Our president poses an unprecedented challenge to America’s national equilibrium. His insatiable hunger for attention subjects us to a relentless fusillade of lies, accusations, distortions, braggadocio, threats, bigotry, misogyny, conspiracy theories, reversals of course and half-baked notions spewing from an unbalanced man empowered to start a nuclear war. Silence terrifies him; only an audience makes him real to himself.
That’s the purpose of his presidency ― compelling us to hear his ceaseless ringing in our ears. Metastasized by media, his oppressive omnipresence fractures families, ruins friendships and sours social gatherings. Buffeted without surcease, we risk becoming jittery gerbils on his hamster wheel, unable to distinguish his infinite vulgarities from his gravest harms. His constant din demolishes perspective and obliterates reason. To scour Donald Trump’s behaviors for a coherent philosophy or strategy is to visit our own need for order on his pathological disorder, deepening our disorientation.
In truth, his persona defies all explanation but a self-absorption so consuming that it eviscerates human norms. Trump’s world is a suffocating Orwellian hothouse wherein he expects us to become as bereft of critical thinking as Pavlov’s dogs, reflexively salivating to his latest stimuli regardless of truth or fact ― or whether it contravenes what he said the day before. The presidency empowers him to make his sickness ours.
Thus does Trump derangement syndrome become debilitating. The challenge for citizens is how to think about him. The challenge for analysts is how to separate idiotic excess from the very real systemic and societal wounds he deepens with every passing day.
Without such rigor, we become Trump’s parrots, reacting to what, in his singular presidency, is relatively trivial. Did he lie about Stormy Daniels? No kidding. Does he believe that Canada burned down the White House in 1812? Surprise – Trump is an historical illiterate. Does he want his own military parade? Of course – he’s grotesquely grandiose. Is his marriage shaky? How could it not be? Yet such subjects consume precious print and airtime.
Nor does it serve to emulate his worst behaviors by resorting to mindless insults or public shunning – such inarticulate expressions of rage, however understandable, are a gift to Trump which gratify the most committed while repelling those whose votes we need. The only gratification which lasts is to rip control of Congress from his hands 2018, and expel him from the White House in 2020.
One need not care about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ tender feelings to eschew tactics which, remarkably, transform her from mendacious mouthpiece to afflicted mom.
Rather, the indispensable imperative in combating Trump is to clearly and rationally identify his gravest underlying offenses. Absent that, we can neither analyze or persuade; to others, we may seem mired in hysteria and trivia.
Thus it is paramount to find an organizing perspective by addressing foundational values and cumulative effects. What makes Trump so destructive is less his day-to-day transgressions, however noxious, but a substantive damage to America and the world which transcends politics or ideology. Consider these.
Subverting our democratic institutions and rule of law. He charges that our electoral systems are rigged, yet refuses to protect them from Russia. He asserts that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are conspiring to frame him. He attacks judges who displease him. He demeans his attorney general as insufficiently craven. He claims that Robert Mueller is a political operative. He fires or intimidates law enforcement professionals to thwart investigation of his own misconduct.
Demolishing ethical standards. He commingles negotiations with foreign governments and financial assistance to Trump businesses. His family leverages influence to gain financing from foreign sources and concessions from foreign authorities. He steers political spending to his resorts. He countenances petty grifters in his cabinet. He “drains the swamp” by placing lobbyists and industry insiders in key positions at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Education.
Dividing America for political gain. He routinely traffics in racist tropes and white identity politics. He accuses blacks and Hispanics of massive voter fraud, and falsifies the crime rate for undocumented immigrants. He exploits xenophobia by stereotyping Muslims, shafting Dreamers and separating children from their parents.
He transforms immigration policies to spurn nonwhite immigrants and refugees fleeing murder and oppression. He labels black athletes who protest unjustified police shootings and violence as unpatriotic. He turns diverse Americans against each other to scavenge votes.
Degrading his office and the public discourse. He lies incessantly and flagrantly. He dismisses science and denies objective fact. He demeans and slanders anyone who displeases him. He bullies subordinates. He vilifies political opponents. He erodes our ability to conduct the civil discourse vital to democracy.
He trashes honest journalism and attacks the media for truthful reporting. He treats dissent as an insult and reality as a threat. He views the presidency not as a sacred trust, but as a personal satrapy. He exudes a craving for autocratic powers.
Eroding America’s global leadership and national security. He flatters autocrats and panders to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He disdains allies and coddles adversaries. He disparages nonwhite countries and rejects immigrants of color. He abandons human rights. He scorns international institutions. He shreds trade agreements and environmental cooperation. He shuns democracy and democratic values. He mocks and insults Western leaders. He parades his ego and ignorance on the world stage.
He launches ill-considered trade wars which damage us at home and abroad. He speaks cavalierly of nuclear war. He abandons the Iran nuclear deal with no considered alternative. He treats complex negotiations with the shrewd and murderous leader of nuclear North Korea like an episode of reality TV. He has no grasp of history or sense of consequence.
Compared to such comprehensive damage, so corrosive and profound, it hardly matters that he is an adulterer and ignoramus. For where leadership counts most, Donald Trump is the most dangerous and destructive president in U.S. history.
That is why Americans must call him to account where it matters most ― at the polls.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.