President Trump's most vociferous critics warn that we shouldn't allow the president's bug-eyed tweets and other erratic statements to distract from what's really important — namely, the administration's graft, grifting, Russian intrigue, racism, and efforts to advance the interests of big business. This implies that there's a core of consistent and coherent intent to the man who occupies the Oval Office, and that many of his public statements are deliberate attempts to divert attention from this intent.
But what if this is wrong? What if it's foolish to treat anything Trump says or does as more or less substantive or important or revealing or significant than any other? What if all of it is a distraction, all the way down?
A distraction from what? From everything: From what the government (Congress, the courts, the rest of the executive branch) is really doing. From who's really in charge, formulating foreign policy, and acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. From what's happening in the wider world — both in the U.S. and abroad.
The takeaway from Trump's first 100 days in office isn't a list of accomplishments or failures but rather a nugget of hard-won knowledge about the president himself: He is so comprehensively ignorant of policy and history, so thoroughly lacking in a core of settled beliefs or convictions, that the Oval Office might as well be unoccupied.
I understand that journalists have no choice but to cover him. When the man holding the office of the presidency gives a speech or an interview, or when he tweets, it's news. But the rest of us — even those of us paid to analyze these presidential statements and actions — can respond to them in the right way, as what they really are. And what they are is a thoroughgoing distraction, a sick joke, a novel, outlandish, and corrosive form of mass entertainment. Libertarians and some constitutional conservatives have long railed against the imperial presidency and advocated for a diminished head of the executive branch. Well, my friends, we've got it now. The only remaining question is just how small the office can become under this most unpresidential of presidents.
I haven't always viewed Trump in this light. Like just about everyone else who writes about politics for a living, I've had to adjust my expectations. I knew that he was ill-prepared to be president. I knew that he was temperamentally unsuited to the office. What I didn't fully grasp was the bottomless depths of his ignorance — about American political history, about the rudimentary functioning of the federal government, about our country's alliances, about the most basic facts of world history over the past century.
Neither did I understand the complete emptiness of the man — the vast echoing absence of orienting and sustaining convictions at the core of his being. Yes, I knew he used to support Democrats and Planned Parenthood and single-payer health care and lots of other things that most Republicans would never consider championing. But now he was a Republican. Sure, he was an unorthodox one — running against the Iraq War and NATO and immigration and free trade and the rest of the things that gave him a distinctive appeal to a slightly different group of voters than the ones who rallied to John McCain and Mitt Romney in recent election cycles. But this signaled a change. He was a populist and a nationalist now, promising to serve as the voice and defender of the people who feel left behind by globalization. This was the unifying theme of his combative stump speech and inaugural address.
This isn't my kind of politics. But it is a kind of politics — one that's challenging the centrist, technocratic consensus from London to Ankara and beyond. With his billion-dollar net worth and campaign promise of upper-income tax cuts, Trump would never be a perfect exemplar of this political style. But that's clearly what his campaign, his transition, and his first couple of weeks in office were all about. Right?
Wrong. That was just the teaser and opening credits of The Trump Show. Now that the first episode is well underway, we can see that the populism was just a ploy, a stunt — though not in the sense that it was an act of subterfuge meant to conceal the "real" Trump agenda, which he is now conniving to inflict on the country. (Some say it's the imposition of plutocratic authoritarianism; others that he's taking orders directly from the Kremlin.)
There is no "real" Trump. There is only this Trump — the Trump saying or doing whatever he's saying or doing at any given moment, which has no rational connection to what he said or did in the recent past or what he might be saying or doing even a single moment from now.
It could be the Trump who tweets that the latest ObamaCare replacement bill will cover pre-existing conditions when the main thing that distinguishes this bill from the last one is its provision granting states the freedom not to cover pre-existing conditions. Or the Trump who suggested, just a few months after appointing a series of Goldman Sachs executives to senior positions in his administration, that he's considering breaking up the big banks. Or who threatened to force a government shutdown over funding for his proposed border wall. Or the one who backed down a few days later without a fight.
Or it might be the Trump who regularly attacked China on the stump. Or the one who now cozies up to (and takes history lessons from) Xi Jinping. Or the one who said that the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was on its way to the Korean Peninsula when it was actually thousands of miles away and headed in another direction. Or who (apparently) signed off on a deal to defend South Korea against the North's nuclear program. Or who proceeded to imply that Seoul should be forced to pay for its own defense. Or who permitted his national security adviser to shoot down that suggestion. Or who is inching closer to war with Pyongyang. Or who declared that he'd be "honored" to meet personally with Kim Jong Un.
Is Trump lying about the latest iteration of the GOP's health-care bill? Or is the president of the United States merely the most clueless man in Washington? Is his continuous cycle of blustering threats and unprompted retreats the most brilliant fake-out negotiating strategy in human history? Or (far more likely) is he multiple leagues out of his depth, attempting to employ dime-store marketing gimmicks to some of the most complex, challenging, multi-dimensional problems in the world?
But really, why should we even try to answer such imponderable questions? We have abundant evidence to support the supposition that the president is a nullity. Short of removing him from office (which remains a pipe dream), we're stuck with him for the next 44 months. With any luck, we'll continue to muddle through with the grown ups in the administration running the show behind the scenes.
What happens when there's a genuine crisis? Hell if I know.