I confess I was relieved to find, a few minutes into Trump's first-class rant Tuesday in Phoenix, that he's as batshit crazy as ever. The signs were less in his language than the narcissistic abandon. He can't not make it about himself.
You can almost hear a little voice telling him: Don't overdo it, Donnie. But he shakes it off. (A bit like Hillary Clinton in a book excerpt this week about Trump stalking her at the debates: fair point, Hillary, but then you turn it into a tedious whine on how victimized you've always been.) As opposed to?
The scariest discovery would be that Trump's boorishness and grandiosity were deliberately calculated; that he had the ability to modulate his nuttiness for political effect. That would mean he had the discipline and perspective to harness his impulses to a strategy that could do real long-run damage to his society and the rest of us too. (I shudder even as I write that.)
The following night, Wednesday, at the American Legion, he was back to reading mechanically from the teleprompter, which the New York Times gave him credit for: "speaking slowly and gravely."
I guess it's all in the ear of the behearer. My relief was undiminished: he lacks the control and detachment to do lasting, structural harm, which any non-trivial destroyer requires. Maybe that's why Bannon left without much of a fight. Did he conclude the same, and is already looking for a more serious neo-fascist to back?
This was the week when the "He crazy" talk came out of hiding. It's not just California Democrats, who've endearingly proposed installing a resident psychiatrist in the White House. (Is this progress? In 1967's The President's Analyst, with James Coburn, the boss must sneak out to meet his shrink -- who himself develops rational paranoia because the deep state is surveilling him.)
Now it's Republicans doing the pointy-finger stuff connoting insanity. Senator Jeff Flake used the magic word, instability. Everybody nods and winks. If they speak that way publicly, imagine what they say in private. (And if he's this nutty on national TV, picture him chez soi.) The question is, what will they do about it? For the moment, it seems: quarantine him and carry on.
You simply let him fuss and ignore it while you go about the business at hand. So Trump had praised Egypt's president ("fantastic job...we are very much behind Egypt"). This week his own administration withheld $300 million in aid over human rights abuses.
He says, in Phoenix, "we'll probably end up terminating NAFTA," and negotiations continue, oblivious. The logical end of this approach would be to give him a fake nuclear button, let him push it, and follow up by informing him what damage his nuclear strike just did.
All people who strive for high political office are probably somewhat crazy. If you were well-adjusted, why would you want that much power? And humans are generally weird: instinct-based mammals who wear clothes, believe their reason is dominant etc. Nixon was surely unstable, but he kept it in check, relatively, mostly. Trump is all crazy all the time. (The teleprompter phases may be the temporary result of exhaustion, while he revs up again.)
The scariest part of madness, aside from its effects on the mad one, is what it does to those within its range and control, like the family. Or at the workplace. Anyone who's worked for a truly crazy boss knows what it's like to go in every day and fall under that power -- especially once you've left for another job and can acknowledge the hell it was.
In Trump's case, not just his nation but the entire world lives under the toxic fog of his madness, without any ameliorating components in his personality. In other words, madness is, in its social impact, mainly about power. In this broad sense it is political.
So yeah, it was a relief to see in Phoenix that he's deeply out of control. But also terrifying, since that itself can wreak terrible havoc and we need to hope those around him can contain him. Not a great long-term solution.
To any of the astute people I know who say: Yes but would you rather have Pence with his harsh right-wing ideology, his Christian fundamentalism, and his relative discipline and control? I say: Absolutely. Go Mike Go!
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
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