Is this what a nervous breakdown looks like in the Presidency?
An alternate reading of the first week of Trump’s Presidency
This is chaos. But what type of chaos?
Last night on Medium, Yonotan Zunger analyzed the first week of the Trump presidency and concluded that it looked like a “trial balloon for a coup.” To summarize, Trump is shutting out career civil servants, installing his personal consigliere, Steve Bannon, onto the National Security Council, and road-testing the ability of the legislative and judicial branches to actually reign in his power-grabs. It is a thorough and frightening analysis.
I want to offer an alternate interpretation though. I don’t think Donald Trump is implementing an intentional plan to rescind and replace American constitutional government. I think Donald Trump is a 70-year old man with narcissistic personality disorder, who has never had to work anywhere near this hard in his life. I think he’s barely sleeping at night, is overwhelmed by stress and negative stimuli that his brain chemistry does not handle well, and is obsessed with what people think of him. I think he’s desperately trying to recapture the glorious feelings of support that he enjoyed on the campaign trail.
In other words, I think he has no plan.
- The Trump presidency began with a concert featuring 3 Doors Down and the Piano Guys. Trump spent months being rejected by every A-list celebrity in the world. (Sad!)
- The Inauguration crowd looked immense from where he was sitting, but then he turned on cable news and was told that everyone thought Obama’s was much bigger and better. (Sad!) And the inaugural parade through Washington DC featured empty bleachers. No one was cheering him. (SAAAAAD!)
- The day after the inauguration, over three million women in cities around the world collectively rejected Donald Trump. The news called it the single largest mass protest in American history. And it was all women, all calling him unappealing. (Of course, not all of the attendees at the Women’s March were women. But that’s just a technicality when he’s impotently staring at the CNN news crawl.)
So how does he respond?
- He gives a speech to CIA agents that is supposed to be about bridge-building with the intelligence community. He ends up talking about how many times he’s been on the cover of Time Magazine instead.
- He forces Sean Spicer to make an idiotic statement about crowd size to the press corps. And even Trump thought Spicer looked awful out there.
- He gives an hourlong interview to ABC where, again, he obsesses about crowd size and popularity.
- He revisits the “millions of illegal votes against me” canard.
And when none of that makes him feel better, he starts digging into his “greatest hits” from the campaign trail. He signs executive orders to build the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines! He signs an executive order to build the wall! He enacts the muslim ban, after asking Giuliani how to phrase it so it’ll be (wink, wink) legal. These were the huge applause lines at the rallies. They let him bathe in the warm adulation of his supporters. (Happy!)
Various bureaucrats told him not to do it. (Sad!) Those bureaucrats are standing in the way. They’re part of the problem. He needs to dominate them, to shame them, or else to discard them. He needs to put power in the hands of people he can trust, like Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They know how grand Donald Trump is. Once they’re in charge of things, everything will be fine. People will cheer. He’ll feel better again.
In my interpretation, this isn’t a test run for a coup. It’s a tantrum. Coup attempts are meticulously planned. Tantrums are kinetic and reactive.
The reason why I lean towards this interpretation is the sheer speed of these executive actions. If Trump had a well-designed plan to test the separation of powers and replace the federal bureaucracy with his devoted supporters, I don’t think he would be doing all of this at once. This is just too sloppy for a coup attempt! Every action seems to be an attempt to paper over the last mistake. He has the presidency for at least four years. There is no rush to undermine all American norms and values, all at once.
To be clear, I am not saying that this is all going to be fine. The new President of the United States is mentally unfit for the job. He has enormous power and he lasted under 24 hours before totally melting down. His handlers have shown no capacity for helping to get this tantrum under control. Republican congressional leaders have demonstrated not an ounce of discipline in reigning in his worst excesses. We cannot force the leader of the free world to sit in the corner and take a time out until he calms down. This will keep getting worse.
But if we believe, as Zunger suggests, that this is a well-choreographed test run for a coup, then we should proceed by focusing on the next likely steps. (if there is a plan, then we ought to figure out what it is!)
If we instead believe this is the tantrum of a mentally unfit individual who is already cracking under the stress of the job, then we should instead assume (a) he will keep trying to recapture the feeling of adulation that he craves and (b) he will proceed with little advance planning, and will respond to adversity by always doubling down. There is no grand Trump plan, there is just reaction to mental craving for adulation and support, coupled with a bottomless need to assert dominance in all settings.
One week into the Trump era, we know that we are facing chaos. But we don’t know quite yet what type of chaos it is.