was president; when he’s an ex-president, that will change.
For the foreseeable future, journalists will rightly focus on the pandemic. But once that is contained and defeated, it will be time to go back to focusing more attention on things like the Paris accord and the carbon tax; the earned-income tax credit and infrastructure; entitlement reform and monetary policy; charter schools and campus speech codes; legal immigration, asylum, assimilation, and social mobility. There is also an opportunity, with Trump a former president, for the Republican Party to once again become the home of sane conservatism. Whether that happens or not is an open question. But it’s something many of us are willing to work for, and that even progressives should hope for.
Beyond that, and more fundamental than that, we have to remind ourselves that we are not powerless to shape the future; that much of what has been broken can be repaired; that though we are many, we can be one; and that fatalism and cynicism are unwarranted and corrosive.
There’s a lovely line in William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude”: “What we have loved, Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
There are still things worthy of our love. Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity. We need to teach others—in our individual relationships, in our classrooms and communities, in our book clubs and Bible studies, and in innumerable other settings—why those things are worthy of their attention, their loyalty, their love. One person doing it won’t make much of a difference; a lot of people doing it will create a culture.
Maybe we understand better than we did five years ago why these things are essential to our lives, and why when we neglect them or elect leaders who ridicule and subvert them, life becomes nasty, brutish, and generally unpleasant.
Just after noon on January 20, a new and necessary chapter will begin in the American story. Joe Biden will certainly play a role in shaping how that story turns out—but so will you and I. Ours is a good and estimable republic, if we can keep it.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.