Nightfall in America: A Chronicle of the Trump Years
Part 1: The Magus of MAGA
“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity. Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do. But I would like to do it without that major event because usually that major event is not a good thing.” — Donald Trump, January 30, 2018.
What is Trumpism? Historians and political scientists and sociologists will undoubtedly ponder that question for decades. For my part, I will just submit this anecdote: Sometime in late June of last year, Trump met with Indian chiefs who complained they were prevented from exploiting their land by government regulations. He told them to just go ahead. “What are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? I mean, once it’s out of the ground it can’t go back in there. You’ve just got to do it.” After a chief asked a bureaucrat in the room what that meant, and the bureaucrat started answering as bureaucrats usually answer, Trump interjected: “Guys, I feel like you’re not hearing me right now. We’ve just got to do it. I feel like we’ve got no choice; other countries are just doing it. China is not asking questions about all of this stuff. They’re just doing it. And guys, we’ve just got to do it.” This is the most succinct description of Trumpism one could have wished for. All the rest that the scholars and pundits might say about it is just the icing on the cake. Trump does what he wants to do and that is all there is to it. If there is such a thing as a golden rule to Trumpism, it is this: Donald J. Trump Does Not Give a Damn— that is, about anything except himself. Its foundational document is the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape: When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Donald J. Trump is the final arbiter in all things, experts be damned. He destroyed the art deco friezes of the old Bonwit Teller department store he was bulldozing to erect Trump Tower, even after a museum expressed interest in them, because “the merit of these stones was not great enough to justify the efforts to save them.” That such a man would then shed a tear over the merit of Confederate monuments is, to say the least, perplexing. Trump might not be, the words of The New Republic, “a man of taste”, but as I wrote in January of last year, he does have a strong aesthetic sense, even that he is a poet, but that it is practically entirely in the service of kitsch. He acts just out of spite, to show, as he said in a 1990 Playboy interview, “the power of strength”. According to an Axios report, “aides say the quickest way to get Trump to do something is to tell him he can’t, or argue that it’s contrary to tradition. You always have to give him an alternative, and sometimes you can persuade him.” Yet is now-common knowledge that he routinely changes his mind based on the last person to talk to him. It reminds me of the 1980s British television series Yes, Minister (later Yes, Prime Minister), in which a cabinet minister is outwitted in his every policy attempt by his chief civil servant who desires the status quo. The difference is that the minister knew he was being cornered, while Trump, after having been persuaded to make concessions on everything by his last interlocutor, would have been convinced he just made a deal where he won on every point.
Certainly Trump has a few known fixations, such as nuclear weapons or protectionism, which have been known for decades and on which he is unlikely to capitulate, but even on these he has been inconsistent. Anyone who attempts to pigeonhole Trumpism into a specific ideology or a set of policies will be disappointed. Ask poor Julius Krein, who so believed in American greatness that he thought there was something left to intellectualize in Trump that the Claremont fellows had not yet attempted already. Unlike the rest of what passes from American conservative intellectual thought, however, Krein made a clear break with Trump when the president prevaricated after the events in Charlottesville, delivering his mea culpa in the usual venue for such high-prestige about-faces that are to the satisfaction of centrist America: the op-ed pages of the New York Times. But it speaks volumes that he believed there was a political school of thought to be built on the person of Donald Trump, when Trumpism is the person of Donald Trump, the marriage of celebrity and money and raw political power that did not begin with, but rather ended with, politics. Donald Trump has been a master salesman long before he entered the White House, but he would nonetheless fail to promote or at least attempt to justify the most prestigious attempts to increase his stature: those who would purport situate him inside an intellectual or historical tradition. Any such attempt would seem contrived, inauthentic. In Trumpism, there is Donald Trump, and in the mind of the person concerned it is all that suffices.
At any rate, it is a safe bet that Trump has never read Krein’s American Affairs. Instead, we know about Trump’s reading regimen, insofar as it can be said that Trump reads, from the innumerable leaks of his administration, for instance how he is delivered what members of his staff have called a “propaganda document”, “filled with screenshots of positive cable news chyrons (those lower-third headlines and crawls), admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful”. The only feedback the White House gave on this “document” was that “it needs to be more fucking positive”. Likewise, Trump wants his briefings “short and free of nuance” and with pictures: “I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you.” His staff, coping with a president with the patience to read half a page at the most, has taken to including his name in documents to retain his attention. Tony Schwartz, who practically wrote the entirety of Trump’s most famous book three decades ago because “it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then…”, recently described the president as “significantly angrier today: more reactive, deceitful, distracted, vindictive, impulsive and, above all, self-absorbed — assuming the last is possible”. Trump is incurious, is obviously not a reader, let alone a reader of anything of length and intellectual complexity, and gets his news entirely from television and more precisely from the one cable channel likely to endlessly praise him, whose influence outweighs even that of his own advisers and whose coverage sets the agenda of his Twitter bombshells. Meanwhile, he retweets the dregs of the Internet — including fake accounts, white nationalists, and conspiracy theorists — without apparent concern over how his choices reflect on him. To him, a Twitter bot spewing canned praise is qualitatively identical to The New Criterion’s editor comparing him to Pericles in an article of which, to be fair, Trump likely had no knowledge.
One could argue that Trump is cynically playing to his base, the proverbial “poorly educated” he claims to love so much, by lowering himself to their level, which is not achieved by comparing oneself to an ancient Greek figure. Certainly there is a strong argument to be made that he is doing it relentlessly, regardless of the consequences, for instance his use of the term “shithole countries”, international diplomacy be damned, because he thought “it would play well with the base”. But that is not the entire story. If Trump is a pathological liar, it is not only to deceive his supporters or even to attempt to discredit the media reporting on him, but also because, in the words of an unidentified person described as “one of Washington’s best-connected Republicans”, “Trump is like Ollie North. He actually believes the stuff he’s lying about.” Whether Trump’s erroneous claims count as lies if he believes them is a debate similar to whether an unintentionally incorrect article where neither the journalist nor her sources intended to deceive the audience constitutes ‘fake news’. In both cases, my answer would be no, but even if we could prove beyond a doubt that Trump was lying, it would be irrelevant to the purpose of this text: in my view, a Donald Trump living in a world of fantasy is as dangerous as a Donald Trump weaving a web of deceit, and there is increasing evidence, as I suggested in a previous essay written in December 2016, that both possibilities are true: that he is a liar but at the very least wants to believe his own lies.
The most egregious example of this was how Trump went from excusing his comments on the Access Hollywood tape as “locker room talk” during the election campaign to questioning the veracity of the tape, not in public but in private. There is also the matter of Trump’s fake Renoir. Trump biographer Tim O’Brien reported that when he rode on Trump’s personal airplane, some years before his presidency, Trump showed him the painting, insisting it was genuine. O’Brien corrected him that the original was (and still is) in a Chicago museum, where it has been residing since the 1930s. Trump insisted that he owned the original and the museum therefore had a fake. The matter was dropped. Then the very next day, when O’Brien rode with Trump on his jet again, Trump repeated the same claim as if the first conversation had never taken place: “You know, that’s an original Renoir.” Like the unnamed Washington Republican, O’Brien reached the conclusion that Trump “believes his own lies in a way that lasts for decades”. The foundation of Trump’s war with the media, he argued, “is that he’s the final arbiter of what is true and what isn’t, and it’s one of the reasons that he’s so dangerous”. O’Brien was not alone: amidst endless talk of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, calling Donald Trump a postmodern president has gone in the matter of a year from insight to cliché.
Perhaps there is a hidden history to Trump’s Renoir that leads him to deny that it is a fake. While there is no evidence to this effect, I cannot avoid thinking that it would be very Trumpian to have been conned into buying a forgery but to still put it on display to impress visitors, just as it would be also very Trumpian to knowingly buy a fake — even though Trump can well afford an original — just to show off, in the knowledge that most people could not tell the difference or would not dare contradict him. After all, Trump’s delusions of grandeur and attempts at saving face to the point of ridicule have been diagnosed for decades. In a 1988 profile of Trump in the New Republic, Louis Menand wrote that “though he may feel that he has successfully outstripped his needs today” by getting himself an 80-foot-long living room, “Trump must live in dread of the appearance tomorrow of the man with the 90-foot living room.” Par for the course was his (false, of course) boast that he owned the tallest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center collapsed, as were his (false) claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration being larger than Barack Obama’s, or that his State of the Union address had the highest television ratings in history. Likewise, Trump’s insistence that Russia had nothing to do with his election is not primarily, I think, an attempt to obfuscate any links between Russian operatives and his campaign team, if such links exist (which has all but been confirmed) and if he knew about them at the time (probably); nor is it a political strategy explicitly designed to avoid casting doubt on his legitimacy as president in a way that might hinder his legislative agenda, inasmuch as he can be said to have one. It is that his vanity cannot bear the possibility that any factor besides the mesmerizing power of Donald J. Trump may have been responsible for his victory, which then had to be celebrated by passing around electoral maps while he lied that he had “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”.
Donald J. Trump must be and have the best in everything. You could practically hear the gears whirring in his brain while attending French President Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day military parade: I have to get one. And sure enough, the big boy wants his own parade in the streets of Washington: “It was a tremendous day, and to a large extent because of what I witnessed, we may do something like that on July 4th in Washington. We’re going to have to try to top it.” And once he has made up his mind, he is not about to let go. Donald Trump’s insecurity and desire for attention is such that he wants to monopolize the limelight at all times, and after New York City, then national television, the entire world became the stage of his star performance. (The prime minister of Montenegro knows a thing or two about that.) The Baffler’s David Rees writes:
“Donald Trump has only ever really cared about one thing: the adulation of elites. Ever since he was a tacky Queens developer longing for the acceptance of Manhattan swells, his insecurity and resentment have defined his every desire. Because on some level he knows he’s too stupid and clumsy to earn the respect of elites, he has willed himself to settle for the simulacrum of deference — even as those who bow (as he’s lumbering by) rise to pick his pocket as he passes.”
Or else, to attempt to enforce respect, as with football protests, even though those began before he was elected: disrespect the National Anthem, and you disrespect Trump. Everything is personal to Trump, including his foreign policy. The “Donald the Dove” Left, in its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s arguably checkered political history, completely misunderstood that “America First” as envisaged by Donald Trump never meant a peaceful withdrawal from world affairs, but an affirmation that America does at it pleases at all times, with no regard for international law. American Exceptionalism has not ceased with Trump; it just became Trumpian Exceptionalism. Trump’s foreign policy was blatantly to be a continuation of the Bush and even the Obama years, but personalized in a way that Bush himself never attempted: Trump is America, and America is Trump. “America First” simply means “Trump First”, and Donald J. Trump Does Not Give a Damn. If there are still neoconservatives who hate him, it is because his boorish and callous behavior strips away the last remaining illusions that the United States is not now, in the words of The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, a “rogue superpower”. To wit, Trump saying shortly after his inauguration: “You think our country’s so innocent?” To wit, his declaration that the US should just “take the oil” in Iraq as spoils of war. Compounding a proclivity for rapine he carried over from the business world is his ignorance. Widely considered an unreliable, uninformed imbecile by the rest of the world, he does nothing to improve himself. After he contemplated war with Venezuela because its president was more or less doing there what Trump wished he could do himself in the United States (and probably because there was more oil to be taken), representatives of other South American countries reached the conclusion that “this guy is insane”.
His sanity increasingly in doubt even at home, Trump made his now-infamous statement that he was a “very stable genius”. A particularly memorable incident in which the president exhibited the extent of the stability of his genius was when he allegedly forced his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to call a press conference to deny rumors that he had previously called him a “moron”. About the veracity of the “moron” remark, Trump responded that “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win”, which is what every sane person says. At the press conference, Tillerson said the president was “smart” but did not deny saying the word attributed to him. It all plays out like a farce, until we remember that the remark attributed to Tillerson, who was tiring of his job and even contemplated leaving his post until the vice president persuaded him to stay, occurred after a meeting where “Trump’s comments on a significantly increased arsenal came in response to a briefing slide that outlined America’s nuclear stockpile over the past 70 years. The president referenced the highest number on the chart — about 32,000 in the late 1960s — and told his team he wanted the U.S. to have that many now, officials said.” President Trump wants to be not only the most powerful American president in history, but the most powerful man in the world, and nuclear power is political power. Who can forget the time when he bragged about the size of his nuclear button? That man’s ego could be the death of us all.
Trump, it should now be obvious, does not believe in morality, as exemplified by his claim that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it. I am not normally an admirer of Sarah Kendzior — at least she is not a fraud like some of the Democrats’ other gestalt theorists of the moment — but she recently offered a haunting remark on Trump’s character: “Being [President of the United States] requires you sacrifice for this country. Trump cannot sacrifice for any reason. To him, the concept is abhorrent and terrifying. But Trump is very willing to sacrifice others for his own purposes — often for little more than sadistic pleasure, to prove that he can. Human beings have little inherent value to him. If he senses he will have to make a personal sacrifice, he will sacrifice the world instead.” Even before the American electorate in its infinite wisdom decided to open the doors to the Oval Office to him, he asked three times why he could not use nuclear weapons. Now that he is in power, The Atlantic has reported that:
“Trump’s administration has suggested that it sees nuclear weapons as useful against “non-nuclear strategic attacks” on U.S. infrastructure, perhaps including cyber or terrorist attacks. Such a change would strain the credibility of all U.S. deterrence policy, to say nothing of credulity itself. The president has said little to suggest that he understands the virtue of maintaining a stable, affordable, non-threatening balance of nuclear forces. If these programs cause adversaries to reciprocate? Then, as Trump says, “let it be an arms race.”
Beyond the basic question of nuclear arms escalation (and Russia clearly got the message), there is the matter of an American president whose behavior is marked by a lifelong compulsion to top everyone else in everything as well as a vindictive streak for the sake of his own frustrated ego; a person who forces a member of his cabinet to call a press conference to deny having called him a moron is the same kind of person who would launch a war over having been called, for example, a dotard. Even if Trump does not actively launch a war, all it takes is a scenario, more Fail-Safe than Dr. Strangelove, where a false alarm — such as the one which recently happened in Hawaii — could set the unthinkable in motion.
This could happen under any president, but even the most unremarkable of presidents would be assumed to be more level-headed than the incumbent. Trump’s various eccentricities — for instance, his screaming at the television, or his two scoops of ice cream — have been diligently collected by the writer Daniel Drezner on Twitter, who compared him to a toddler, and not without cause — see for instance Donald J. Trump’s grand trucking adventure. Other traits of the president are less amusing. Amidst reports that the president is “increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods”, three mental health professionals issued a statement in January of this year on how Trump “is now further unraveling in ways that contribute to his belligerent nuclear threats. … We urge that those around him, and our elected representatives in general, take urgent steps to restrain his behavior and head off the potential nuclear catastrophe that endangers not only Korea and the United States but all of humankind”. One of the authors had addressed members of Congress in December, at the request of the Democrats; only one Republican attended.
Recent reports indicate that the Trump administration is more chaotic than ever. There are pundits arguing against Trump’s impeachment because Vice President Pence could be worse; but I consider Trump to be such a threat to world peace that if the price to pay for his removal is the inauguration of Mike Pence, so be it. Yet the recent behavior of the Republicans indicates that this is but wishful thinking on my part, for they have done nothing to contain Trump, let alone remove him from office. The Republican senator Jeff Flake talked against him yet voted for his agenda anyway, and has since announced his retirement without doing anything to remove him from office. His party colleague Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Trump’s recklessness could set the United States “on the path to World War III”; he, too, is retiring without having done the slightest effort to block or remove the president. Even if Trump himself is doing all he can to burn bridges with Congressional Republicans, to the extent of confining their names to his enemies’ list, they come right back for more humiliation. Who knows why? Perhaps they enjoy trolling the libtards to the extent that even war is now acceptable if it triggers the snowflakes. Perhaps they act for their own political survival now that Trump is the uncontested master of the Republican Party; yet this explanation makes little sense in the case of those who have announced their intention to retire or who may not be around for much longer, like John McCain. The darkest possibility is that, with Trump’s cult of personality now fully developed, they are afraid that their own constituents, enthralled as ever of their leader, would attempt to make them leave office in a horizontal position. (Were I an elected official in the Land of the Second Amendment, such a possibility would never be far from my mind.) But there is a fourth, far likelier, possibility.
If one chooses to believe the words of the NeverTrump Republican Rick Wilson, “everything Trump touches dies”. Certainly there is something of a case to be made for this. His tweets backfire. President Trump’s administration is now, in the words of Vox’s Ezra Klein, “a leaky, chaotic, dangerous place, where staffers operate under constant threat from Trump and each other, and in which the president is so uncertain of his own opinions and agenda that more staff energy goes into persuading him of what he believes than carrying out what he wants”. News reports of people forced out or threatening to quit are a regular occurrence. Trump’s own cabinet members talk behind his back, question his fitness for the function and even make “suicide pacts” between themselves, while weathering his abuse and name-calling, but they have done nothing to avail themselves of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. What Wilson overlooked was the distinct possibility that Trump intended everything he touched to die, and to leave the rest in a state of neglect (by, for example, failing to fill positions) until it collapsed on its own. In this scenario, Donald Trump is the wrecking ball the Republicans had been hoping for for years if not decades, destroying institutions they wanted gone, because the party was still frightful of losing power even after gaming them by every means at its disposal, as demographics would soon turn in favor of the Democrats. On certain issues — trade, notably — Trump certainly diverges from the position of the Republicans, but they are reassuring themselves that his class interests do not clash with theirs, and are still persuaded that he will be brought back to the fold on issues where differences subsist. At any rate, Trump, in the Republicans’ view, was their last chance; 2016 was to be, in the words of a seminal article, “the Flight 93 election”. It was winning with Trump or losing with anyone else; they chose to win.
Certainly, the goings-on in the Trump administration could just be chalked up to the current president’s usual incompetence; but my interpretation is drawing from his declared desire to “drain the swamp”, and, more egregiously, from his former would-be grey eminence Steve Bannon’s planned “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The starkest evidence that this is what is taking place is found in the motley collection of business plotters in his cabinet, all of whom fancy themselves still in the private sector. Among them: a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who lavishly redecorates his office while saying that public housing shouldn’t be too cozy lest the poor get comfortable; an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who believes God bestowed upon mankind the license to wreck the environment; a Secretary of the Interior who would only be too glad to oblige his colleague by changing “the department’s regulatory culture to be more business friendly” and also wants his personal flag hoisted whenever he enters a building; and an education secretary who promoted school vouchers before entering politics and who now continues to do so. Trump himself blurs the line between his businesses and government by bringing his relatives on board — especially his daughter Ivanka and his troublesome son-in-law — and relying on people he personally knew, from appointing his family’s event planner to oversee federal housing programs in New York to attempting to promote his personal pilot as head of the Federal Aviation Administration. In other words, people who did not have to be persuaded that slashing regulations was the best course of action, or whose personal loyalty to the president was all but guaranteed because they owed everything to him. Personal loyalty was what Trump asked of the FBI director James Comey; incapable of obtaining it, he fired him. He now wants to do away with the independence of the FBI. During his State of the Union address, he called “on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people”. This was a call for personal loyalty to Trump in the civil service that was initially interpreted as such in a handful of media outlets, while the others were as usual content with losing themselves into those words they hoped would finally make Trump Presidential, capital-P if you please. Then he called the Democrats’ failure to applaud him “treason”.
Trump’s authoritarianism is by now so apparent that I hardly think it is worth mentioning. This is a president who, during his campaign, told his supporters that “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them… I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees”; who raised the question of pardons for his staff and even for himself; and who pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who, worse than just breaking the law, broke the law while acting in the name of the law. Such a president has no respect for the rule of law. He will do as much as Congress lets him do, and the Republicans have all but handed him a blank check. When China removed term limits for its president, it was inevitable that Trump, as with Macron’s military parade, would start getting ideas. To an audience of Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago a few days later, he said of the Chinese president: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” The context of this remark might lead some to believe this was a joke. I do not think it is a joke. Whenever Donald Trump jokes, there is something serious behind it. Extensive damage has already been done by failing to take Trump seriously and literally; more damage can be expected as it is to be anticipated that the Republicans will let him do most of what he wants. All that is missing for him to achieve being President-for-Life is a catalyst, his very own Reichstag fire — a terrorist attack, or a war with, say, North Korea — at which point everyone, including some of those forever stupid Democrats, will rally around him. President-for-Life Donald Trump will at that point become a certainty. And why not King Donald, since the White House is already all courtiers and sycophants vying against one another for the approval of a mad monarch, with a number of heirs to the throne? Trump, in the words of a meme I once came across, would no longer be a movement, but a revolution; the collapse of the American Republic would be the thud heard ‘round the world.
Steve Bannon would have been proud of these developments; but, ironically, one person who forgot his place in the Trump universe and was cast out for his error was Bannon himself. He initially thought Trump was an “imperfect vessel” or a “blunt instrument for us. I don’t know whether he really gets it or not”, but the American would-be Svengali never seemed to realize that the power relationship was reversed once Trump was president: Trump could do without Bannon, but Bannon was nothing without Trump — indeed nothing without the deep pockets who financed his Breitbart empire and who knew better than to support Bannon against the president when the two fell out. In the words of a Weekly Standard writer, “the Republican establishment was able to separate the ideas of Trumpism from the vessel of Trump — and they chose Trump. Not surprising. Politics is about power and ideas are a luxury.” Yet this assessment is too generous by half. Trump never was a man of ideas in the first place, except the idea that first and foremost in everything was the immutable figure of Donald J. Trump. With the benefit of hindsight, my conclusion is that Bannon contributed to Trumpism less a series of ideas — which Trump has now abandoned for the most part, except for those he already had before Bannon appeared — than a platform and a logistical pathway to power; once Trump was in power, Bannon was expendable.
Bannon’s ouster was inevitable because it is not in Trump’s nature to believe he owes anything to anyone under any circumstances, whether it is Bannon or Russia or even the Republican Party itself. The era of “where’s my Steve?” was over; this formulation indicated already that Trump was treating Bannon as just another lackey, like “my generals”, or worse, as a piece of property. With someone like Bannon, it could not last. To anyone who understood anything about Trump, Bannon’s days in the halls of power were numbered from the moment he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine with the caption “The Great Manipulator”. (“That doesn’t just happen”, Trump reportedly said on the matter.) The likely — and warranted — concern over the insinuation of being manipulated by Bannon aside, Trump was evidently obsessed not just that the spotlight was being taken away from him, but that this was done, of all places, on the cover of Time Magazine. After we remember the matter of the fake Time cover featuring Trump that was on display in his golf clubs, we begin to understand that Time Magazine represented something special for him. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance articulated Trump’s fixation:
“ Time matters to Trump, not just because of the narcissism it takes to care in the first place — let alone tweet about it — but because Time and Trump both arose in a bygone era. A moment of wealth and possibility in New York, and by extension America. Time always saw itself as the magazine for a very specific kind of American greatness. Trump, he swears, is just the same.”
Few people would think, nowadays, that being Time’s Person of the Year means anything, especially not after the cop-out of “You” in 2006. But Donald Trump, the ultimate narcissist, wanted to triumph in the pages of magazine frozen in a time when America was supposedly great and Donald Trump was the king of Manhattan, thumbing his nose at all those upscale bluebloods who spurned him. Consider how Trump bragged that he “took a pass” on being Person of the Year for 2017 — after having been chosen for 2016 — because he “would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot”, an obvious fabrication to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the magazine’s methodology, but a magnificent way to save face were he not to win: by shifting the blame onto Time for its extravagant demands if were he not chosen (he was not), or, if he was chosen after all, to triumphantly claim that he made Time capitulate to the greatest man on earth — likely to have been considered by him a major accomplishment of his presidency, assuming anyone survived it.
If there is an additional reason why I take the Trumpian nuclear menace seriously, it is because the story of Trumpism is, as with the story of Time Magazine, a story of decay, of nostalgia. It has been fashionable to say that Trump was elected as the result of economic anxiety — until, as for Trump-as-a-postmodern-president, “economic anxiety” was turned into a joke, usually juxtaposed to pictures of white nationalists. I suspect that a far more accurate assessment, which I raised in passing in December 2016, was that the election of Donald Trump was the result of boredom, an all-consuming ennui at the drudgery of modern life, which into what the historian Timothy Snyder has called the “politics of eternity” — an appeal to a mythological past, “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood”. Donald Trump may say that he will “Make America Great Again”, but he knows that he can no longer return to the world of his youth. I suspect his followers know it, too. This is not “morning in America”, but nightfall in America. The world Trump seeks has never existed in the first place, but even if it had, he would be unable to return to it. It is when his supporters will start realizing it — and especially when Trump, forever self-deluded, finally does (and his dark moods do not bode well at all)— that Trumpism will be at its most dangerous. Because Trumpism cannot go back to an idyllic time in history, it will self-destruct in spectacular fashion; as the world as it exists cannot possibly be the way Trump desires it to be, his vanity is such that he will attempt to destroy it, along with his supporters and himself.
Trumpism is a cult of personality all right — a death cult.