There was only one theme from the beginning. Donald Trump told America that everyone is out to get us. He told America to sneer at the rest of the world – to get angry and get tough. The world was laughing at America, and the rest of America – the blacks and the gays and the urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and all “politicians” in general – was laughing at real Americans. Mexicans and Muslims were laughing at us. He could fix that. When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. We’ll build that wall and Mexico will pay for it. Muslims will be banned from entering the country. Hit back ten times harder. That way no one messes with you ever again. That’s the way America should deal with the world, and that worked.
Richard Hofstadter had already explained why that would work in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and in the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) – Americans seem to be extraordinarily insecure and defensive, and they lash out. Hofstadter saw that as a problem. Donald Trump saw that as an opportunity. He could tap that insecurity and defensiveness. He could ride that insecurity and defensiveness to the presidency. That was his base, a base just large enough to win the election, a base just large enough to keep him in office. If anyone said he had no idea what he was doing, that this or that would never work, and just now didn’t work, his base would defend him. He was “telling it like it is” – everyone really was out to get us – and there was the implicit response to all the experts. No one said the words, but those words always hung in the air. “If you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?”
Donald Trump was rich. Case closed. Donald Trump was a mean man, a man with a vicious streak, an angry petty little man who wanted to get even with everyone, and thus a hero to the insecure and defensive, who had long felt that the whole world was against them and had always dismissed them as fools. Trump was their guy. He’d show them! He’d show them all!
This has freed Donald Trump to be as mean and vicious as he cares to be at any given moment, and he does seem to enjoy being mean and vicious. John McCain died? John McCain was never a hero. Donald Trump is a hero, and John McCain had refused to acknowledge that. John McCain had laughed at him. He will ignore the man’s death. Let him rot. Trump assumed his base would love that. Maybe there are military heroes, but he himself was rich. That counts for more.
Someone tugged on Trump’s sleeve. Someone told him he was being a jerk:
President Trump, under enormous public and private pressure, finally issued a proclamation of praise for Mr. McCain on Monday afternoon, two days after the senator’s death, and ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff seemingly in the only place it wasn’t already, the presidential complex.
The day had begun with the remarkable sight of the flag flying atop the White House’s flagpole, while just beyond the building, at the Washington Monument, others fluttered midway down the poles that circle the obelisk. The president stubbornly refused repeated requests from officials as senior as Vice President Mike Pence and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, to acknowledge Mr. McCain’s death with a formal and unifying statement, according to four administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Yes, the New York Times has four separate sources for this, four administration officials willing to leak that Pence and Kelley, and others, had told Trump that he was being petty, that he was being a jerk, and Trump had told them he didn’t give a damn – or perhaps he thought that was good politics.
At midday, the drama was punctuated by the words of Mr. McCain himself, whose final statement to the nation was delivered posthumously through a top aide.
“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” Mr. McCain wrote in a statement delivered by Rick Davis, his family spokesman and former campaign manager. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
McCain has slapped him around again, from beyond the grave, and there was this:
The visual of the flag raised high at the White House made the rounds on social media, and prompted a statement from the American Legion, the nation’s largest wartime-veterans service organization.
“On the behalf of the American Legion’s two million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment,” Denise Rohan, the national commander of the American Legion, wrote in a statement that one White House adviser said caught the president’s attention.
That would catch his attention. He had to choose. He could tell the nation’s largest wartime-veterans service organization that he knows more about who was and who was not a “real” war hero than they could ever begin to know, because he knows such things and they don’t, or he could avoid telling these people they know nothing about anything. He decided to split the difference:
The president released a statement to try to put the matter behind him, but it began with highlights of past conflicts.
“Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country,” Mr. Trump said, “and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment.”
On Monday evening, he told a dinner of evangelical supporters, “We very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.”
The president, who Mr. McCain had previously said was not invited to his funeral services, said other senior aides would attend memorial events in his place.
He won’t go but he’ll send his people. That’s splitting the difference, but the rest of the day had been this:
For much of the day, Mr. Trump appeared oblivious to the criticism. He resisted when Mr. Kelly called him at 7 a.m. and lobbied him to let the staff handle the response, a person familiar with the exchange said. He let Mr. Kelly know the day and week would continue as scheduled. Then he tweeted about professional sports, trumpeted a revamped trade deal with Mexico and hosted the Kenyan president.
At one point, Mr. Trump seemed so eager to publicly deliver a policy victory on the trade deal that television cameras inside the Oval Office went live before the telephone equipment had Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president, on the line.
“Enrique?” Mr. Trump asked, growing flustered on live television as his aides tried to figure out the phone. “Do you want to put that on this phone, please? Hello? Be helpful.”
That was supposed to be an awesome moment – the end of NAFTA forever and the final humiliation of Canada and every Canadian who ever lived – but it was a bunch of grown men, on national television, baffled by a quite ordinary speaker phone. And the new trade deal wasn’t much of anything – just some minor tweaks to the NAFTA rules. Trump then said he would now rename NAFTA – as if that changed everything. No one batted an eye. Let him rename the thing if that makes him happy. Indulge the man. It’s safer than laughing in his face. Those around Donald Trump are learning to manage Donald Trump.
That’s not easy. Gabe Sherman, with his array of sources, reports that this has become difficult:
After Michael Cohen’s plea deal last week, Donald Trump spiraled out of control, firing wildly in all directions. He railed against “flippers” in a rambling Fox & Friends interview, and lashed out on Twitter at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department, and Robert Mueller.
In the wake of his outbursts, White House officials have discussed whether Trump would listen to his closest New York City friends in an effort to rein him in. Two sources briefed on the matter told me that senior officials talked about inviting Rudy Giuliani and a group of Trump’s New York real-estate friends including Tom Barrack, Richard LeFrak, and Howard Lorber to the White House to stage an “intervention” last week.
“It was supposed to be a war council,” one source explained. But Trump refused to take the meeting, sources said. “You know Trump – he hates being lectured to,” the source added.
He did relent on McCain – maybe the dead guy deserved a bit of credit for his little life, maybe – but don’t expect that to happen again:
More than ever, Trump is acting by feeling and instinct. “Trump is nuts,” said one former West Wing official. “This time really feels different.” Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine has privately expressed concern, a source said, telling a friend that Trump’s emotional state is “very tender.” Even Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are unsettled that Trump is so gleefully acting on his most self-destructive impulses as his legal peril grows.
According to a source, Jared and Ivanka told Trump that stripping security clearances from former intelligence officials would backfire, but Trump ignored them. Kushner later told a friend Trump “got joy” out of taking away John Brennan’s clearance. His reaction to the death of John McCain – quashing a White House statement in praise of the senator, and restoring White House flags to full staff – falls into the same self-indulgent category.
Trump can afford to be self-indulgent. He’s a hero to the insecure and defensive, who had long felt that the whole world was against them and had always dismissed them as fools. This has freed Donald Trump to be as mean and vicious as he cares to be at any given moment. His base loves that. They’ll defend him, but that might be harder now:
The news of Cohen’s plea and Paul Manafort’s conviction, which were followed by revelations that Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker are cooperating with federal prosecutors, have rattled Trump like few other turns in the investigation have, sources said. Flying on Air Force One to his West Virginia rally last week, Trump seemed “bummed” and “down and out,” a person briefed on his mood told me. “He was acting like, ‘I know the news is bad, but I don’t know what to do about it,'” the source said. At the rally, an uncharacteristically subdued Trump barely mentioned Cohen or Manafort.
By the weekend, though, his anger had returned. “He spent the weekend calling people and screaming,” one former White House official said. According to sources, the president feels cornered with no clear way out.
Add this too:
Two sources told me that Trump continues to raise the possibility of a pardon for Manafort, his former campaign chairman. Trump has been clashing with White House counsel Don McGahn, who, sources said, is strongly against granting Manafort a pardon. Trump has told people he’s considering bringing in a new lawyer to draft a Manafort pardon, if McGahn won’t do it. “He really at this point does not care,” a former official said. “He would rather fight the battle. He doesn’t want to do anything that would cede executive authority.”
It’s hard to talk sense into him:
After Cohen effectively named Trump an unindicted co-conspirator in campaign-finance crimes with the payments to Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, Trump’s public posture was that the payments weren’t crimes. Privately, according to two sources, Trump attorneys suggested that a strategy for dealing with the issue could be for Trump to admit to having affairs with women and paying hush money to them for years. That way, he could assert that the payments to Daniels and McDougal were normal business – not campaign donations meant to influence the 2016 election.
Trump, according to the sources, rejected this advice. “It was because of Melania,” one source said.
There is no way out:
Inside the West Wing, a sense of numbness and dread has set in among senior advisers as they gird for what Trump will do next. “It’s a return to the abyss,” said one former official who’s in frequent contact with the White House. “This is back to being a one-man show, and everyone is on the outside looking in.”
Greg Sargent puts that this way:
Trump has, in fact, felt constrained from acting, thanks to push-back from the public, from politicians, from the media and from civil society. He backed off his effort to remove Mueller. He has not fired Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and replaced him with a loyalist to constrain the investigation, though he has plainly considered it.
But in these cases, what appears obvious is that the only constraints Trump recognizes are the limits he perceives on his ability to get away with such actions. And so, if more news along these lines comes out and it doesn’t raise much of a stir, there might be cause to worry about what message Trump will take from that and what he will conclude he can, in fact, get away with.
But he didn’t get away with insulting John McCain, and Josh Marshall sees this:
Trump can never let anyone take the attention away from him. But McCain’s reputation is what it is. He and his family have arranged a multi-day public ceremony stretching from Arizona to Washington to Annapolis and topped it off with high profile roles for two of the President’s greatest nemeses, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. McCain reportedly made clear he did not want Trump in attendance.
The most difficult part for the President will almost certainly be the fact that he sees the whole pageantry – rightly – as in significant measure a rebuke aimed at him.
Through his life and especially in the last quarter century of his life McCain presented himself as a public icon for service, selflessness, sacrifice, honesty, courage. Whether he always lived up to those ideal isn’t the point. Frequently, he didn’t. But that’s what the coming days, inevitably, will be about. And every invocation of them will be at least an implicit and often an explicit rebuke of Trump who, for all McCain’s failings, is like an anti-McCain – most known for selfishness, indiscipline, lack of self-control, lying and being clinically bereft of shame.
And that means that McCain wins:
If you have any concern that this amounts to Trump and his awfulness somehow stepping on McCain’s moment, don’t be. It is almost certain that this would be and was precisely how McCain wanted it. It is almost unimaginable that Trump will be able to go a full week without some crass statement or public outburst aimed at McCain since McCain’s final public moments will all come at his expense.
He will find that excruciating and it is hard to imagine he will get through it without further demeaning himself.
“Trump is nuts,” said one former West Wing official, but in early 2017 Richard Friedman reviewed the controversy at the time – “Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?”
That was the debate among psychologists and psychiatrists, most of whom had no answer to that. He was not their patient. No one should diagnose at a distance, and even Lincoln suffered from what we’d now call clinical depression. Lincoln called it melancholia and he did just fine.
Donald Trump doesn’t have that problem. Clinical depression requires self-awareness. Too much self-awareness will drive you crazy. Too little self-awareness is another matter. There’s a name for that – Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Friedman reported that large panel of perhaps unethical psychiatrists – diagnosing a man they never met – had decided that seems to be the problem here – but one of them notes that there are no good options when it comes to dealing with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
There are only two ways to deal with someone with NPD, and they are both dangerous. There is no healthy way of interacting with someone with this affliction. If you criticize them they will lash out at you and if they have a great deal of power, that can be consequential. If you compliment them it only acts to increase the delusional and grandiose reality the sufferer has created, causing him to be even more reliant on constant and endless compliments and unwavering support.
There is no healthy way of interacting with someone with this affliction. There is no healthy way of interacting with Donald Trump. His insecure and defensive base has freed Donald Trump to be as mean and vicious as he cares to be at any given moment. With the John McCain business, someone tugged on Trump’s sleeve and told him not to be a jerk, but that may not happen again. John McCain is dead. Donald Trump isn’t.