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.