Almost any five minutes of Donald Trump’s mesmerizing, terrifying news conference on Thursday would have been enough to do another politician in.
Almost every day of his administration so far contains sufficient grandiosity and delusion to be the end of a normal president’s productive relationship with Congress and support from all but the most stubbornly blind voters.
And if you rewind to his campaign, you see the same pattern, with each rally, interview and debate packing in more petulance and vulgarity than an adult in a civilized society is supposed to get away with.
But that’s actually his secret. That’s his means of survival: the warp speed and whirl of it all. He forces you to process and react to so many different outrages at such a dizzying velocity that no one of them has the staying power that it ought to nor gets the scrutiny it deserves.
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They blend together under the numbing banner of what a freak show he can be, of Trump being Trump. And so the show screams on.
Part of this excess is his nature. Part of it is design. Not by accident did he put on that 77-minute performance for the media – hurling insults, flinging lies, marinating in self-pity, luxuriating in self-love – just three days after the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and amid intensifying questions about collusion between Team Trump and the Russians.
He was cluttering the landscape. Overwhelming the senses. Betting that a surfeit of clangorous music would obscure any particularly galling note. That wager got him all the way to the White House, though he has no place being there, and so he sticks with it. The news conference was a case study in such orchestrated chaos.
It was, in both senses of the phrase, too much. If you became too transfixed by his laughable boast that his administration was operating like “a fine-tuned machine” – an assertion he made twice, for emphasis – you paid inadequate attention to his utterly fictitious claim that he’d done better in the Electoral College than any president since Ronald Reagan.
He wasn’t just a little off. He was spectacularly wrong. He got 304 Electoral College votes. Back in 1988, the first President Bush got 426. Four years later, Bill Clinton got 370. Clinton got 379 when he was re-elected, and Barack Obama, in his two victories, got 365 and then 332.
In fact, only one president since Reagan did worse in the Electoral College than Trump, and that was George W. Bush, twice.
A reporter at the news conference, Peter Alexander of NBC News, corrected Trump, telling him that he was in error.
Trump shrugged. “I was given that information,” he said, as if it’s fair game and above reproach to repeat any old tidbit you’re told. “I don’t know.” More to the point, he doesn’t care. He’s wowed by his win and expects everybody else to be equally impressed. Precise numbers don’t matter. Facts are just spoilers. They get in the way of the proper adoration of Trump.
Such a self-serving hallucination about the Electoral College would have been the takeaway from any other president’s news conference – good for a solid week of media mastication. But from Trump’s news conference, there was an overflow of jaw-dropping wonder.
Like the nonsense that Delta Air Lines, not his administration’s incompetence, was to blame for the cruel mess of the travel ban’s implementation.
Or like his incessant insistence that Hillary Clinton had been given debate questions in advance. He said this with an air of grievance entirely disproportionate to what happened, which concerned all of two questions across two events during the Democratic primary.
Or like his statement that a “nuclear holocaust would be like no other,” as if this were some profound epiphany and he needed to share it with the many unsuspecting Americans who thought that there were all sorts of holocausts and the nuclear variety wasn’t really so bad.
Or like his narcissistic meltdown when a Jewish journalist raised the subject of rising anti-Semitic incidents. Trump whined that he had been promised a nicer, simpler question, then said, with customary self-congratulation and hyperbole, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
“I hate the charge,” he added. “I find it repulsive.” In fact he hadn’t been charged with anything. He had been given the opportunity, for the second day in a row, to make clear that he deplored any hate crimes and that he denounced anyone committing them.
And for the second day in a row, he reverted to me, me, me, me, me. This is why he'll never be an effective leader or one worthy of our respect. The world he genuinely cares about ends at the tip of his nose.
Early last week someone I was talking with flashed back to Trump’s campaign and asked me: “How is it that he wasn’t ruined when he mocked John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war?”
“How is it that he wasn’t ruined when he suggested that gun-loving Hillary haters might think about putting a bullet in her?” I said.
My question was my answer. Each fresh Trump astonishment overrides an old one, as if it were a new file on a hard drive that has reached storage capacity. And the accumulation of astonishments lowers the bar for what’s expected of him and turns all the astonishments into a blur.
How long can it continue to work? I stopped trusting my Trump-related intuition on election night, but I do think that his fine-tuned machine is in palpable trouble, and not just because a Gallup poll released Friday put his disapproval rating all the way up at 56 percent and his approval rating down at 38 percent.
His administration’s fate rests largely with Republicans in Congress and how much they'll turn a blind eye to, and I have to believe that they watched Trump’s news conference in horror and slept fitfully that night.
John McCain traveled to Munich afterward, and in remarks there about the state of the world and of the West he rued “the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants and refugees and minority groups, especially Muslims.” He expressed alarm about “the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies.”
I think he was talking about America, and about Trump, who has succeeded at nothing so much as devising an analogue to the shock-and-awe military campaign: It’s the appall-and-anesthetize political strategy.