On Saturday, Donald Trump made an incendiary statement in which he created an implicit equivalency between the violent acts and racist chants of white supremacist and neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the actions of those who came in protest. After a national outpouring of disgust at Trump’s assessment of the shameful violence, Trump stood before a teleprompter on Monday and condemned the actions of the neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists. Though the written text would hit the correct points, his delivery appeared tepid and emotionally detached.
On Tuesday, we found out why.
That is when Trump stunned the nation and the world by repudiating his carefully scripted remarks of the prior day, re-asserting his initial contention of Saturday that the two sides in conflict bore equal responsibility for the violence. That the President of the United States would place violent racists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists on the identical moral plain as the citizens who protest their loathsome philosophy of hatred and bigotry is stupefying.
Moreover, his entire tonality experienced a tectonic shift from his dry, detached manner of the prior day. Tuesday, he was loud, petulant, angry, combative, and brazenly hostile to the reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower. Trump did not merely go rogue, he went rage.
The outcry has been swift, bipartisan, and nearly universal. Nearly, in that David Dukes and a wide array of white supremacists found Trump’s comments to be comforting and supportive. Andrew Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying:
“He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."
To their credit, a wide variety of bold-face Republican names have made very public statements condemning Trump’s stand. Rubio, McCain, Romney, Sasse, Gardner, Kasich, and the Bushes 41 and 43 made their disdain for the President abundantly clear.
So what exactly happened in this extraordinary spin cycle? Why was Donald Trump three different Donald Trumps in four days? Which is the #RealDonaldTrump?
The answer is perhaps the most disturbing x-ray yet into who this man really is.
Let’s start with a simple observation. For all the sharp criticism about Trump’s inaccurate portrayal of the events and reprehensible attempt to create a moral equivalency, there’s very little commentary on the possibility that Trump was once again simply making a political calculation. In the six months of this President’s time in office, we’ve seen over and over again that his actions are solely calibrated according to the only real thing he cares about: What is best for Donald Trump?
And yes, it is entirely possible that Donald Trump has allowed the office of the President of the United States to be associated with racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy simply because at this moment, he thought it is the right move for his own personal brand.
The essential question that has hung over Donald Trump’s ascendance to and assumption of political power is whether he is primarily motivated and guided by a philosophical belief system, or, alternatively, if he is simply motivated by ego and self-aggrandizement, and that his governing philosophy is not driven by ideology, but rather by his belief that his skills as a successful businessman and deal-maker make him a superior CEO of government, a negotiator par excellence who can make government work again.
Placed into this historical context, the question is framed within the particulars of Charlottesville. One theory would hold that Donald Trump is, himself, deeply aligned with the belief system of the alt right, and that in his heart, he truly believes that the protestors in Charlottesville are every bit as morally repugnant and villainous as the avowed racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville.
On the other side is the perspective that Donald Trump is biologically incapable of and uninterested in matters of philosophy or policy. This view holds that he makes every decision and judgment based on an immediate calculus of which answer serves the interest of Donald Trump. In this view, a protean Trump rapidly changes shape, form, and belief system to embrace vehicles and vantage points that he believes will serve his personal brand. And in this perspective, one must assume that Donald Trump decided to advocate for the white supremacists because he believes that it benefits him directly and immediately to do so.
As we consider this question, it is worthwhile to first frame the seven most defining and proprietary elements of Donald Trump’s style of leadership.
The first is that Donald Trump is thoroughly convinced that his gut feeling – his instinct about how to handle any situation – is vastly superior to the analytical, historical, or experiential perspectives that anyone else might bring to bear on a knotty problem. He campaigned for the presidency by going with his gut, and the fact that he was elected is, to him, the ultimate validation of his superior intuition and instinct.
The second is that Trump can never admit he was wrong about anything. He believes that it is better to double down on a previously held position – perhaps even inventing new reasons he was right – than to ever admit that he made a flawed decision.
Third is the matter that facts in the world of Trump are defined as nouns that support his world view. They need not exist in the real world. They can be conjured at will to serve a particular purpose. The measure of the validity of a fact is whether or not some people believe it to be true. This world view empowers Donald Trump to believe that both history and objective reality are easily manipulated to serve his needs.
Fourth is that he prizes personal loyalty above all else. He surrounds himself with people who have vowed and who live an utterly selfless fealty to Donald Trump.
The fifth is a deeply unnatural hatred of Barack Obama. Donald Trump does not appear to be interested in the legislative process except when he can use it to undo aspects of the Obama legacy. Trump had little interest in the particulars of how the Republican healthcare proposal would actually work. Rather, he announced that he would sign any bill that the Republicans sent his way. Trump views himself constantly in a direct comparison with Barack Obama, and therefore a vital aspect of elevating his own brand is to use any and every opportunity to demean Obama.
The sixth is his obsession with his presidency as a media phenomenon. He attempts to control the portrayal of his presidency through a three-part strategy of tweeting directly to his base, favoring Fox News, and attempting to delegitimize most other news sources as “fake news.” Donald Trump spends more time attempting to control the media presentation of his brand than anything else he does as President.
Seventh, and perhaps the most emotionally super-charged element, is an urgent drive to shut down the Russian collusion investigation. From his seething bitterness at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the inquiry, to the firing of James Comey, to the endless accusations of “fake news,” it is clear that Trump views the Russian investigation as his own personal Kryptonite, the sole earthly substance that can bring him down.
Taken in sum, these guide rails of his governance argue strongly for the simple fact that Trump is first and foremost concerned about how events, decisions, and individuals color and shape his personal brand. He cares about personal loyalty, about being perceived as “the best ever,” and about how his image is curated in the news… which is why he obliterates facts, slanders Barack Obama, and wants to fire Robert Mueller.
Indeed, Trump’s view of Charlottesville may have had as much to do with Mueller as it did with white supremacists.
Right now, at this moment, Robert Mueller is operating a massive drilling machine that is boring into the soft, weak stone that underpins Donald Trump’s financial empire. Grand juries have been empaneled. Practically buried in the rubble of Donald Trump’s epic disaster in Charlottesville was the fact that Mueller’s team had secured a search warrant and raided Paul Manafort’s home before dawn just three days earlier, having convinced a federal judge that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of a federal crime would be found there. Mueller is now demanding interviews with key members of Trump’s White House staff.
Rumors that Mueller’s investigation would take years may turn out to be off by, well, years. The Special Prosecutor already appears to have grounds to believe that Manafort is a criminal, and the only question is whether the crime is related or unrelated to the investigation into Russian collusion. If so, Trump’s White House is already on life support. If the crime is something Manafort committed as a private citizen, Trump must worry that Mueller is intent on flipping him in exchange for testimony.
In either case, Trump must go to bed every night with the existential fear that the fantasy he is now living could soon be ripped out from under him, humiliating him and his family. For a narcissist of his magnitude, the threat to his ego must be calibrated relative to the size of the ego itself.
It's pretty easy to see his math. If Mueller finds out something explosive – a literal smoking gun in the Oval Office – it is still true that as long as Trump has 34 Senators in the bag then he cannot be removed from office through impeachment.
So right now, all Donald Trump cares about is having 34 Senators in the bag. If Donald Trump can preserve the loyalty of voters constituting 34 Senate seats, he is untouchable for four years. And the best way to nail down 34 Senators is to shamelessly pander to his most fanatically loyal base.
We can all say that the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites that made up the alt right rally in Charlottesville are heinous, despicable, and sick people, but Donald Trump looks at them and sees fanatic, crazed loyalty to the Trump brand.
These are the people will stick with him even if “he shoots somebody on Fifth Avenue.”
And for every neo-Nazi vigilante who spewed racist filth in Charlottesville, in Donald Trump’s view of America, there are millions more voters just like them. Donald Trump believes, deep in his heart, that these are the people that constitute his most loyal base.
Donald Trump looks at every single decision as a calculus about what will help him personally. Trump saw the videotape from Charlottesville, and determined that an unalloyed, unilateral indictment of the alt right rioters would be a risk to his political base and to the 34 votes he know seems to realize that he will need.
Which is to say this: a pure and intensely cynical analysis of his current political standing and vulnerability explains the Saturday pronouncement.
Then -- confronted with an overwhelmingly negative response to his comments of Saturday, Trump was cajoled by senior advisors against his will into his tepid and unconvincing teleprompter reading on Monday. He dutifully read from the prepared script, but the very act of penance and implicit public acknowledgement of his error caused a violent eruption in his psyche. In reading someone else’s words off a teleprompter, Trump wildly violated some of the most sacrosanct elements of his self-image. One can practically hear him berating himself for submitting to the teleprompter; his rage building as he scolds the reflection in his mirror:
Always go from your gut, Donald… you are always right!
Never admit you are wrong, Donald. If you are challenged, double down on your original position!
Assert your own version of the facts, Donald… your people will believe you, no matter what.
Personal loyalty is the only thing that matters to you. These skinheads, Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists may be bad people but they are completely loyal to you and you cannot turn on them.
You are losing the media war on this one, Donald. You must go back on the offensive and take control! Grab center stage and dominate this conversation!
And remember one last thing, Donald: Those white supremacists share your inexplicably obsessive hatred of Barack Obama.
On Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump was only two blocks from Fifth Avenue, and he did shoot somebody. We are left only to wonder how long it will take him to understand the cataclysmic nature of his self-inflicted wound.
Three statements, four days, three different Donald Trumps. Saturday was the pure political operator, trying to navigate a public statement without alienating an important constituency. Sure, Trump has racist inclinations and is a weapons-grade misogynist, but Saturday's Trump was pure political instinct and calculation.
Monday's Trump? You know, the one who actually said the right things? That was the fake news, the faux Trump.The disingenuous man performing the bland reading from the teleprompter was the least authentic of the three Donald Trumps.
On Tuesday, we finally saw #realdonaldtrump.
We saw the real, unfiltered, x-ray of a despicable human being: A man who embraces bigotry, hatred, and violence for political gain, and the man who is so in the grip of the worst of human emotions that he could not contain himself. We saw the perversely sensitive, defensive, pyrotechnic, vitriolic, unfiltered, attention-seeking egomaniac for who is really is.
And who he is not.
This is a man who should not be President of the United States.
As a nation, we have our flaws, and they may be many. But America is not, neither in its history nor in the overwhelming majority of its citizenry, a nation of skinheads, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, white supremacists, and racists.
All of the people who voted for Donald Trump may want to give some thought to who he thinks they really are.
In Charlottesville’s web, we saw #RealDonaldTrump, unfiltered, unbowed, and unhinged.
We can only hope that from this ugliness, we, as a nation, may finally be drawing together in the realization that he is #notourpresident.
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