There are populist politicians, and then there are petty egomaniacs with borderline personality disorders. Donald Trump is the latter.
Donald Trump is either a completely dangerous and unpredictable loose cannon or he is the most gifted and fearless political strategist to come along in a century. Those are the only possibly explanations for Trump’s bizarre, sometimes refreshing but usually appallingly crass behaviour over the course of the presidential campaign so far.
But with every passing day, the accumulated evidence suggests that in Donald Trump we are dealing not with a malevolent genius but rather a loose cannon candidate, out of his depth and flying by the seat of his pants.
At a time when Trump most needs to pivot toward the wider electorate after the Republican National Convention, why else deliberately bring on five consecutive days of wrenchingly bad press coverage by picking a fight with the grieving gold star parents of a fallen Muslim American military hero? Why the constant, juvenile need to have the last word with every single public argument he gets into, no matter the prominence (or lack of prominence) of his adversary?
Robert Kagan asks the same question in the Washington Post:
Many of Trump’s supporters admire him for his bold challenge to political correctness. But his political incorrectness may be only an unintended side effect of his malady. Some of the insults he fires back at his critics are politically incorrect: the racist and misogynist taunts. But others are just childish: making fun of someone’s height, or suggesting that someone’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It’s not really politically incorrect to say that a prisoner of war is not a hero because he got captured. It’s just a way of saying, I don’t care if you’re a war hero. You criticized me and now I’ve got to hit you. Trump’s insults are scattershot — only sometimes touching the raw racist and xenophobic nerves in society. The most important fact is that he is unable to control his responses to criticism. He must double down every time, even if it means digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole.
Imagine such a person as president. What we have seen in the Trump campaign is not only a clever method of stirring up the anger in people. It is also a personality defect that has had the effect of stirring up anger. And because it is a defect and not a tactic, it would continue to affect Trump’s behavior in the White House. It would determine how he dealt with other nations. It would determine how he dealt with critics at home. It would determine how he governed, how he executed the laws, how he instructed the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies under his command, how he dealt with the press, how he dealt with the opposition party and how he handled dissent within his own party. His personality defect would be the dominating factor in his presidency, just as it has been the dominating factor in his campaign. His ultimately self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can barely begin to imagine. It would make him the closest thing the United States has ever had to a dictator, but a dictator with a dangerously unstable temperament that neither he nor anyone else can control.
This blog has no time for the hand-wringing identity politics critique, but Kagan is quite right on the important question of presidential temperament.
While there is nothing that can truly prepare someone for becoming the leader of a powerful country – let alone the most powerful country on Earth – it is possible to glean evidence of their suitability and competence by observing their behaviour during the long American presidential campaign. One of the ways that we knew Senator John McCain was not up to the job of being president was when a panicked McCain proposed a suspension of the presidential campaign during the height of the 2008 financial crisis, an act which he hoped would show gravitas but which actually revealed that the cranky old senator has trouble with multitasking.
Running for president typically involves spending over one year under close media scrutiny as a declared candidate, a gruelling constant cross-country travel schedule, developing a policy platform and seeing it ripped to shreds by the opposition and having one’s campaign hires pored over by commentators looking for any clue as to how the candidate might staff and run his future administration. And on all counts, Donald Trump has failed.
Donald Trump’s public history as a carnival barker fringe candidate goes back six years to when he took a life-consuming interest in Barack Obama’s birth certificate, choosing to position himself as a champion of the birther movement. But even since declaring his candidacy Trump has shown no interest in policy detail (the waffle on his campaign website doesn’t count), witnessed warfare break out among his campaign team (see the Corey Lewandowski/Paul Manafort feud), run dangerously low on cash and had is state ground game tested and found wanting. If this is how Trump manages his campaign, how on earth does he intend to run the world’s only remaining superpower?
Because when you put everything else aside, it ultimately comes down to temperament. One can fervently disagree with a president’s policy platform but still feel reassured that the country is in a safe pair of hands when the 3AM phone call comes. But if Donald Trump is president when the 3AM phone call comes, the world might not last long enough for you to hear about it on the breakfast news. Trump is happy to use the bully pulpit of his presidential campaign to pursue any petty grudge or vendetta, no matter the target and no matter how small. Does anybody seriously think that Trump has a hidden higher gear, a “presidential” switch he can flick when entering the Oval Office which would see his ignorant bombast replaced with something more statesmanlike?
This is why Donald Trump is not worth the risk, no matter how much one might hate the status quo and have just cause to be furious with the American political establishment. More than any other country, the question of who leads the most consequential nation on Earth really matters. If the American economy sneezes, the world economy catches a cold. If the American military machine is sent into action, the ramifications are felt many thousands of miles away. And this is simply not a brief which should be entrusted to man who suffers from what Robert Kagan calls (accurately, I believe) a grave “personality defect”.
And with his latest intervention in the presidential race, it is clear that President Obama agrees:
President Obama on Tuesday escalated his criticism of Donald Trump, calling him “unfit to serve as president,” as the Republican presidential nominee faced censure from members of both parties for disparaging the parents of a fallen army captain.
“The notion that he would attack a Gold Star family that made such extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our country, the fact that he doesn’t appear to have basic knowledge around critical issues in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, means that he is woefully unprepared to do this job,” Obama said at the White House, during a news conference with the prime minister of Singapore.
[..] Reflecting on the novelty of his own remarks, Obama said his warning stands apart from his criticism of his own Republican presidential rivals, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, with whom he disagreed on “certain policy issues” but whose qualifications and “basic decency” he didn’t dispute.
“And had they won, I would have been disappointed, but I would have said to all Americans . . . this is our president, and I know they’re going to abide by certain norms and rules and common sense,” Obama said. “But that’s not the situation here.”
I won’t lie – there was a small part of me which enjoyed watching Donald Trump make short work of an incredibly weak GOP primary field in his race for the Republican nomination. In so many ways, the Republican Party have brought this dismal nadir upon themselves, and deserve to be consumed by the very forces of demagoguery which they helped unleash during eight years of hysterical opposition to Barack Obama.
But the joke is well and truly over now. Donald Trump must not be allowed to reach the Oval Office. This is no time for a presidential candidate who not only lacks any basic understanding of the issues, but who lacks even the curiosity to familiarise himself with matters of policy. This is no time for a presidential candidate so woefully ignorant and disrespectful of the United States Constitution.
And though many people (this blog included) are far from enthralled with the alternative to President Trump, this is no time to let any lingering distaste for Hillary Clinton see America take a reckless gamble with Mr. Make America Great Again.
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