No one should have been surprised when President Donald Trump raged that the “so-called judge” who blocked his travel ban should be blamed “if something happens.” It is clear by now that the leader of the free world has the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old who kicks, punches and holds his breath when he can’t have ice cream.
He dismisses anything he doesn’t want to hear as “fake news,” which is the equivalent of holding his hands over his ears. A poll showing that most people disapprove of the ban? Photographic evidence that the crowd for his inauguration was less than historic? Fake! All fake!
Trump’s supporters may convince themselves that the tantrums are part of a clever act. But if they were, Trump’s closest aides wouldn’t be leaking like walking colanders to what he calls the “dishonest media.” It appears they can’t get the president to sit for a briefing or read a memo, so they send messages to him via the newspaper stories that are clipped for him to read and the cable channels he obsessively watches.
Trump’s temperament is at least an issue and potentially a crisis, not just for the nation but for the world. In one of his introductory phone calls with foreign leaders, he even managed to ruffle feathers with Australia, which is a hard thing to do. What kind of leader accuses one of our most steadfast allies of trying to send the “next Boston bombers” to the United States? A leader utterly lacking in self-control, apparently.
I realize there is some method to go along with all the madness. I understand that Trump wants to be disruptive and has disdain for traditional norms. I know he believes he has a mandate to radically change U.S. immigration policy, defend what he sees as Western values and project his vision of American strength.
But how does feuding with Australia further those ends? What rational purpose is served by lashing out at a federal judge for fulfilling his constitutional role? Why did he spend his first week in office trying to deny the fact that his inaugural crowd, while of quite respectable size, was much smaller than either of former President Obama’s?
Trump’s assault on the concept of an independent judiciary can be seen as something out of Orwell. “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?” Trump tweeted on Saturday. In one efficient sentence, the president trashed the concept of separation of powers and falsely alleged that prior administrations had let just anyone into the country.
So should that tweet be read as a deliberate attempt to encourage fear as a way of grabbing more power? Or was it simply Trump’s pre-kindergarten reflex to hit back at anyone who hits him?
I think it was probably the latter. I’ve seen no indication that Trump is able to control his need to retaliate. We saw it throughout his campaign, and 70-year-old men usually don’t change.
Those in his inner circle obviously know that the way to accomplish their own goals, and to stay in Trump’s favor, is to indulge his impulses in hopes of being able to channel them in a given direction. Those who speak for the White House, including press secretary Sean Spicer, are required to emulate Trump’s air of wounded pugnacity. And yes, Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Spicer on “Saturday Night Live” may be the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.
Thus far, senior advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller – both from the nationalistic, protectionist, anti-immigration “alt-right” – have proved most skillful at the game of intrigue in Trump’s court. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has had less success in getting the president to pursue a traditional Republican agenda, though he is likely to get the deregulation and tax cuts his party wants. Kellyanne Conway’s overreach with “alternative facts” and “the Bowling Green massacre” seem to have pleased, not irked, her boss. Son-in-law Jared Kushner has had little apparent impact thus far, but he can play the long game because he’s family and doesn’t have to worry about being fired.
But make no mistake: We are talking about the rising and falling fortunes of courtiers who, with flattery and whispers and flowery professions of fealty, serve the unpredictable whims of their liege lord. The next four years promise to be a history lesson in the sort of thing that caused American democracy to be born.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.