Nothing both new and useful can be said about Donald Trump. Twenty-five years ago, in Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, Wayne Barrett portrayed the man as a wounded monster, a characterization that remains accurate. We can’t know the cause of the wound, and we certainly can’t heal it. But the baseness of Trump’s character is evident in the acts of the people he has appointed: Scott Pruitt cutting the EPA’s protections for clean air and water, or Rex Tillerson eliminating hundreds of positions in the State Department.
Trump’s tax-overhaul bill is a composite action, the product equally of the president, Republican leaders, and the donors whose interests they serve. On November 29, in St. Charles, Missouri, Trump made his last big sales pitch:
The current system has cost our nation millions of American jobs, trillions and trillions of dollars, and billions of hours wasted on paperwork and compliance. It is riddled with loopholes that let some special interests—including myself, in all fairness [laughter]—it’s going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me [laughter]. Believe me. This is not good for me. Me, it’s not so—I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me—but that’s OK. You know, I keep hearing Schumer: “This is for the wealthy.” Well, if it is, my friends don’t know about it [laughter].
Trump was ad-libbing and the audience was with him, from the go-for-broke “trillions and trillions” to the punch line “This is not good for me.” He is, after all, an entertainer-politician for whom even the United States has no precedent—Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and Joan Rivers bundled into one package.
Trump’s presidency is one continuous train wreck, and yet his main goal has been accomplished. Publicity and money are his ruling passions—the personal thermodynamics that underlie his whims—and the newspapers and networks that hate him are, in a sense, his creatures. He commands their headlines every day. As for his popular following, Americans like a man who likes money—and the more fun he has, the better. “Publicity hounds” were once despised, but exceptions were always made for playboys and movie stars. Trump is a low-hanging star, and his morning tweets have made him a daily celebrity. He stands for the beleaguered middle class against the glossy people in the pages of Vanity Fair. He’s the rogue billionaire who left the approved billionaires in the dust. Somehow, these twin fictions—the squire defending the suburban homeowner; the silly toff who, deep down, is “one of us”—add up to a symmetrical appeal.
The idea that Trump is essentially a fascist, essentially a racist, essentially a misogynist dies hard. He is a series of postures, projects, and slogans, and he wields whatever prejudice suits his momentary aim. Right now, Trump is for expelling Latin American immigrants, keeping out Muslims, threatening war against North Korea and Iran, and enriching the already rich. The wall with Mexico was a piece of pure demagoguery, invented almost at random to jump-start his candidacy. The fixation on Iran comes out of a studiously nursed resentment of the 1979 hostage crisis, a gut feeling that plenty of his fellow citizens share, uninformed by any historical knowledge. Trump extends the same hostility to most of Islam because he hasn’t mastered the difference between Shia and Sunni.
Trump entered politics in an age when voters looked with bewilderment at the abyss that separates the wealthy few and the rest of society—a bewilderment that could easily pass into awe of those on top. The same moment saw millions of people intoxicated with a new tool kit of publicity, made democratically available via Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. You are the star of your show; the only question is how many will “like” you. Trump’s tweets are the instrument by which he retains a hold on the one-third of the electorate that refuses to desert him. These early-morning emissions draw the attention he craves as much as he once craved entry to the Manhattan clubs that rejected him. And the reunions and photo ops at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey—what are they but a dingy end-zone dance, addressed to the grandees of New York, Hollywood, and Martha’s Vineyard? He is saying, with the insolence of the snubbed: “Yeah, I buy my friends! But you people—you’re all bought.”
There’s a way to score a victory over Trump that might lead somewhere: discuss the corruption of the man and his business career; make it a case in point of a greater corruption. AIG was bailed out in the 2008 collapse, and other money firms helped to their feet, while ordinary workers with their stolen pensions went begging. In the same way, Trump was put on a friendly allowance by the state of New Jersey when his casinos went bankrupt. His party has had nothing to say against his nailing a dollar sign to the presidency, with new Trump real-estate developments being announced in India even now.
And yet, starting with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and continuing with the minority strategy of Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the opposition in Congress and its media allies haven’t bothered to make this case. They have simply assumed that people would agree that Trump is a horror and turn against him accordingly. Over the past 12 months, the Democrats have focused on two stories, one political and the other moral. The political narrative centers on Russia and, more particularly, on Trump’s supposed love of Vladimir Putin. Here, the Democrats are striking adventurist Cold War attitudes whose dangers they haven’t remotely grasped. The moral narrative, concerning workplace sexual misconduct and the ousting of harassers, is something different: Most of the revelations seem genuine and disturbing, but it isn’t clear what legal reforms the Democrats envisage. The idea that the purge will reach all the way to the White House and pull down the president is a fantastic conceit, and the delayed accusations, extorted contrition, and indifference to due process have disgusted many people in a way that may surprise Kirsten Gillibrand in 2020.
It seems possible that Robert Mueller’s investigation will lead to revelations about money laundering—financial crimes that Trump committed before he was elected president. But even in view of the Russian contacts of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Donald Jr., and others after Trump was warned by the FBI of Russian interference, the findings might not yield knockdown proof of collusion in stealing the 2016 election. Meanwhile, what is the position of the Democrats on peaceful competition with Russia and China? Do they dissent from Trump’s opinion that Iran is the greatest terrorist threat in the world today? The Democrats are not heartless—Trump could never have been their candidate—but they have not yet begun to think.