Inside President Trump’s Camelot
The president is watching television again. It’s early morning. Wearing a bathrobe, he reclines in the prestige suite of his private club. It’s preferable to the White House. He is alone for now, the remote control lying on the couch beside him. His wife is a long way away. She normally is. These solitary hours trouble his advisers.
The president’s eyes scan the ticker that runs beneath the cable news broadcast. Television is not a simple distraction for him. It provides no relaxation, no gentle orientation for the coming day. It can either injure or caress, can offer insult or affirmation. His nervous system is bound to it. It’s his ego’s version of a hospital’s vitals machine.
A proud non-reader, the president of the United States watches vastly more television than his predecessors, and he watches with a disturbing intensity. He finds inspiration, offence and definition in it. Love and rejection. He has come from television himself, has discovered self-worth in ratings. But this is different. He’s the president now, and made such by affirming an oath to protect a document he has never read.
Mar-a-Lago helps calm Donald Trump. The grounds are expansive, familiar. Membership is swelling; so are the fees. The president can play golf, eat steak and discuss military policy with foreign leaders in view of his awed patrons. It is a surreal scene. Like Elvis in Graceland, Trump is surrounded by acolytes and given to reveries of machismo.
These are the stories that emerge from Trump’s “winter White House”: stories of profane and mercurial outbursts, of jealousy and indiscretion. The Washington Post reports: “The president has been seething as he watches round-the-clock cable news coverage … Trump has been feeling besieged, believing that his presidency is being tormented in ways known and unknown by a group of Obama-aligned critics, federal bureaucrats and intelligence figures – not to mention the media, which he has called ‘the enemy of the American people’.”
More than Elvis, this recalls another prodigy of self-pity, Richard Nixon. Alone in the White House – his wife asleep, his head a swelter of paranoia – Nixon would drain Scotch and rage. So many were arrayed against him, he thought, and he would plot the points of this constellation – intellectuals, the media, the intelligence community. “The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy,” Nixon told Kissinger. A fortnight ago, Trump tweeted that the media are “the enemy of the American People”. Where Nixon committed his ugly fantasies to a secret tape machine, Trump impulsively broadcasts his on social media. He does so incessantly, a stream of bleak consciousness to which the American people are held spellbound.
A serial theme of Trump’s fury and paranoia is the “deep state”, the sinister and obstructive cluster of journalists, bureaucrats and intelligence officials mentioned in the earlier Post quote. As with Nixon, it is extraordinary that the most powerful person in the world can possess an infinite capacity for nursing injury. The most shocking, and unfounded, expression of this came early this week in a series of early morning tweets. “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and “Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!” then: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
It is difficult to overstate the significance of this: it is one of history’s most extraordinary allegations made by a US president against a predecessor. And it was made with no evidence. Obama flatly denied it through a spokesman, as did the former national intelligence director. So, too, did the FBI director, who, believing his agency had been grossly impugned, implored the Justice Department to publicly repudiate it. Few Republicans would volubly defend the comments.
“Let’s be perfectly clear here,” national security expert John Schindler this week wrote, “the scenario painted by President Trump of his predecessor tasking the [intelligence community] with wiretapping Trump Tower simply could not have happened without a far-reaching and highly illegal conspiracy involving the White House and several of our spy agencies, above all the National Security Agency. My friends still at NSA, where I served as the technical director of the Agency’s biggest operational division, have told me without exception that Trump’s accusation is wholly false, a kooky fantasy.”
Fantasy is a word you hear a lot these days. It’s a concept that Trump himself wrote about in his 1987 book, Trump: The Art of the Deal. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” Trump wrote. “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”
Quinta Jurecic, a national security law expert at the Brookings Institution, wondered in a long piece this week if Trump’s bizarre allegations could even be considered lies – they seemed to comprise an entirely alternative reality. “Lying, as defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is an act undertaken intentionally to obscure the truth,” Jurecic wrote. “Liars look at the truth and go in the other direction; but in doing so, they recognise implicitly that there is such a thing as the truth and such a thing as its opposite.
“Trump, however, often operates without any connection to the truth. For him, truth is not an enemy so much as an irrelevance. As a real estate developer and cultural figure, his routine spouting of falsehoods could be comparatively harmless, even entertaining. As president, however, his disregard for the truth could easily become disregard for democratic norms and the rule of law.”
Trump pledged destruction. He has already succeeded. To start, there is the epistemological vandalism. We have always believed what we’ve wanted to believe – Martin Amis once said that Americans would rather be told they’re healthy, than actually be so – but perhaps like never before there is little shared ground of knowledge. There are only islands. Millions of them. Cynicism has powerfully converged with Trump’s bullshit. One strengthens the other. Conspiracies abound; civic trust withers. It threatens the life of the Republic.
One of the more articulate and consistent critics of Trump is a conservative senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. He is young, photogenic, intelligent. He is also consistent. On the totem pole of senate seniority he is almost at the bottom, and yet he has not yielded to his party’s craven support of their mad monarch. Following Trump’s assertions of illegal wire-tapping, Sasse wrote the following: “The President today made some very serious allegations, and the informed citizens that a republic requires deserve more information. If there were wiretaps of then-candidate Trump’s organization or campaign, then it was either with FISA Court authorization or without such authorization. If without, the President should explain what sort of wiretap it was and how he knows this. It is possible that he was illegally tapped. On the other hand, if it was with a legal FISA Court order, then an application for surveillance exists that the Court found credible. The President should ask that this full application regarding surveillance of foreign operatives or operations be made available, ideally to the full public, and at a bare minimum to the US senate.
“We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President’s allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots. A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health.”
The president’s paranoia becomes the country’s. The power of the bully pulpit allows not only public persuasion, but the grand imposition of confusion and anxiety.
President Trump is probably now the most famous man in history – seen and contemplated by more people than Gandhi, Tolstoy or Lincoln. His image is ubiquitous. Not for virtue is Trump renowned, but by dint of mass communication and a gift for spectacle. A portion of that fame also rests with our own disbelief of it. Incredulity has demanded rivers of ink to express itself.
But it is surreal spectacle that most contributes to Trump’s fame. Such spectacles are difficult to parse. So quickly does one fiasco replace another that the effect becomes an ungraspable fog. It is worth summarising Trump’s behaviour as president, to attempt some anchoring.
It was with near giddiness that Trump described to a New York Times reporter the size of the White House, and the “beauty” of its phones. He sounded like a schoolkid writing an essay about his excursion to Washington. Initial meetings were held in darkness – so unprepared for the office in which his team finds themselves were they, no one could locate the light switch.
Trump has, inside 50 days of his presidency, signed a clumsy and discriminatory executive order on immigration without the consultation of the relevant departments, and which subsequently caused global confusion and legal injunction. He has conducted a situation room meeting in his club’s restaurant, used his office to advocate his daughter’s business, antagonised China on social media, used his first public address as president to boast about fictional inauguration crowd sizes to the CIA, denigrated his own bureaucracy, and effectively declared war on his intelligence community.
There’s much more. Trump lost his national security adviser after just three weeks, the result of Michael Flynn’s dishonesty and strange solicitude of Russia. His attorney-general Jeff Sessions has now recused himself from investigations of Russian involvement in the Trump presidential campaign, after it was revealed he offered misleading testimony during his confirmation hearings regarding his own contact with the Russian government. More broadly, the intelligence community is variously contemptuous or astonished by Trump’s involvement with Russia, and serial leaks suggest its conviction that the White House is historically compromised.
Inside 50 days, President Trump has alienated our own government, described the media as “scum”, and authorised a catastrophic military operation in Yemen, thereafter blaming the Pentagon for its bloody failure. He has refused to correct his vast conflicts of interest, and is incapable of admitting fault. There are few addresses of his that speak substantively and authoritatively on any issue, but there is a plenitude of self-congratulation and hyperbole. This summary is far from exhaustive, but it is safe to say that in Trump’s short tenure he has demonstrated no moral seriousness.
It is often said that Trump has disturbed democratic “norms”. It is obviously true, but a numbing understatement. That Trump views criticism as a form of sordid obstruction is evidence of an authoritarian heart. It is an authoritarianism not born of ideology but of self-obsession, and one hears in his tweets – about “so-called” judges, for instance – Nixon’s assertion that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”.
This is a counterbalance to the inane applause offered by American commentators for Trump’s address to a joint sitting of congress last week. It was a big moment, a sort of cousin to a state of the union speech, and Trump’s delivery was surprisingly orthodox. But what we found in its aftermath is that the bar is set so low for this president that his mere reading of a pedestrian speech would be greeted by pundits with delighted enthusiasm.
“Each American generation passes the torch of truth, liberty and justice in an unbroken chain all the way down to the present,” Trump said. “That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart. A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation, and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit. Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead.”
That Trump had simulated a gracious and stable leader received more column inches and airtime than the fact the speech was vague, contradictory and pockmarked with hypocrisy. The speech’s largest applause was generated by his promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but there were few specifics. Trump simultaneously declared himself a champion of free trade and protectionism. Following the address, in which he said the time for “trivial fights” was over, he was tweeting derisively at Arnold Schwarzenegger, his replacement on reality television program The Apprentice, for “pathetic” ratings.
Yet the speech was viewed as a triumph. “The President of the United States, delivering an important, powerful speech,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said. “His tone clearly different than the speech he delivered at the inauguration. The president going through a whole range of issues.” This asinine punditry was everywhere – theatre reviews masquerading as political insight.
Image matters, of course, but it is a hopelessly inadequate lens with which to view a presidency. Many Americans were no doubt grateful for Trump’s surprisingly measured tone, but it did not mark a shift in his leadership. It is said that the presidential office changes its occupant, but it’s doubtful if it could be applied to Trump. His narcissism is as dangerous as it is incurable.
The plaudits didn’t last. By following morning, his administration lurched into another scandal. Trump was disgusted that the praise for his speech had so quickly evaporated.
Trump’s history of fantasy and falsehood is rich. For years, he suggested that President Obama was born overseas – the “greatest scam in history”, he called it – before abandoning the assertion. He suggested a campaign rival’s father had consorted with JFK’s killer, a claim that was quickly discredited. He said he had witnessed “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheer the collapse of the World Trade Centre on September 11 – police said it never happened. He continues to insist, without a shred of evidence, that “millions” of Americans voted illegally – a vast fraud that cost him the popular vote. Last month he said that the murder rate in the US was the highest in almost half a century. It is, in fact, at a near record low.
He has repeatedly exaggerated his net worth, falsehoods that were revealed in a 2007 deposition. The Washington Post studied the transcription and concluded that it “offers extraordinary insights into Trump’s relationship with the truth. Trump’s falsehoods were unstrategic — needless, highly specific, easy to disprove. When caught, Trump sometimes blamed others for the error or explained that the untrue thing really was true, in his mind, because he saw the situation more positively than others did.”
This habitual lying is poisoning America. It was said of Nixon that he mistook his opponents for enemies, and in doing so became a criminal and a political suicide. Trump is making the same mistake. The question is whether, amid “civilisation-warping” distrust, a majority of Americans will be able to recognise criminality should it ever be shown to them.
Trump rises before six each day, and turns on “the shows” – his phrase for the cable news programs that obsessively bookend his days. The shows and the president are stuck in a bizarre feedback loop. There are televisions wherever the president goes – Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago, the White House. It’s an eerie, modern version of the pond of Narcissus.
This is our new reality. The leader of the free world is a fabulist addicted to the glow of his own image.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Inside President Trump’s Camelot". Subscribe here.