President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Md., September 26, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)Not Don the First, but Don the Worst
‘L’etat, c’est moi,” the Sun King is supposed to have said, “I am the state.” Louis XIV was one of the architects of modern dictatorship, and President Donald Trump likes more about his style than merely his taste in armchairs. President Trump, in a fashion unbecoming the chief administrative officer of a republic — which is all he is — habitually confuses himself and the state.
One example among many: President Trump, asked whether his trade war might hurt his standing among U.S. farmers, who are paying the price for it, answered: “They can’t be too upset, because I gave them $12 billion, and I gave them $16 billion this year.”
Wait, now — who did what again? The president, of course, did not give anybody $12 billion, or twelve cents. The subsidies paid out to farmers to offset the damage from President Trump’s ill-advised trade war — “great, and easy to win!” if you’ll recall — are not personal largesse. This is not a mere figure of speech, the linguistic tic of an ordinary megalomaniac. It is how Donald Trump sees the presidency and how he sees the world.
Which is a big part of why he is in the trouble he is in.
A president with a proper conception of the job might very well have leaned on Kyiv to step up its investigations into corruption implicating American political figures such as Joe Biden, and it would have been entirely proper for him to do so. Political corruption is a major federal law-enforcement priority, and when such priorities are entangled with diplomacy, it is appropriate for the president to give those priorities a push in his dealings with other heads of government.
But because Trump cannot distinguish between himself and the office which he holds — or, in many cases, between himself and the country he serves — he approaches these questions in a defective way. He frames the issue as a personal favor, and he gets his personal lawyer involved in it. Rather than being careful to distinguish between his own political interests and the national interest in rooting out corruption, Trump sees them as part of a single unified phenomenon.
This entails real danger. Those who inflict the presidential Twitter feed upon themselves know that Trump has for a long time complained about an entirely imaginary category of offense, “presidential harassment,” as though interfering with his interests were a kind of crime. On Thursday, he went so far as to suggest that the whistleblower behind his current torments should be killed as a traitor or a spy. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right?” he said. “We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
(Trump’s critics, most recently Republican primary challenger William Weld and radio journalist Krys Boyd, have made similarly irresponsible use of the word “treason,” a specific offense defined in federal law and carrying the death penalty. This is unforgivable stupidity on Weld’s part and journalistic incompetence on Boyd’s part, and both of them should be ashamed.)
The example of the Roman republic, which often was on the minds of our Founding Fathers, illustrates just how dangerous that line of thinking can become. When the chief executive is the state, when the treasury is his gift for the giving, and when opposition to him is treason, then you no longer have a republic at all. It is always worth remembering that the Latin word from which the English title “emperor” comes means “commander in chief,” a term that increasingly shapes how we view the presidency — a shift away from republican norms for which conservatives bear some responsibility.
Virtue Inc. was a very big business in the 1990s, and the basic conservative case against Clinton and Clintonism was: Character matters. But the role of character is almost always misunderstood. It begins with a preference for having men of integrity serving in positions of power, but it does not end there. Character is functional in a democratic republic — it is an eminently practical concern. One of the problems with having a man such as Donald Trump serving in the presidency is that in cases of moral ambiguity, it is impossible to extend to him the benefit of the doubt. There is no doubt at all about what manner of man he is.
To the extent that conservative media apologists for Trump have been sincere about anything other than the pursuit of market share, their case for Trump has been one of pragmatism. “He fights!” they said. “He gets things done!” If that were true, there would be a “big, beautiful wall” stretching from Texas to California.
Trump’s character is in fact a practical liability, one that has seriously impeded his ability to pursue his agenda. His egoism, laziness, arrogance, and above all his habitual dishonesty are crippling. That is why he has been most effective on ordinary Republican priorities such as taxes and judges, those areas in which he can deputize such old swamp-dwelling dinosaurs as Mitch McConnell and the ladies and gentlemen of the Federalist Society to actually get things done. Left to his own devices, he’s an ordinary Twitter troll and conspiracy nut with very little in the way of direction or a coherent policy agenda.
He isn’t Richard the Lionheart, he’s Prince John, the phony king.
And so that leaves at least one conservative simultaneously believing four things that are difficult to keep under the same hat:
1) I am glad that Hillary Rodham Clinton is not the president;
2) Based on what we know right now, I do not want to see Donald Trump impeached and removed from office;
3) I do not want to see Elizabeth Warren being sworn in as president in January 2021;
4) Donald Trump cannot be gone soon enough.