The silver lining of Trump's rank cynicism
Trump's cynical mockery of Pence's zealotry is kind of reassuring
In her lengthy profile of Vice President Mike Pence, The New Yorker's Jane Mayer makes the case that liberals shouldn't necessarily welcome the prospect of a fanatical Koch-connected conservative becoming president just because he's less likely to start a nuclear war. Trading President Trump for President Pence, as the cliche goes, would be to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Yet, unintentionally perhaps, Mayer's deep reporting suggests that Trump isn't actually likely to start a nuclear war — at least, no more likely than the inveterate defense hawk Pence would be.
Why? Because Trump is a total fraud. Nothing he says or does can be taken at face value — including his bombast on Korea and Iran.
Indeed, like a fly on the wall, Mayer's piece allows us to glimpse anew the depth of Trump's phoniness:
A staff member from Trump's campaign recalls him mocking Pence's religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence's office, Trump would ask them, "Did Mike make you pray?" Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence's determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. "You see?" Trump asked Pence. "You've wasted all this time and energy on it, and it's not going to end abortion anyway." When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, "Don't ask that guy — he wants to hang them all!" [The New Yorker]
No one should be surprised by this. The notion that Trump has become a born-again Christian, or that he takes remotely seriously the laying of hands on him by praying pastors, is as risible as Trump's "philanthropy." We all understand that Trump's relationship with his evangelical base is entirely transactional; it is about power, not faith. (And, to their earthly credit, evangelicals are getting as good as they're giving.) When Trump speaks of God and the Bible, they are but cultural totems. The proper heuristic for understanding Trump's insistence on saying "Merry Christmas" is its nostalgic evocation of an alternative secular past, not any true feeling for the theological meaning of the holiday.
The good thing about Trump's phoniness is its relatability. We know it from literature. We've seen it in movies. And we sure as heck expect it of most politicians. Of all the pathological aspects of the Trumpian persona, his lack of core convictions, the absence of loyalty to any person or ideal other than his own aggrandizement, the knowledge that it's all mostly a put-on, is oddly reassuring. Trump is a villain, to be sure. But his villainy is almost cartoon-like in its predictability and simplicity.
There's no denying the fact that Trump has done terrible damage to democratic and institutional norms. He is poised to do more. The case for taking cold comfort in Trump's cynicism is a modest one: The world has more to fear from the adherents of Shia eschatology and North Korea's Mount Paektu bloodline cultists than it does from a middlebrow showman from Queens who likes to play a tough guy on TV.
It is true, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins has nervously observed, that in his recent United Nations speech, Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea." That's a very discomfiting thing for a president to say. And it was very easy to believe Joe Scarborough's story that Trump once asked what the point of nuclear weapons was if not to use them. That, too, is discomfiting.
But taken together with everything else we know about Trump — he is often as ignorant as any barstool warrior and as blustery as an angry gorilla — we might safely chalk up Trump's U.N. speech as just another put-on. In Trump's anti-Obama fantasy world, he probably does subscribe to a kind of "madman logic" of deterrence. To be slightly more generous, Trump might also genuinely believe he is indirectly wagging his finger at the Chinese with his taunting of the North Korean "Rocket Man."
Trump's "fire and fury" ranting is really not so different from his "Merry Christmas" chest-thumping. They are both cynical poses of dominance: geopolitical in the former case, cultural in the latter. And in that sense, he is no more likely to blow up the world than he is to undergo a public baptism by immersion.