Trump: The Haunting Question

Donald Trump, Albany, New York, April 11, 2016
Mike Segar/Reuters
Donald Trump, Albany, New York, April 11, 2016

The particular oddness of this year’s election continued into the final major primaries this week, with the history-making, effective nomination of the first woman presidential candidate nearly overwhelmed by the latest and greatest-yet controversy in Donald Trump’s campaign. Also threatening to drain Hillary Clinton’s remarkable achievement of some of its drama was that the results of the June 7 primaries—in which Clinton took four of six states, including New Jersey and California, both of which she won decisively—were preempted by the Associated Press. Rather than let the official process play out, the AP took it upon itself to check with the party’s superdelegates and declared on Monday night that Clinton had clinched the nomination, just as it had done in Trump’s case in late May.

Since Bernie Sanders wasn’t yet prepared to concede that he’d lost the nomination and because the AP announcement would, he charged, discourage his supporters from turning out on Tuesday, he was understandably furious. Also, part of Sanders’s expressed rationale for taking the contest to the convention was that he’d try to convince superdelegates who’d signed on with Clinton before the primaries that he was the stronger contestant against Trump (based on polls that are meaningless at this point). But as it turned out, the superdelegates didn’t matter; Clinton sewed up a majority of the pledged delegates, the necessary 2,383, on Tuesday.

In her victory speech at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that night, Clinton was magnanimous to Sanders but tough on Trump, reiterating the theme of her speech in San Diego a week earlier, that “Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president.” In giving her speech, well written and well delivered to a large and very excited crowd, Clinton was clearly moved and gratified; she was also at her most natural—and her most appealing—in all of the campaign thus far. Her flaws as a candidate were forgotten in the moment; she’d evidently learned how to deliver a speech forcefully without yelling. This was the Clinton known by her friends and aides, but who had been bottled up in her determination to win it this time. It’s also fair to observe that the urgency of defeating Trump has made Clinton’s general election job easier and more focused, and her a better candidate. (It was hard to imagine her giving such a strong speech against, say, John Kasich or Marco Rubio—or even Jeb Bush, who so many had assumed would be her opponent.)

It’s by now clear that the presidential election of 2016 is something larger than and apart from just another quadrennial contest for the highest office; it’s a national crisis. The crisis will last as long as there’s a possibility that someone totally unsuited for that office could win it. As a potential president, Donald Trump presents us with dilemmas and difficulties we’ve never faced before: his behavior is so out of line with what’s expected, and yet we don’t know what lies at the core of that behavior. It’s one thing to say, as numerous people now have, that Trump doesn’t have the temperament or knowledge or curiosity that are the requirements for anyone who occupies the White House. Trying to envision the candidate in the Oval Office and asking whether he belongs there wasn’t required in any other presidential election in modern history.

It should have been in the case of Richard Nixon, but before he ran for president again in 1968 (having lost in 1960, and also having been defeated for governor of California in 1962) he managed to convince various journalists that there was a “new Nixon.” It was only much later—too late—that we could see that Nixon’s psycho-political flaws went very deep; that the combination of his resentments and unscrupulousness, not to mention his attraction to the bottle, would take this country into alarming international and domestic crises. The problem with Nixon was that what he’d shown the public was only the surface of deeper issues—to the point of such abuse of power that this country’s constitutional system was at stake. The outcome was less certain than it seems in retrospect.

A big difference between Nixon and Trump is that Trump’s flaws—his impulsiveness, his ignorance, his lack of understanding of the important effects of what he says—are right out there before us while Nixon kept his hidden until we discovered them on the White House tapes. Thus, after months of encouraging violence in his rallies, when violence occurs outside of them, even if caused by his opponents, Trump can’t see that he has any responsibility for it. Much of Trump’s behavior is like that of the schoolyard boy who feels he must punch back when he’s been criticized. His cruel mocking of a reporter’s disability wasn’t something a grownup does. The sorely missed Jon Stewart, in an interview with David Axelrod for Axelrod’s podcast, called Trump a “man-baby,” and that rang very true. Trump has several traits of the adolescent: the bathroom jokes (he even ad-libbed one on Tuesday night in the course of his prepared speech), the counter-punching, the whining, or lashing out when he doesn’t get his way. Trump doesn’t have mature relationships with women: he views them as objects. His marriages are those of someone who needs a beauty on his arm in a display of his virility rather than an equal partner who can challenge him. (Compare his choice of wives with those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.)  

The haunting question is whether Trump is psychologically impaired in some way that makes him unfit for the highest office this country can bestow. The term “narcissist” is thrown around quite a lot about him and there can be no doubt that he’s vain and self-centered—but then so are a lot of people who go into politics. They love and desire the roar of the crowd. I’ve talked with medical people, including psychiatrists, about Trump. They all use a somewhat different term: that Trump has a “narcissistic personality disorder,” which is a problem several degrees greater than mere narcissism. As opposed to being simply self-centered and pleased with himself, the person with the narcissistic personality disorder has an outsized need for approval, and can become seriously upset if he doesn’t get his way. This person, the medical experts tell me, tends to be very immature and has a great compulsion to hit back.

Trump just doesn’t appear to have become a fully-formed adult. He is unable to deal in nuance or seem to understand how much of life, and certainly governing, involves compromise. He wants his way and when he doesn’t get it the result is a temper tantrum of some sort. The Freudians would say that Trump is all id, the id that’s never been brought to heel. Among Trump’s other worrisome traits is that he shows no inclination to have a rational discussion of differences; that if someone disagrees with him publicly he attacks. How can such a person deal with Congress, not to mention foreign countries? Richard Nixon saw enemies all about him, and famously had an aide draw up an “enemies list” against whom he was to unleash the instruments of government: wiretapping, IRS harassment, etc. But it’s possible that Donald Trump could make Richard Nixon seem an amateur at taking revenge. (Not everyone involved would be as clumsy as Nixon’s stumblebum “plumbers”; presidents since Nixon have been chary of having their Oval Office conversations taped.)

Trump’s method of trying to keep the upper hand is to delegitimize those groups that are meant to question and, if need be, rein in a candidate for public office—or a president. Consider his blistering attacks on reporters at a May 31 press conference—with the candidate calling one “a sleaze” and another (sarcastically) “a beauty.” The reporters were asking about gaps in his story of whether the $6 million he claimed he’d raised for veterans groups at an event he held in January in lieu of participating in a Fox News debate had actually gone to those groups. An inquiry by The Washington Post in May found that less than the claimed $6 million had been raised and that only slightly over $3 million had gone to the veterans.

Since the media aren’t beloved by the public, Trump’s attacks on the journalists may not have troubled many voters. But it further reflected his lack of understanding of a free press. (Trump, a litigious man, has said he wants to change the libel laws to reduce the press’s protections against such suits.) Trump’s admiration of strongmen Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, despots who get what they want, is yet another warning that he might pay little heed to the limits our system of government places on the executive branch in order to keep us free. It’s alarming to imagine such a figure as this in the Oval Office.

Some of Trump’s most worrying traits were apparent in his extraordinary attacks on the judge who is presiding over two class-action suits against Trump University—actually, Trump U, since it’s been ruled that Trump isn’t allowed to call it a university—which set off the most challenging controversy yet in his campaign. Trump’s verbal assaults on Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, whom he charged was unable to give him a fair trial because he’s “of Mexican heritage” (though the judge was born and raised in Indiana to Mexican parents) and, as Trump repeatedly explained, as if he had to, “I’m going to build a wall,” sent the Republican leaders and many of their troops into panic mode.

Trump, who was thus commingling his private business interest with a presidential campaign, takes great umbrage at the suggestion that Trump U. is a scam, but currently there are three cases against it for fraud. Then there are the cases that were dropped by state attorneys general in Florida and Texas in close relation in time to donations by Trump to their election efforts. It’s also been found that one of the “witnesses” in a Trump-produced testimonial to Trump U. is a professional “testimonial giver” and she and two others have never been in the real estate business, though one of them does business with Trump’s resorts. The “school” was forced to give numerous refunds to dissatisfied students.

Republicans who endorsed Trump have rationalized that once he had the nomination in hand he’d be more “presidential.” They also have explained their morally compromised position by saying that Hillary Clinton absolutely shouldn’t be given the chance to nominate Supreme Court Justices. But Trump’s approach to the nomination contest has worked and he has seen little reason to change, even if he could, in the general election—perhaps a fatal miscalculation. While several previous stumbles and outrages by Trump were widely if incorrectly seen as “the thing that could bring him down,” his smearing of a respected federal judge simply on the ground of his national heritage was too much for numerous Republican politicians.

There are various explanations for the Republican leaders’ particularly strong reaction to Trump’s assaulting the integrity of a Hispanic judge. It is partly because Trump is now the party’s putative nominee and they can no longer stay neutral; partly because he’d spectacularly put the lie to the theory about his acting more “presidential”; and partly because he has managed to even further inflame an entire ethnic group with whom the party was already in trouble. (In an appearance on Face the Nation on Sunday, two days before the June 7 primaries, Trump allowed that he probably wouldn’t trust Muslim judges, either.) While Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, recent polls showed Trump winning just 10 or 12 percent.

Paul Ryan was the most pathetic case of a a Republican politician trying to maintain a moral position in regard to Trump’s racist assault on the judge, and failing. After the House speaker became the lone holdout among Republican leaders from supporting Trump, he wrote an op-ed in his local Wisconsin newspaper on June 2 saying he’ll vote for him. Ryan’s rationale was that Trump would help Republicans pass a “bold” agenda, which overlooked that he and Trump continue to disagree on major issues. When Trump on that same day repeated his comments about the “Mexican” judge, Ryan tried to make it seem that the comments had taken him totally by surprise—that they’d come “out of left field.” But Trump had been making such statements since mid-May and his willingness to play to anti-Hispanic immigrant sentiment had been clear from the moment he announced he was running for president last year.

Since Ryan’s “left field” excuse didn’t hold water and wasn’t seen by his colleagues or the press as a sufficient rebuke, on Tuesday he remarked that Trump’s comments were “a textbook example of racism.” But, Ryan acknowledged, he’d still vote for him. After all, Ryan said, “But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.” Newt Gingrich expressed dismay at Trump’s comments about the judge, though he is reportedly on the short list of possible running mates for Trump and is also reportedly interested. So, from all appearances, is Bob Corker, who said that Trump’s comments about the judge were “wrong at every level” and who gave Trump three weeks “to fix his broke campaign.” (At this point, Trump still barely had a campaign organization, but that’s a different matter.)

It took the direct Lindsey Graham, who’d already made it clear that he didn’t find Trump a tolerable nominee, to put it to his party colleagues for rationalizing their continuing support for Trump: he called Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel “the most un-American thing from a politician since Joseph McCarthy.” Graham urged Republicans to abandon Trump: “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” Graham said, adding, “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

Hillary Clinton, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, June 7, 2016
Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, June 7, 2016

So much attention has been paid to each major figure endorsing Trump that by mid-May the meme had become that Trump was rolling up the Republican Party. Six senators up for reelection this year—including Rob Portman, of Ohio, and Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, both in tough races—have endorsed Trump on the theory that he’s caught a public mood of populism that might help them win in November, that he’s spoken to their constituents in ways that they’d failed to. Some of Trump’s earlier competitors for the nomination have also caved, especially those who hope to have a future in elected politics. Marco Rubio’s shallow opportunism led him to ignore some of the scathing things he’d said about Trump during the primary contest—calling him a “con man”—and to volunteer to speak on Trump’s behalf at the convention. 

But the total number of Republicans who’ve come around isn’t nearly as high as it may seem: at last count, 11 out of 54 Republican senators have endorsed Trump and 27 out of 247 House Republicans have done so. On Tuesday, following the uproar over Trump’s attack on the judge, Senator Mark Kirk, who is also facing a tough reelection fight in Illinois, became the first member of Congress to withdraw his support for Trump, saying that “Donald Trump has not demonstrated the temperament necessary to assume the greatest office in the world.” John Kasich has made it clear that he’ll have nothing to do with Trump and neither will Jeb Bush or his brother and father. The Bush family’s turning their back on Trump could be less a matter of principle than of lingering anger for things Trump said about them during the campaign—blaming George W. Bush for allowing the September 11 attacks to happen and assailing the invasion of Iraq, while describing Jeb as “low energy”; the Bushes are world-class resenters.

Some of the positioning on the part of the relatively more ambitious Republicans—this is a matter of degree—is closely related to their cold-blooded calculations about running again for national office. In fact, several of them give off no sense that they’d considered the possibility that Trump might be an incumbent president seeking reelection in 2020. Many seem resigned to the idea that Trump will lose the election and, as politicians, they’re seeking to survive the presumed debacle with as little damage to themselves as possible. Ryan is widely understood to be planning to run for president in 2020. Rubio has let it be known that he has further ambitions.

The panic in the Republican ranks has revived speculation about whether the convention might name someone else but as before, the conversation gets stuck when the question is, Who? The real test is whether there are any circumstances under which Republican leaders in Congress will finally stand up to Trump, renounce him as their party’s standard bearer even if they can’t cancel his nomination. This could mean risking that their party loses the election and their majorities in the House and the Senate. This is a length to which the congressional leaders Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and some others who’ve endorsed Trump or waffled—not opposing but not endorsing—have thus far been unwilling to go. McConnell’s lack of enthusiasm for Trump is apparent; he’s recently been on a book tour and said something negative about Trump in virtually every interview. But like the others who’ve endorsed Trump, he’s still a collaborator, no matter how much he squirms.

On Tuesday, following a reportedly raucous regular party lunch, McConnell, having so far failed to put enough distance between himself and Trump to satisfy his troops, made much-noticed comments in the course of an appearance at a conservative think tank. McConnell took Trump to task for his inflammatory comments about the judge and his seat-of-his-pants conduct of a presidential election. “It’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or with various minority groups in the country and get on message,” McConnell said. “This election is eminently winnable.” 

Hillary Clinton’s speech in San Diego on June 2, in which she excoriated Trump’s personal qualities that she said made him unfit for the presidency, marked the end of the long discussion within her campaign of how to handle Trump in the general election; they masticated over whether to ignore him, or get down in the muck with him when he attacked her and her husband for the various real and rumored scandals of Bill Clinton’s presidency and before. Eventually, as Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post, Clinton’s aides settled on the following lines of attack on Trump: “He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.”

The notable thing after Clinton gave her speech was that no one came to Trump’s defense. The decision to go straight at Trump and assert that “the person the Republicans have nominated for president cannot do the job”—and in the process to get under his skin, which Clinton described in the speech as “very thin”—was intended to rock Trump back on his feet and it appeared to do so. Unarmed with a response, which any professional campaign would make sure to prepare, Trump was left to reminding the public that “I told you I’m a counter-puncher,” which he followed by a series of charges: Clinton’s speech was “phony,” a “hit job,” and, Trump concluded, rather pathetically as well as irrelevantly, “Hillary Clinton has to go to jail….She’s guilty as hell.” 

Clinton’s performance on Tuesday night was all the more striking in contrast to Trump’s. With a prepared text and a teleprompter, he was the brash boy forced to wear a grown-up’s suit and was obviously uncomfortable. In an effort to reassure the Republican leadership, he said, “You’ve given me the honor to lead the Republican Party to victory this fall. We’re going to do it, folks. I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle and I will never ever let you down.” Trump had clearly had a bad day, if not a bad week. But somehow, within twenty-four hours, amid much coming and going in the Trump Tower campaign headquarters, Trump had been, for the moment, tamed.

That afternoon he had put out an awkward statement that didn’t apologize—Trump doesn’t do that—but claimed his comments about Judge Curiel had been “misconstrued” to be—heaven forefend—“a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage.” (In a particularly tone-deaf statement, Trump said, “We’re going to take care of our African-American people”; but he probably doesn’t know what’s off-base about such a patronizing sentiment.) And in a concession that must have nearly killed him he promised that while the case against Trump U should have been dismissed, “I do not intend to comment on this matter any further.” Trump’s mediocre prepared speech on Tuesday night drained him of his personality, his ingenuity, and his fun. Even his devoted family, arrayed behind him, looked both worried and bored. If his most influential advisers think that they’ve wrought a personality change, the next five months will put that to the test.

Finally, well past midnight, Sanders addressed an adoring crowd in Santa Monica. His is a very tricky situation. Unless he’d gone mad he had to see that the delegate fight was over, but he wasn’t ready to let his followers down, nor was this the occasion. The most striking element of Sanders’s speech was misread by the commentators I was watching on MSNBC. He said he’d still try to win the last primary, in the District of Columbia next Tuesday, but gone was his talk of trying to convert superdelegates. In the end and after much internal discussion Sanders had become a realist. He would carry on his substantive fight to the convention, he said, but that was an entirely different matter.

In fact, the forces to ease Sanders out of the race were already closing in. President Obama had called him and invited him to a meeting at the White House today. Harry Reid had sent word that he wanted to meet with him as well. Thus the nomination phase of the 2016 election drew to a close. The country is now in for five months of a very tough fight for who will be our next president. Though we always say that the stakes of an election are high, and though whoever emerges the victor could have a hard time governing, this time first things first: the contest is downright dangerous.


Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.