The point where a character defect — extreme narcissism — edges into even more dangerous territory
Ever since his appearance on the political stage, President Trump has been tarred with the accusation that he is a racist and an authoritarian, if not full-bore fascist.
A friend of mine, who loathes Trump, dispensed, rightly, with the first charge. Trump is colorblind; in his world there are only two categories — for me and against me. Skin color is irrelevant.
As to evidence of the second charge, another liberal friend pointed to Trump's call for changes in defamation laws in favor of public figure plaintiffs. Trump is apparently blissfully unaware that current American libel law concerning public figures is rooted in the Constitution's First Amendment, as determined in the Supreme Court's landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times vs. Sullivan. It cannot be changed by legislation.
Frankly, Trump's ignorance on that score did not concern me greatly. It never occurred to me that he was much of a student of the American system of checks and balances. And had he ever sought to advance such legislation — which he did not — presumably wiser heads would have informed him it was constitutionally infirm. Nor, incidentally, would a change in libel laws have been, as a philosophical matter, inconsistent with democracy. Britain, a parliamentary democracy, has libel laws far more favorable to public figure plaintiffs than does the United States.
Moreover, whatever authoritarian tendencies the president may possess seemed to me to more of the rhetorical variety rather than of governance. He showed no more preference for rule by executive order than his immediate predecessor. Indeed, a large percentage of his executive orders did nothing more than reverse those of President Obama.
Applying the useful distinction made by the late US ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick between authoritarian regimes, which are frequently challenged and changed from below, and totalitarian regimes, which are far more willing to slaughter their own citizens, I have been much more concerned about the threat from the totalitarian Left than any from the authoritarian Right.
BUT PRESIDENT TRUMP'S antics since he first proclaimed victory on election night, at a time when there was no apparent basis in fact for any such claim, have put me in a different frame of mind. We are witnessing the point where a character defect — extreme narcissism — edges into even more dangerous territory.
That narcissism has already cost Trump the presidency. The public did not choose Joe Biden's approach to COVID-19 over Trump's. The former has proposed nothing dramatically different. And on the one issue where the two clearly differed — Trump's early decision to cut off air travel from China at the outset of the pandemic — Trump's position was right and enjoyed widespread public support.
Indeed, on the most crucial policy issue — the development of an effective vaccine — Trump's Operation Warp Speed appears to have been a remarkable success (though that news was suppressed until after the election). When the president spoke of a possible vaccine by the end of the year last May, fact-checkers in the mainstream media were quick to dismiss him as relying on a miracle.
Rather what griped people was the president's macho downplaying of the pandemic, except as a threat to his re-election. Had he taken the time instead to learn up the subject in depth and then made the case that total lockdowns (which were probably not in his power to impose anyway under our federal system) were an even greater threat to the lives and well-being of Americans than the pandemic, he would not have been nearly so vulnerable to Biden's attacks on his lack of "concern." The World Health Organization and the three leading epidemiologists who authored the Great Barrington Statement, and the tens of thousands of physicians who have signed it, have now concluded the same thing.
Everything President Trump has done since election night seems to have been deliberately calculated to roil the country and to keep his base as riled up as possible, with claims the election was stolen. His attorneys have repeatedly made claims on national TV that they have been unwilling to repeat, under penalty of perjury, in court. And the level of proof, such as it is, had been wholly incommensurate with seriousness of the charges being made. Even Fox's Tucker Carlson, in many ways the most effective spokesman for Trump leading up to the election, has lost all patience with Trump's lawyer Sidney Powell.
But most disturbing to me was Trump's firing by tweet of Chris Krebs as director the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security for having said that no evidence had been adduced of cybersecurity breeches leading to tampering with voting machines. Given that the president cannot possibly know more about the subject than the man he entrusted with overseeing the nation's cybersecurity, it is clear that Krebs was fired for the sin of undermining the president's narrative, not because he failed in his duties.
Trump's cultivation of a personality cult and identification of the national good with his own personal fortunes is typical of authoritarian regimes. Prior to the election, he was justified in pointing out that mailing out unsolicited ballots on the basis of outdated voter rolls, and weak verification protections, constitute an invitation to fraud. But after the election has taken place, one must prove that such fraud took place on a scale sufficient to have changed the results. The president has failed to provide any such evidence.
Hillary Clinton was mocked for failing to concede on election night, though her margin of defeat in three key battleground states was less than Trump's. And by the next day, she delivered a generous speech wishing the new president-elect well and expressing her love of America. True, she spent the next four years blaming everyone and everything for her loss, including suggesting Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a Russian plant, and the Democrats, with the collaboration of the mainstream media, sought to hamstring and delegitimize President Trump from day one with made-up allegations that he won by virtue of Russian collusion.
But the formal rituals of transition were observed: The Clintons and Obamas dutifully showed up at President Trump's inauguration. And the transition between administrations went forward, even if President Obama did ask FBI director Comey if the incoming administration could be entrusted with all intelligence on Russia.
Unfortunately, I see no evidence that the danger of America looking like a banana republic in the eyes of the world or of the incoming administration having inadequate opportunity to prepare itself for assuming office weigh at all in the president's calculations.
Even the future of his own policy agenda does not seem to be on the scales. A divided government, with the opposition party in control of one house of Congress, is what Americans would likely have chosen, and is probably best suited to our current deep divisions. But if the Democrats win the two run-off elections in Georgia, the Democrats will control the Senate as well, with Vice President Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. The longer the resolution of the election lingers, and President Trump and his most ardent supporters hold every Republican lawmaker in the country under threat if they acknowledge that Joe Biden will be the next president, the better the chances of the two Democratic candidates being elected in Georgia.
The Greek tragic hero inevitably self-destructs by virtue of his personal flaws. Donald Trump may not rise to the level of hero. But he risks staining every Republican candidate for years to come with the taint of his persona rather than allowing them to run on the many consequential policy achievements of his administration.