Well, it’s over now – right? He may have three and a half years left in office, but Donald Trump is finished. The Charlottesville tragedy was the final stake through the Grinch-heart of his presidency. If he didn’t deserve it so enormously much, it would be sad.
The presidency of Donald Trump has already seen mass dismissals, felony accusations, a key adviser raided by the FBI, a press chief accusing a fellow official of auto-fellatio, a preschool version of a nuclear stare-down with North Korea, and countless other fiascoes and indignities. But a rampage of misjudgment and anti-leadership starting on August 12th, 2017, was a clear nadir.
It began that Saturday morning. After torch-bearing neo-Nazis stormed a postcard-perfect Virginia university town, and the life of a young woman was snuffed out by a vehicular terrorist, Trump – the same man who couldn’t shut up during the campaign, tweeting at all hours like a friendless coke addict, notably berating Barack Obama for failing to identify terrorism by name – suddenly lost the power of speech.
When he finally did make a statement, it was only to issue a preposterous parody of presidential evenhandedness, decrying bigotry and violence “on many sides.” Those three words instantly set a new standard for Trump-iniquity. The president of the United States had announced he was so insecure, so politically alone, that he couldn’t even disavow people making Hitler salutes in broad daylight. For a normal politician, the calculus is simple: Don’t hug Nazis. It’s on page one of Presidenting for Dummies. But Trump’s narcissism is so malignant that it alters basic equations. The president seemed paralysed by the fact that some of the Charlottesville protesters wore MAGA hats, an indemnifying variable in Trump-math: “They like me, therefore they are me. And me can’t be all bad – even if me is a Nazi.”
Trump is not just the first president in history to flunk the Don’t Hug Nazis rule, he may be the first one to have a chief strategist stroll him through the Rose Garden on the way. Former Breitbart chief and bestubbled alt-right Pope Steve Bannon, one of the few people to whom Trump listens before he tweets, reportedly consulted with Trump repeatedly over that weekend. Bannon, finally ousted six days after the Charlottesville tragedy, is said to have generally urged Trump to not criticise the alt-right too strongly, for fear of alienating Trump’s core supporters.
White-supremacist nitwits of the type that came to Charlottesville – so dumb that some came flying a Detroit Red Wings logo, because they couldn’t be bothered to design their own swastika – may be the only thing Trump has left resembling a base of support. Similar to his financial empire, every other part of his political coalition was either borrowed, temporary, inherited or acquired by fraud. And the notes are all coming due.
The mainstream GOP, whose institutional machinery Trump appropriated just long enough to win a national election, is long gone as an ally, its officials now fleeing the administration at top speed. The executive agencies, particularly the security services, are in open rebellion, leaking to newspapers every move the Trumps and their surrogates make. There’s no analog to this situation in American history – a presidential administration under prolonged siege by its own Cabinet agencies.
Trump’s presidency looked like it would be reduced to a Gilligan’s Island of family members, in-laws, the white-power Rasputin Bannon, hired help like John Kelly, and whatever soon-to-be-disbarred lawyers they’ve been able to find to rack up billable hours stalling the boss’s multitudinous criminal and civil messes. He has virtually no political help anywhere outside the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the wake of his “many sides” comments and as his approval numbers cratered to 34 percent, you could almost hear the shrieking of the rats as they abandoned ship – desperately trying to untether themselves from the Charlottesville white-power freaks, who were yanking them all at light speed down the anus of history. The onetime master of media manipulation was in free-fall, and even with the vast powers of the presidency at his disposal, he seemingly had no way to turn the situation around.
We forget now, because the 2016 presidential race seems like a thousand years ago, but candidate Donald Trump once specialised in moments like these. They were what made him. Thorny racial controversies, along with tasteless responses to the same, were Trump’s secret weapon.
Trump won the hardcore race nuts over on Day One of his campaign with his 4chan-worthy “they’re rapists” speech and his accompanying Mexican-wall idea, an alt-right centerfold fantasy if there ever was one. He then spent the rest of the campaign cleverly leveraging that single tumor of intractable support all the way to the presidency. Whether it was the symbolic booting of anchorman Jorge Ramos off the lawn of his press conference (“Go back to Univision!”) or his attacks on Mexican-American Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Trump specialized in using racial dynamite as a marketing tool.
For two years, whenever the press corps charged at him like rhinos, hurling accusations of insensitivity and demanding apologies, candidate Trump would say … something, the wrong thing, inevitably, but he was usually gaming the news cycle to come out ahead in the end. Selective silence was a key weapon. At times, Blabberguts would hold his tongue or plead ignorance. The most infamous instance was after Klan leader David Duke pledged his support to Trump early in 2016, and a deadpan Trump pretended not to know what white supremacists or the KKK were.
“I don’t know what you’re even talking about with ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white supremacists,’ ” he croaked to CNN’s incredulous Jake Tapper. He promised to “do research” and get back to us.
This was despite the fact that he had gone on TV to denounce “David Duke … a bigot, a racist” way back in 2000. Trump knew exactly who Duke and the Klan were – and knew exactly what he was doing by saying he didn’t.
Crucially, and this part of the record often gets overlooked, Trump would usually come around and push the conventional kumbaya take in subsequent media appearances, disavowing whatever horrible thing he just said 10 minutes before. It was a triple game. The initial hesitations and defiance reinforced his hero status with the outright race nuts, who caught his not-so-subtle signals of solidarity. Then, the belated denunciations and/or apologies reassured the merely closeted racist Republicans, a far more numerous group that didn’t like to think of itself as openly prejudiced.
And in the final stage, when he’d throw up his hands like a victim and say things like, “How many times do I have to reject or disavow?” he’d turn the issue all the way around. Each episode became a story not about Trump’s attitudes, but about liberal-media unfairness and bias. This endeared him to an even wider range of conservatives who may not have even heard the beginning of the story, but certainly hated the press enough.
All of these behaviours created an air of mystery around Trump. Was this strategy or pathology? Was he smart enough to play heel and statesman in the same breath as a strategic ploy, or was that just a disorganised brain doing its natural tumble? Trump hyped this question like the reality star he was: Tune in next week to find out just how insane or dangerous I really am!
Even reporters who followed him daily weren’t sure: Who was he? A not-so-secret white supremacist who kept a book of Hitler speeches by his bedside, or a secret liberal who once donated to the Clintons, favoured universal health care, and even said he was “totally pro-choice”? Or was he just a self-obsessed attention hog with a 24-hour boner who didn’t know what he was doing from minute to minute? Trump encouraged all of these legends.
In two-plus years now of facile Hitler comparisons, this is the one area where the Reich analogy consistently holds true. Trump, like the Austrian monster, rose to power using what Explaining Hitler author Ron Rosenbaum called the “secret technique.” He continually keeps enemies off-balance by alternately playing the menace and the raving buffoon.
On the way up, he convinced enough smart people to not take him seriously that by the time reality set in, he was already sitting on their throats. And when Trump took power, he brought with him a cadre of self-professed race warriors like Bannon and Muslim-basher Sebastian Gorka, seemingly answering the question about who Trump “really” was underneath.
The “secret technique” never failed Trump as a candidate. But the buffoon act hasn’t worked in office, leaving him cut off and in a psychological tailspin. Being alone and despised in the pressure cooker of the presidency seems to be driving Trump quite mad, if his response to Charlottesville is any indication.
The fallout from Virginia played out much like every other major Trump controversy. He started with a trademark stretch of ignominious silence, then moved on to a monstrous and indefensible public statement. Then his surrogates said the obvious things Trump himself was not yet ready to say. National Security adviser H.R. McMaster called the vehicular attack by 20-year-old neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. that killed counter-protester Heather Heyer “terrorism,” and daughter Ivanka, supposedly the administration’s secret human being, needed a whole day before she was able to say there was “no place … for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis.” Finally, on Monday, August 14th, two days after the incident, Trump himself said “racism is evil” and added that “the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists” were “criminals and thugs.” But by the next day, he was back on the offensive in a wild-eyed impromptu presser at his Saddamoid Trump Tower that may go down as his Beautiful Mind break-from-reality moment.
He went to the lobby to face a phalanx of buzzing reporters, angrily barking back all those begrudging by-rote remarks he’d just made about the wrongness of bigots and racism. As he spoke, he was flanked by National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao – two Jews and an Asian-American woman, who all looked like they were ready to swallow their own faces the moment Trump began to speak. Former Goldman honcho Cohn must have been dreaming of the salad days when he was merely the globally despised co-head of the world’s most infamous investment bank. What impelled these people to stand by Trump at this moment will be a thrilling mystery for future historians to unravel.
Trump opened by blasting the “alt-left” for coming to the rally “with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs.” He then drifted into a freewheeling rant about the removal of statues of figures like Robert E. Lee. “George Washington was a slave-owner,” he complained. “Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson?” He shook his head, adding, “You really do have to ask yourself: Where does it stop?” He then pulled out a line that might have been straight from a Stormfront editorial. “You’re changing history, you’re changing culture,” he said, hurling log after log on the bonfire of his credibility. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. It was the presidential equivalent of a run on the bank, an instant mass liquidation of political capital.
When it was done, stunned reporters watched as Trump retreated from view, presumably to plot his next mistake. The whole cycle was classic Trump: offend, deflect, reverse course, deny, counter-accuse, re-offend, re-ignite. Arguments about one set of remarks turn into interminable arguments about even worse sets of counter-remarks. Life in the Trump era is like the president’s favorite medium, Twitter: an endless scroll of half-connected little anger Chiclets rapidly spinning us all into madness and conflict, with no end in sight.
This is Trump’s legacy. Because of his total inability to concentrate or lead, he will likely never do anything meaningful with the real governmental power he possesses – if he had a tenth of the managerial skills of Hitler, we’d be in impossibly deep shit right now. But as an enabler of behavior, as a stoker of arguments and hardener of resentments, he has no equal. Under Trump, racists become more racist, the woke necessarily become more woke, and areas of compromise among all quickly dwindle and disappear. He has us arguing about things that weren’t even questions a few minutes ago, like, are Nazis bad?
Trump has shown, once again, that his power to bring out the worst in people is limitless. And we should know by now that he’s never finished, never beaten. Historically, he’s most dangerous when he’s at his lowest. And he’s never been lower than now.
Illustration by Victor Juhasz.