by fugitive ink
A month into the Trump era, let’s start with the positives, such as they are.
The past month has produced some memorably good photographs. My three favourites are all dinner-table images. Even the amateur ones are good. This photo …
… was taken by a random member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, using a camera phone, and yet there’s a great deal in it.
For a start, the composition is as strong as seventeenth century Dutch conversation piece. Look how virtually all the figures turn inwards, towards the central incident. The sloping line of heads from left to right, the echo between the chairbacks and the back of the woman on the left, those strange ivory columnar things in the background — all happy accidents, presumably, yet a success all the same.
The image, we are told, shows the scene at dinner on 11 February where, in full view of paying club members the visiting president of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and Trump himself were informed of a ballistic missile test carried out by North Korea. The photo obediently captures the electricity of the moment, the rather agreeable sense of non-urgent yet exciting crisis, all the more surreal for being experienced amid lace tablecloths, bowls of roses, those strange things in the background.
Yet the true genius of the photo lies in its portrayal of America’s Commander-in-Chief. Is he actually there at all? Abe is at the centre, visible — but where is Trump?
It is arguable that he’s hidden behind the woman with the long blonde hair, if only because other photos from that night show that this is where he was sitting. And yet everyone’s attention is focused on Abe. And that, indeed, is part of the story of Trump’s first month in power. He ought to be at the heart of the story, but all the same, there is something strangely absent about him. There is a gap where the president ought to be, and everyone knows it.
The second photo I want to consider is from the inaugural lunch. It shows the newly-sworn-in president and his glamorous first lady at long last enjoying the supreme office for which Trump had laboured so mightily. Here they are.
It is generally assumed that this photo lays bare the marital dysfunction of the subjects.
In fact, I suspect it was shot during the saying of grace at the start of a formal banquet, giving it a rather different significance.
Here, we see Melania carrying out one of the few parts of the job she could realistically have been expected to do properly — because let’s remember, she’s not confident speaking English in public, and indeed doesn’t really like high-profile events — and, to be fair, she is seen to be carrying it off with a degree of professionalism. Her eyes are downcast, hands folded in her lap, her mouth set to ‘serious’.
This is all as it should be.
To her credit, Melania has been one of the least shambolic members of the presidental team to date. She says nothing, does little, and apparently has chosen as her exemplar a stylish, professional first lady who had to put up with a disrespectful and inattentive husband — often, as she did so, looking dignified yet rather pained in public — before he was, unfortunately, murdered in a complicated business that might or might not have involved organised crime, Russians and the US intelligence community, after which she was free to make a much happier life for herself in New York City and elsewhere.
Avert the omens, obviously.
Hence it’s the contrast between the two figures that animates the inaugural lunch portrait photo. Melania, at least, is putting on a show of thanking God for the usual sorts of things. As for the president, though — although perhaps moments before he was sitting through the grace properly, with his hands folded, his head bent downward — now his famously limited attention span is failing him. He’s bored. For a moment, he isn’t the centre of attention. He’s having to listen to someone else — possibly even someone who is talking about God, rather than Trump. The meal ahead is unlikely to feature his beloved junk food.
Moreover, as it’s the Congressional luncheon, the room is full of people Trump distrusts and dislikes. I think it’s right, for instance, to say that Hillary and Bill Clinton, Michelle and Barack Obama were all present.
So it’s no wonder Trump can’t keep his eyes closed for more than a moment. As a man wholly lacking any sort of filter, every bit of the resentment, rancor and discomfort he feels is present in that look, and he neither knows nor cares who’s watching.
Why do I admire this photo so much? For me, at least, it captures the exact moment when Trump realises, in whatever dim and unreflective way, that being president isn’t going to mend the thing that is wrong inside him, that he doesn’t feel any better and that the world is still a threatening, uncomfortable place. In human terms, this is, to use Trump’s own favourite word, sad — but in visual terms it is also pretty mesmerising.
For the third image, though, let’s return to the Mar-a-Lago dinner with prime minister Abe.
Was this a casual photo or not? It looks as though, again, it was taken on a mobile phone in terrible light, but if so, the technical limitations ended up working in history’s favour.
Dinner is clearly over, and Abe, at least, is rising, turning to speak with the arch-fiend Bannon, their eyes locked across the short interval of space. So we know that this is after the announcement of the North Korean missile test. Again, there is electricity in the image, something frantic yet rather joyous — crisis as after-dinner entertainment — pictured here in the half-turns executed by nearly everyone, rendered in this bad light as granular blurs.
Almost nothing is static in this unchoreographed dance. No, the only points of clarity are the beautiful still-life of wine glasses and roses in the foreground, yet another appearance from that tall strange thing in the background — and finally, front and centre, the president of himself, calm centre of the storm raging around him. He might as well be alone in the room — except for the photographer, of course.
And he’s looking right at us. Or rather, he’s looking at whoever is holding up the iPhone. It turns out that the photo was taken by someone called Erika Bain, who posted it on Instagram with the caption ‘Hey Mr Pres’.
As she put it, ‘It was a great evening. President Trump was sitting at the table having dinner with the prime minister. The table was roped off. We were sitting right near them. I went up to the rope and he was more than happy to smile for a photo!’
‘Happy’ is putting it mildly. And here, the contrast with the luncheon photo is the salient thing. At Mar-a-Lago, Trump is truly at home — in his native element, master of all the faintly trashy glamour and sycophantic staffage he surveys.
This explains, more than anything else, the look on his face. Once again, the Man With No Filter displays his innermost feelings with almost indecent clarity. He’s enjoying it all — the familiarity, the pleasing fuss, the illusion of control — but most of all, the uncritical attention. The person who is holding up that iPhone is offering Trump the one thing that ever soothes him — adulation. There is nothing he loves more. This is everywhere in his face, his dreamy smile, that elbow on the table and hand cradling his chin. Does it matter, in this context, that Ms Bain appears, on the basis of a quick internet search, to be an attractive young woman with long blonde hair and a nice smile? Possibly it does.
Japan? North Korea? Who cares? The president and the photographer might as well be the only two people in the room, especially as one of them is, at least as far as the other is concerned, less a person than a sort of agreeable mirror, doing important work in reminding Trump how wonderful, special and valid it is to be Trump. And the president needs that.
As for the rest of us, after nearly a month of Trump as President, the overwhelming sense is one of overload.
There’s just too much news.
Even a year or two ago, a big resignation, a politician who said something obviously inaccurate at a high-profile event, even some silly little story about personal idiosyncrasy would dominate headlines for days. Here, what story manages to last more than a few hours? Just when we’ve all got ourselves properly worked up over the latest outrage — possibly about something unimaginably huge, like the Russians establishing a forward operating post in the White House in order to wage war on the intelligence community — like clockwork, the president wakes up, switches on the television news and orders his hapless aide to tweet the next mad thing, at which point every train of thought derails in the face of the new provocation.
It’s not just that he has no attention span, that he’s reactive and perpetually angry — there are moments when I worry he’s making the whole of the politically-engaged universe like that, too.
Yet despite the firestorm of catastrophe screaming all around us, there are a few fairly clear things that can be taken away from Trump’s first month in office. Here are some of them.
- There really is something badly wrong with Trump. This isn’t a partisan issue. After his bizarre press conference yesterday, a Republican senator correctly observed that Trump should be doing this stuff with his therapist, not on live television. Trump is angry, he’s easily confused, the way he shakes hands with other world leaders is downright frightening, he’s inarticulate to the point of incoherence, there’s a certain amount of evidence that he can’t even read, he continually says things that are demonstrably untrue, and frequently behaves in a way that is odd and embarrassing in equal measure. This matters. It’s a well-known thing that mental illness tends to be diagnosed differently depending who’s displaying the symptoms — for instance, in the UK, black men in are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness than are white men — which does rather lead to the suspicion that what is framed as dysfunction in less powerful people may simply be laughed off as charming quirkiness or indeed ‘he’s just like that’ in someone who’s more powerful.
No one’s mental health is as perfect as all that, but where society draws the line between ‘a bit fragile’ versus ‘actually in need of professional health’ can feel much more subjective.
This is the point that even some very good articles, like this one, get wrong about Trump’s mental state — actually there are quite a few people out there, including ones in positions of authority, who have serious undiagnosed mental health issues, which in turn remain unexplored up until the point that something criminal results from them.
Trump has a lot of apparatus around him, protecting him from the consequences of his actions in a way that would not be the case if he were, for instance, a homeless person standing on a street corner, grabbing at random strangers, seizing their hands and not letting go, all awhile ranting to them about the Japanese balance of trade or some woman called ‘Crooked Hillary’ or even the ‘bad hombres’ who were out to get him. Trump has staff, security, and a band of followers who, for their own career survival if nothing else, must be willing him to do well. And yet even with all this support, he cannot achieve reliably even the most basic simulacrum of normal behaviour.
If Trump were just someone’s strange uncle, to be humoured or avoided at family gatherings, this would all be very sad and unfortunate. Instead, he’s president of the United States, a nation with a population of something like 320 million souls, as well as commander-in-chief of arguably the most formidable military forces on earth. It’s a huge job. Few people, really, are up to it. I know I wouldn’t be. But then neither is Trump. And the sooner everyone faces up to this reality and its consequences, the better for all of us.
2. Trump’s team isn’t working.
In the run-up to the election, a constant refrain of Trump supporters, especially when repelling comments about how their hero was a bit of a weirdo, was this: ‘but he’ll have good people around him’. In other words, we’d have all the bracing novelty and roller-coaster excitement of Trump leadership, but underpinned with the sensible, reliable presence of experienced professionals. All very reassuring — and yet, in practice, totally untrue.
The problem here, again, isn’t a partisan one. True, at least a few of Trump’s confederates are manifestly evil — Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, I’m looking at you — but the vast majority of them are also incompetent.
But then that’s the problem with denouncing ‘experts’ and hyping up the merits of an insurgent campaign. As observers of the UK’s own Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn could have predicted, sometimes ‘outsiders’ are ‘outsiders’ for a very good reason, which is that they don’t have the skill set necessary to do the things that need to be done on the inside. Patience, diplomacy, pragmatism, perspective, sensitivity to the feelings of others, a willingness to compromise on small things in order to achieve big things — of course, many of us could work on our performance in these areas, but on the other hand, few of us end up seeking positions of high-level leadership.
Of all Trump’s team, the only one who hasn’t been an absolute shambles, as far as I can see, is James Mattis, whose method seems to be to try to piece together some semblance of coherence out of Trump’s random utterances and convey these, in comprehensible and measured form, to other geopolitical actors, while putting as much physical space between himself and Trump as possible. But then, Mattis isn’t an outsider — as a retired US Marine Corps general, he has experience of taking a mess of vague objectives and shaping them into the least-worst actual plan. One assumes, too, that he understands the difference between strategy and tactics. Also, he has experienced genuine catastrophes, hence probably doesn’t scare easily. But even Mattis, who played a key role at Fallujah, must sometimes wonder what he’s got himself into this time.
Less than a month into its increasingly precarious existence, literally everything that can go wrong with Trump’s administration has gone wrong. Trump has declared war on the judiciary, the intelligence community and the media (with the possible of Rupert Murdoch). This is not normal. Not only has he suffered high-level resignations — and again, remember, this is after about 27 days! — but possible replacements are now openly refusing to take up a role in Team Trump. Many jobs still remain unfilled, notably at the State Department. This is not normal either. And perhaps most damaging, from a point of view of optics if not reality, is the sheer number of strange and unsettling things that keep happening. The hapless custodian of the ‘nuclear football’ was photographed and identified in a Facebook post. Stephen Miller pops up on television and says that ‘the president’s authority cannot be questioned’, and then is praised by Trump on Twitter for doing a ‘great job’. Meanwhile, Trump uses Twitter to communicate not only with his polity — which might, conceivably, be sort of okay — but also as his main point of contact with congress, the judiciary and foreign powers. None of this is normal, and it should not be allowed to become normal.
Trump’s media operation, however, deserves an honourable mention as literally the most shambolic aspect of what will surely go down in history as the most completely dysfunctional, flailing, failing presidential administration of all time. Regular readers will know by now that I am slightly obsessed with the diaries of Alastair Campbell, the interesting figure who ran Tony Blair’s media operations from early on in his campaign for party leadership until the late summer of 2003, when the fallout of the Iraq War meant that he had ‘become the story’ and hence had to go. Campbell continues to divide opinion, but that isn’t the point here. His diaries, we can perhaps all agree, do at least present a day-to-day account of how a government’s press operation might work, with all its ups and downs, the petty conflicts, the things that go right as well as the things that go very, very wrong. Returning to them now, the contrast with what can be known about the Trump operation (and won’t it be a wonderful moment when the memoirs start emerging) is a very stark one.
If Campbell’s diaries have a soothing quality, it derives from their repetitive content. There will be an idea for a big speech. Blair and Campbell and other key aids will discuss it. Then cabinet members and other stakeholders will discuss it. Expected media reaction will be taken into account. Then there will be drafts and drafts and drafts. Discussions go on for pages. Then there will be a row with Gordon Brown or John Prescott or possibly both, and this will be the occasion for more discussions, drafts and so forth.
Meanwhile, there is always a grid, lines to take, scrutiny of who said what, whether it was ‘on message’ and how it was covered afterwards. But there are clear limits to everything. Campbell may hate certain editors or journalists with that distinctively intense, vivid, marginally unhinged passion that illuminates the diaries, without which frankly they would be rather dull — but the representatives of these hated outlets still turn up for lobby briefings, still get called at press conferences, still function as part of the weather in which any media operation has to function. Campbell will swear, bully and threaten in private — this is part of why he is still so hated in some quarters today — but at whatever grudging level, there’s an acceptance that however much he hates, say, the Daily Mail, he has to engage with it. (As for the bigger question — whether he ever outright lied to the media, not on points of nuance, but with a Bowling Green Massacre sort of outrageousness, particularly with regard to those famous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ — well, that’s an argument for another day, and perhaps not a day of locally intense Blair nostalgia, either.)
Contrast this with Trump’s media operation. Of course, there are built-in differences. American presidents aren’t leaders of their parties in the sense that UK prime ministers are. Also, there are moments when the ascent of social media seems to have altered the landscape of political communications out of all recognition. Still, the gulf between the two examples remains unbridgeable. At the heart of the problem is Trump. Can anyone imagine him keeping to a prepared text, let alone a complex and detailed media strategy? Of course not. He simply says the first thing that comes into his head, however unsuitable and mad-sounding it might be. No, as far as his media operation is concerned, Trump is not so much a loose cannon as a cannon mounted firmly onto the deck of yet another vessel entirely, rudderless and drifting erratically, answering no signals, a danger to itself and other passing craft.
And yet I cannot feel sorry for them either: haunted-looking Spicer, Conway l’écorchée, Bannon as the rheumy-eyed motivating intelligence, ghastly Miller as the rebarbative mouthpiece. There is far too much corrosive, grisly nihilism at the heart of a media strategy built on the blunt denial both that facts, per se, are objective things, and that the news media has a responsibility to report these facts accurately. It’s not surprising that Bannon takes this view. The lessons he took away from his time in Hollywood seem to have been uniformly bad ones, while Breitbart has been one long frontal assault on actual journalism carried out through the mechanism of providing a superficially satisfying alternative — hey, this stuff entertains, it provides narratives, what’s the difference, other than one of snobbery? — for all the world as if sourcing current affairs information was simply a style-tribe-driven consumer choice like any other.
What is slightly more surprising, really, is that Conway and Spicer, both of whom have had relatively strong career histories up to now, went along with any of it. In some parallel world, one wonders whether Conway and Spicer couldn’t have done a bit more of the ‘I know he made it sound crazy, but what my boss really means is ….’ sort of thing, much of it sotto voce, and also quite a lot of it where it is most needed, i.e. not with friendly media but with hostile outlets. But no, the strategy seems to be this: when under attack (i.e. always) double down, go negative on pretty much everything and everyone, and don’t forget to savage the government itself, or at least the parts of it apparently unfriendly to the administration.
Again, I could understand this coming from Bannon, who surely runs the show, even now. I suspect he soothes himself to sleep at night by fantasising about Berlin 1945-type end games — tanks leaping up over heaps of ruined masonry, large buildings on fire, rape, bunkers, single pistol-shots ringing out with bracing clarity across the post-apocalyptic landscape. Bannon has the face of a man who does not wish to live forever. But just to be clear, although he seems rather to enjoy chaos, I am not a member of the camp that views chaos as a sophisticated tool of political agency being wielded by some skilled and intellectually sophisticated master. No, Bannon would govern more tightly if he could. Since he cannot, however, he is so far gone as to find the chaos that ensues both amusing and validating. Remember, all of you, Trump might not be the only person in this presidential administration who is grappling with quite a profound degree of mental illness. Some of you, I suspect, will have met lesser, mute, inglorious Bannons at close quarters, and have seen how they function. In this case, the support team is at least as troubled as the man they are supportingThis is really not normal at all.
- Trump is using the presidency to enrich himself, his family and friends.
Where do we start? My mother used to tell me, in a rather arch fashion, who knows on what authority, that for a long time in New Hampshire, high-ranking state employee were not paid anything at all, on the basis that paying them would simply attract people who were in it for the wrong reasons. Anyway, family folklore aside, one might reasonably have assumed that electing someone who, on paper at least, was famously very rich, might not only function as a guarantee that the person thus elected had a bit of practical common sense, but also that he wouldn’t need to use the office as a source of greater riches. But in that, alas, one would be wrong.
But again, where does ones start with this mess? For one thing, Trump is unusual amongst recent presidents in not having revealed his tax returns. So the full extent of his interests, exposure and liabilities is totally unknown. True, he claims to have handed over his business interests — but the recipient has been a son he sees frequently, while he presumably remains fully cognizant of his own business affairs, as no one has even pretended otherwise. Meanwhile, his present wife has put on record the fact that she views this ‘multi-year term’ as an ‘unprecedented’ opportunity to make money. One suspects that de facto first lady Ivanka feels the same way. Trump has unarguably raised to cabinet rank a number of businessmen with substantial interests in the fields of policy over which they now preside. And as for the ongoing Twitter meltdown that constitutes his discernable foreign policy, investigative journalism — a ‘winner’ at the moment, as Trump himself might put it — frequently seems to discover vested Trumpian enterprises at the heart of it all.Is this normal? Not at all. And as the Founding Fathers were robustly clear about the desirability of people enriching themselves as a result of high office, it’s almost certainly an impeachable offence.
- There is something deeply odd about the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia.
Again, this is not a normal problem, which is perhaps why so many — media, opposition, the public at large — are struggling to understand or accept it, let alone do something about it.
I struggle with it, too.
For a long time, it was easy to write off the whole Russia thing as the fruit of intensely silly web discussions, over-freighted with conspiracy theories, self-importance and posts along the lines of ‘I spent quite a few hours on Google while living in my sadly rather depressive mother’s cluttered and not particularly tidy spare room, so you owe me not only your time and attention, but also your abiding respect’. Also, it is really hard to understand what could possibly motivate pro-Russian hackers. For all these reasons, augmented with having been brought up in the darkest days and nights of the Cold War, I really did not take these stories seriously enough.
Now, though, they are impossible to ignore, and it seems possible that the FBI, Senate etc are paying attention too.
Having said that, enthusiasm for Putin’s Russia still baffles me. What’s the motivation? Personal gain? Maybe. Ideology? I can see that there’s a narrative whereby Russia is a marginally more appealing overlord than China, which might perhaps also explain the otherwise surprising degree of showy approbation being given to Japan by the current regime. But if that’s right, then why is there no public narrative being constructed around it?
As the inventor of the flushing loo, John Harrington, once opined,
If treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Well, although at one level, I slightly step back from calling for the re-creation of a Committee on Un-American Activities — at another level, it’s exactly what’s needed right now.
We need Congressional scrutiny not only of Flynn’s activities, but also the behaviour of a host of administration appointees, as well as the conduct of the recent election. If Trump has been wandering around saying ‘Look, a Muslim! Look, a Latino! Look, a black person who lives in Chicago’ while at the same time, allowing agents of a foreign power illegal access to US institutions and their secrets — and possibly benefitting financially, as well as politically — then the Constitution is fairly clear on what the outcome ought to be.
- Despite all this, many people still like Trump, are proud to have voted for him and expect great things from him.
I admit I find this one baffling too.
I know Trump supporters. Even I am surprised at how many I know.
The ones who used to be amongst my best friends were, needless to say, purged when I discovered their casual indifference to supporting a facilitator of Nazi ideology. Good riddance. One Trump supporter is a relative, whom I still love, because she’s a brave and good human being in all sorts of other ways — even if I disagree, as I very much do, with her politics. And then there is the whole expansive, diverse tribe of friends-of-friends on Facebook, plus the odd Twitter contact who ought to know better but clearly, volubly doesn’t. Suffice to say, ill-informed, short-sighted and wrong-headed as all these people seem to be, it’s good to remember that they exist. Part of the overarching moral we all need to take away from the Age of Trump is the imperative importance of taking away significant bits of information even if they don’t fit our prevailing world-view.
Well, some people still like Trump. Deal with it.
How, then, are we to deal with people who like Trump?
The answers, as sometimes happens in politics, are pretty simple. Let’s start with perhaps the hardest one: give virtually everyone a way back.
I say this one with feeling. For ages, I was a Tory, until during her conference speech in 2016, Ms May contaminated the Tory brand to such an extent that I was no longer willing to associate myself with it. Where next? Let’s just say that the Labour people who were willing to engage in a friendly, honest but sympathetic way with an unhappy political outcast got a lot further than the people who basically said that all Tories were basically evil and ought to be shot.
People who dislike Trump can learn from this one. Seriously, guys: if someone approaches you with a narrative along the lines of ‘I thought he’d be great and bring business ideas to Washington, and shake things up, and drain the swamp, and, err, well, um …’ then the right thing to say is ‘Interesting! What made you question that?’ rather than e.g. ‘What an absolute lunatic mentalist fruitcake you must have been to have voted for him in the first place’. Just saying.
Secondly, build bridges.
The Trump enthusiasts known to me are mostly very patriotic people. So, don’t say to them ‘seriously, what was your problem, supporting this guy who cried off Vietnam because of bone spurs in his heels yet who now tears into John McCain for being a PoW?’ Here’s a better line: ‘I can understand what you saw in him, but he’s really let veterans down, hasn’t he, so you’re right, we need someone different’. When Mattis, Petraeus etc go public with their denunciations, those will help, too.
Finally, it’s worth finding those little glimmers of good sense in the whole Trump project, and seeking to explain why they went wrong. And yes, it takes some doing. But persist with it.
Draining the swamp? Lots of people try to do this, but it’s harder than it looks. Making America great again? It’s tough, but selling America out to a foreign power isn’t the way forward — maybe America needs to re-discover its identity as a beacon of hope, as well as refuge of power. Also, maybe the basic values enshrined rather a long time ago in that dreary thing, the Constitution — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press — need to be held up as exemplars once again. Donald Trump’s message so often sounds defensive, like a sort of retreat. Might an advance not be more to the point?
Of course there are some people who will continue to think Trump is, according to their standards, a success — this article is fascinating both on who they are, and how they have made for themselves a complex and engaging cult out of failure itself, with Trump at its heart. But there isn’t really a way back for these people and heaven only knows what’s to be done about them.
- Trump is not happy.
This takes us directly back to where we started, with those three fairly casual photographs.
For a very long time — well, since the early spring of this year — I thought I knew the correct solution to Trump. Having lived — as my first formative political experience — through Nixon’s abortive impeachment, I was sure that this process was too extended, indirect and uncertain. Instead, my personal weapon of choice was the deployment of Amendment 25 to the Constitution, allowing for the removal of a president who was grossly unfit to fulfil his office. Now, though, I worry that this, too, will take too long. It requires, aside from anything else, a lot of robust bi-partisan support. What are the chances of that? The currently spinelessness of the GOP will be long remembered, and only very gradually forgiven.
Now, my tactics have changed. These days, I’d go for an outright resignation.
To some, this outcome might seem unlikely. But have you read Trump’s Twitter feed? Here is a man who wakes up angry, anxious and craving validation. The mood rarely improves as the day goes by.
Along similar lines, let me tell you, by way of closing, the single saddest story I have heard from the Trump regime. A week or so ago, Trump left his little fastness in Key West, and headed for the airport. People with placards lined the way.
On 12 February he tweeted: “Just leaving Florida. Big crowds of enthusiastic supporters lining the road that the FAKE NEWS media refuses to mention. Very dishonest!”
But in the days that followed, many credible people suggested that these ‘big crowds’ were, in fact, opponents picketing against Trump, and that Trump was simply unable to recognise them for what they were.
These are, admittedly, deep, dark waters. Far be it from me to make fun of anyone’s fragile mental state. But at the same time, is there any reason to imagine that Trump particularly enjoys his life at the moment? In most recent photos he looks anxious, sad, faintly suspicious. On Twitter he sounds angry and defensive.
We also know that Trump is reactive, outspoken and innately keen on revenge.
Might Trump resign, if he wasn’t having enough fun? It’s surely a possibility. His demonstrable commitment to public service is quite limited. He loves being in Florida. He loves having familiar faces, like family members, around him. Also, he hates being questioned by the media. So the present scenario, at least, isn’t entirely working for him.
This is important, if only because it points the way to what the massed ranks of Trump-skeptics must do next.
It’s simple, really: don’t hand to him on a great huge silver-gilt salver engraved with encouraging mottos and cavorting nymphs, or anything similar, precisely the parts of the job he most covets.
In the UK, for instance, this has direct implications. Quite recently, I was told off by a Twitter person — someone, actually, whom quite I like — for ‘student union politics’, just because I thought Trump should not be accorded the high and signal honour of a state visit. But honestly, if I’m guilty of student union politics, isn’t Trump himself pretty evidently functioning at the level of a fairly low-quality toddler play-group? In truth, it’s the very cheap and minor blandishments — a few cheering locals, a bit of gilt-gesso on an over-elaborate cornice and a handful of pretty girls — that Trump most manifestly craves. And a state visit will potentially offer up to him all of the above. In contrast, depriving him of all the above would be a huge, crippling disappointment.
Well, let’s disappoint him. Or, if he visits, let’s make sure that the news — not just the BBC and CNN, but even Fox and Sky! — overflows with glad tidings, not of Trump and adulation for him, but rather of (peaceful) demonstrations of vast and surprising size and duration, eclipsing every other aspect of his visit. Let’s make sure that the vox pops are polite, but also factual, clear and damning. Let’s not wear black balaclavas or incinerate police cars, either, because that confuses certain sections of our media, putting them off message.
No, it’s all ‘eyes on the prize’ here. Let’s keep pushing back on all the fun and reflected glamour, until there is nothing more than hard work, resignation and the need for personal toughness. Let us remember, most of all, that Trump possesses none of these qualities, not even tiny amounts. Also, he is famously impulsive, irresponsible and lacking in any sort of public service ethos. So if the thrills stop coming, he might, praise God, simply resign.
Because that, now, is my hope for Trump. I hope he’ll simply decide this isn’t any fun, pick up his toys and go back to New York. Sooner, please, rather than later. He can, of course, keep a Twitter account.
Not, of course, that I hold any brief for his vice president and constitutionally-mandated successor, Mike Pence. I don’t. Pence is, of course, ghastly in his own, infinitely more conventional way. His record on LGBT policy, for instance — pro ‘conversion therapy’, pro discrimination — is, if repulsive and regrettable, at least familiar. Which is to say, for all that is wrong with him, he at least he might possibly be charted somewhere on the scale of normal (bad) politicians. And at least there is a familiar means of engaging with these rather more familiar faults.
And yes, of course Pence will be contaminated by his whole relationship with Trump, whatever he knew about the links with Russia, etc, etc. So will the whole rump administration. But at least it moves the game on a bit, and that is something. We have to start somewhere.
When I started this post, I called it, for the sake of calling it something, Trump Agonistes. Older people — and it is a minor blessing that amidst our current horrors, as we relive the tragedy of Watergate a second time as farce, we have amongst our number not only the youthful and Twitter-literate John Dean, but also the actual G. Gordon Liddy — will see this as the Nixon reference it probably was, somewhere in my subconscious, where younger folk might reach for their volumes of Milton.
In truth, it matters very little. Does Trump anguish over being Trump, in the way that Nixon quite clearly, in the end, anguished whilst lurking meaningfully on the outskirts of his unique Calvary?
I’m guessing the answer is ‘no’.
Admittedly, Quakerism, the Great Depression and his saintly mother had, in concert, bestowed upon Nixon a peculiar, special gift of suffering. I somehow doubt that a multi-million dollar inheritance, a bankrupt and needy Gotham City plus Studio 54 did the same for Trump. Where Nixon was blessed with an irksome moral compass, Trump can probably only lay claim to some aching personal neediness, that inchoate, inconvenient thing that is still sometimes there after the easy money, cheap sex and glamorous party drugs have long since been expended. Who can be certain?
And yet Trump is still not happy. I do not think he likes the whole business of being president. I don’t think he likes having Bannon, with whatever sweaty, conspiratorial dark charm that high-functioning sociopath can muster, telling him what to do. I don’t think he likes a questioning media or a restless polity or indeed being away from home in a strange big house with good telephones, admittedly, but scary long corridors, bad lighting, bleakly Federalist architecture and no family at his side. I suspect he doesn’t sleep well at night, which is why he’s invariably in such an awful temper in the morning.
It’s an unpopular thing to say, and I say it in all recognition of that, but there are moments when, at a human level, I do actually feel deeply sorry for Trump. Would you want to wake in the morning and be where he is? No, not me either.
Let’s all hope that he finds a way to wake up from our collective nightmare very soon.