There have long been serious doubts, even among members of his own party, about Trump’s suitability for any public office, let alone the Presidency. His opponents in the Republican primary described him as a “con artist” (Marco Rubio), a “delusional narcissist” (Rand Paul), a purveyor of dangerous falsehoods (John Kasich), and a descendant of Joseph McCarthy (Lindsey Graham). When President Obama suggested, last August, that Trump “doesn’t have the judgment, the temperament, the understanding” to be President, many senior Republicans privately agreed with him.
If anybody was expecting that Trump would use the lengthy interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day to offer reassurances about what lies ahead, he has gone out of his way to disabuse them. For the past two months, he has spent his time publicly congratulating himself on his victory (while greatly exaggerating its scale) and taunting those he defeated; putting together a Cabinet of conservative ideologues, billionaires, and generals; blithely dismissing calls for him to divest his business interests; and—this almost every day—running his mouth on Twitter. In short, it has been a distinctly Trumpian transition.
Perhaps, as the Times’ David Brooks has suggested, we should regard Trump’s online efflorescences as nothing more than perishable Snapchat messages or Baudrillardian simulacra. It is a challenge, though, to be cavalier about a President-elect one day issuing menacing statements about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the next day publicly trashing the intelligence services whose job it will be to inform him about nuclear proliferation and other global dangers. Evidently, Trump doesn’t think he needs much professional advice: he already regards himself as an expert on foreign-policy issues, including nuclear negotiations.
And he’s just days away from gaining access to codes that could be used to launch a nuclear attack within minutes—a prospect that has many Americans and citizens of other countries unnerved. The Ploughshares Fund, a venerable arms-control organization, has circulated a petition urging Obama to take U.S. nuclear missiles off high alert before he leaves office. “It’s too late to stop Donald Trump from becoming president,” Joe Cirincione, the president of the Fund, wrote recently. “But it is not too late to stop him from impulsively blowing up the planet.”
To be sure, other men who were ill-qualified, ethically challenged, or potentially unhinged have occupied the Oval Office during the Republic’s long history. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, two mid-nineteenth-century Whigs, are sometimes cited in the first category. During the nineteen-twenties, Warren G. Harding brought the stench of corruption right into the West Wing, where he played poker with his cronies from Ohio, some of whom were busy enriching themselves at federal expense. And, when it comes to addled Presidents, we have the accounts that have been handed down of Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal reached its climax—brooding, cursing, drinking heavily, driven to the edge of madness.
But historical comparisons to Trump only go so far. Tyler and Fillmore, the tenth and thirteenth Presidents, were both experienced politicians who were serving as Vice-Presidents when their bosses died. (Tyler had been the governor of Virginia and also represented the state in the U.S. Senate. Fillmore was a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.) Although Harding’s name will forever be associated with the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the secret leasing out of federal oil reserves, he wasn’t accused of lining his own pockets. Nixon, a Shakespearean figure racked by personal insecurities, was also an intelligent man blessed with great powers of concentration. According to Arthur Burns, the economist he appointed to head the Federal Reserve, Nixon could have “held down a chair in political science or law in any of our major universities.”
Trump, then, is sui generis. He has no experience in elected office—in these demented times, that was part of his popular appeal. His reputation as a hugely successful businessman has little basis in fact, as does his claim of being worth ten billion dollars. Until he launched his Presidential campaign, in which he showed some genuine skill as a rabble-rouser, his talents had lain in attracting other people’s money, promoting himself in the media, and playing a role on reality television—the role of Donald Trump, the great dealmaker.
If Trump has any ethics, they are self-serving ones. In his business dealings, he has a record of chiselling suppliers; bankrupting public companies; and operating a private outfit, Trump University, that recently settled charges that it was little more than a scam designed to part Americans of modest means from their savings. For many years, it seems, Trump exploited a loophole in the tax code to avoid paying any federal taxes. At times, he has associated with alleged mobsters and shadowy foreign businessmen, including rich Russians who have invested in some of his real-estate projects. (On this, a lengthy article in The American Interest gathers much of what can be gleaned from public filings and court records.) Although Trump poses as a champion of the common man, he is a prime exemplar and beneficiary of oligarchical capitalism.
He is also, as he displayed many times over the past year and a half, an inveterate bully who views the world almost exclusively in terms of winning and losing. Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” which helped define Trump’s public brand, has described him as a compulsive liar and a sociopath. Trump’s history of denigrating minorities, inciting racial fears, promoting birtherism, and boasting about sexually assaulting women surely doesn’t need recounting, but one lesser-known incident is perhaps worth recalling. In 2000, after some family members went to court and challenged his father’s will, Trump cut off health coverage to a nephew’s young son who was suffering from a chronic neurological disorder that caused violent seizures and brain damage. Asked by the Times why he took this action, he said, “I was angry because they sued.”
This is the man about to join the lineage of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. In the coming days and weeks, some cynical Republican leaders who have made their self-serving peace with Trump will put on a show of support for him and claim that all is proceeding normally. Obama himself, whether out of a desire to go by protocol or in the hope of exercising some restraining influence, has so far avoided making any public criticisms, even though Trump has shown little sign of heeding the advice Obama offered a few days after the election, when he said, “There are going to be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well, unless he recognizes them and corrects them. Because when you’re a candidate and you say something that is inaccurate or controversial, it has less impact than it does when you’re President of the United States.”
Come two weeks from Friday, Trump will be in that position. It is to be fervently hoped that, as Obama predicted in November, entering the Oval Office will awaken Trump to the reality and enormousness of the responsibilities he faces and change the way he behaves. Such a possibility can’t be entirely discounted, I suppose. But, at this stage, does anybody really believe it will happen?
Author: John Cassidy