Off the Cuff: March 2017

While I never supported Donald Trump in the last election, I felt strongly that once he was in office, he should be given a chance. The American people had elected him, and I assumed it would take some time — perhaps as much as a year — to understand just what kind of president Trump might be. Maybe he would surprise us — would grow into being presidential and, more to the point, would get some important things done. But I can’t wait a year, because Donald Trump — in the unilateral, crude and utterly disastrous way he has started his presidency — has already flunked out. And my great fear is that he will take the country down with him.

What I’m trying to do at this point is put my finger on just what’s wrong with Trump. It’s clear that his worst sides, on full display when he was running, are showing up in spades now. And I’m beginning to understand just how wrong it was to think that Trump might change when he assumed the Oval Office.

In The Making of Donald Trump, published in August, David Cay Johnston paints a brutal picture of Trump’s character. Johnston met him in 1988, as an Inquirer reporter covering Atlantic City; he quickly baited the casino mogul by saying something erroneous about craps to test Trump’s knowledge. The future president immediately embraced Johnston’s false fact, which taught the writer something fundamental, he told an interviewer: “Donald doesn’t know anything.”

And he doesn’t care to learn. At one of the presidential debates during the campaign, Trump responded to a question about the nuclear triad — which refers to our ability to launch a nuclear bomb in one of three ways, from a submarine missile, a land-based missile or a plane — with such gobbledygook that it was obvious he had no idea what the nuclear triad is. But here’s what’s really frightening about that: Trump had botched that very same question four months earlier, yet clearly saw no need to get up to speed on an elementary understanding of our national defense.

Nothing has changed. Trump reads little, has no real interest in policy, and can’t be bothered with the silly nuances of how the world, or even his own country, operates. Those things — which other world leaders might believe are crucial to doing their jobs — are just a waste of his time.

What rules the President’s mind, then? It’s simple. Winning, taken to the nth degree. That’s what all the bombast is about, and the late-night tweets, and the demeaning of the press and judges and women and anyone else who he believes stands in his way. Donald has to beat everyone. He views the world as a zero-sum game with him on top.

Suddenly it becomes pretty easy to understand Trump in a truly frightening way, and to see why he has already made a mess of his presidency. Author Johnston has cut to the bottom line: “[Trump] is a bully. He is someone who believes that whatever he thinks is in his interest in the moment is in the national interest.” What’s more, Trump sees no need to follow anybody’s advice. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain,” he likes to brag.

So here we are. I was hoping, at least, that the importance of becoming president — the weight of the office itself — would have a sobering effect on Mr. Trump. I was wrong!