“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. This is a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody”
– Donald Trump, June 5, 2020
Nobody in his right mind would have made such remarks in the wake of the brutal and sadistic murder of George Floyd. Actually, no one in his right mind made these remarks. Only Donald Trump would declare that new unemployment numbers made it a “great day” for George Floyd. The statement was so shocking that it drew little comment.
Unfortunately, Trump has been given the benefit of the doubt by national news media since his inauguration address in January 2017 when he declared “American Carnage,” which turned out to be a prediction rather than a description. Every day in office has seen a torrent of lies and disinformation that are approaching the 20,000 mark, although it took the mainstream media several years before referring to Trump as a liar. It took three and a half years for Colin Powell—the first African-American to become national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state—to brand Trump a “chronic liar.”
Trump’s racism was manifest before he took office with his “birtherism” campaign against President Barack Obama, but the media were similarly late in referring to Trump as a “racist.” And for the past three and a half years, Trump’s mental instability has been manifest, but references to his steady deterioration are rare and oblique. His compulsive need to be better and smarter than everyone around him borders on the psychotic.
There is no question that Donald Trump is a deeply troubled man who poses a danger to the entire nation. In an interview before his election, Trump boasted “I bring rage out. I always have.” At a campaign rally in Iowa in 2015, Trump boasted “I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war….” For the past three years, he has been perpetually embattled with virtually every key national security leader in his administration as well as every traditional American ally.
The horror of last week’s attack on peaceful protesters at the White House that was marked by tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bangs at the same time Trump was in the Rose Garden referring himself as an “ally of all peaceful protesters” made his madness obvious to all. Even such loyalists as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley belatedly tried to dissociate themselves from Trump’s photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopalian Church. Esper’s truckling to Trump has earned him the nickname “Yesper” in the halls of the Pentagon. Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s chief enabler and enforcer, pathetically tried to back away from the decision to use force by claiming that he did not give the “tactical” decision to use force against peaceful protesters.
The traits that we look for in leaders cannot be found in Donald Trump. There are no signs of stability, empathy, emotional intelligence, or cognitive skill. The “Goldwater Rule” has kept too many psychiatrists and psychologists from diagnosing a public figure that they haven’t personally interviewed. But too many of us have observed Trump’s erratic and aberrant behavior that started with juvenile tantrums over the crowd size of his inauguration and culminated with the dangerous downdraft of helicopters that were deployed against peaceful civilians pursuing their First Amendment rights.
It is no longer possible to ignore the deeply destructive and dangerous character of the president of the United States. Russians over the years have rationalized their terrible leaders by proclaiming that “God is high and the tsar is far away.” Americans have had bad leaders in the past, but we have never had a leader who suffered from malignant or predatory narcissism. The psychological burdens that envelop this man are obvious, particularly the lack of impulse control, the absence of a moral compass, and the constant display of aggressive impulses.
Never in our history has the United States been led by someone so psychologically unfit to serve. At a time of political and social crisis that calls for empathy, responsibility, and respect, we have at the helm a corrosive and oppressive man who has created a chaotic and unstable reality within the White House itself. For the past several years, we have encountered a constant display of impulsive and unpredictable actions and behaviors. His tweets are daily reminders of his revenge-seeking against his immediate predecessor, an African-American, and his recent opponent, a woman. His press conference attacks on black female journalists are not mere chauvinism, but palpable evidence of his racism and sexism.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, following the removal of five important inspectors general, Trump explained that “I’m exposing the swamp. I think if it keeps going the way I’m going…. If it keeps going the way it’s going, I have a chance to break the deep state. It’s a vicious group of people. It’s very bad for our country. And that’s never happened before.” Meanwhile, Trump has surrounded himself with incompetent family members and advisers as well as cabinet officers who are loyal and authoritarian absolutists, which renders the current situation extremely threatening.
Worst of all is Trump’s reckless language about the use of force and nuclear weapons, which is reminiscent of the madman theory of policy that was once associated with President Richard M. Nixon. Early in his presidency, Nixon told his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, that his secret strategy for ending the Vietnam War was to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Nixon referred to the principle of threatening maximum force the “madman theory” in order to convince the North Vietnamese he would “do anything to stop the war.” Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, shared the view that irrational behavior could be a bargaining tool, but they were speaking tactically.
When former secretary of state Rex Tillerson called Trump a “fucking moron,” it was in response to Trump’s case for expanding U.S. nuclear forces and directing the Pentagon to draft plans for the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Addressing the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man,” Trump boasted that his “nuclear button is much bigger and more powerful” than yours, and “my button works.” Over the Memorial Day weekend in 2018, Trump proclaimed that U.S. nuclear forces are “so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” The fact that this man is in possession of our nuclear codes adds to the political and psychological anxiety that we face.
Trump’s combative stance has confronted leading figures at home and abroad, demonstrating no ability to conduct a rational and considered exercise of power. In the case of Trump, we are not talking about a considered “madman” approach to policy. Rather, we have to consider the frightening possibility that we have an actual “madman” as president, and that loyalists such as the National Security Adviser, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General cannot be counted on to curb his combative madness. Certainly the warning signs of “American Carnage” have been there from the beginning.