Ideally, the president of the United States should not be leading an insurrection against the government of the United States.
But then, in a perfect world the president would not be a habitual law-breaker, not only corrupt in himself but an energetic corrupter of the institutions of law by which the corrupt are brought to justice.
In the same way, the president would normally be expected to defend America from its enemies, not conspire with them. It would not be surprising to see him denouncing white supremacists, rather than recruiting them. He would probably not have allegedly sexually assaulted any women – certainly fewer than 20. There would be relatively little debate about whether he was clinically insane, or merely acted that way.
When people talk, delicately, about Donald Trump as having broken certain “norms” of how a president is expected to act, this is what they are talking about. It isn’t, as his apologists will sometimes allow, that he is a little rough around the edges, or tweets too much. It isn’t even that he is a terrible president and a despicable man. It is that he is, at bottom, a nihilist. If he has any belief system, it is to do and say, at all times and in every circumstance, the precise opposite of whatever an ordinary decent person, let alone a president, would – to the point that we must fumble to recall how extraordinary this is.
He is, indeed, unbound by constraints of any kind: neither of laws, nor civility, nor even a rational sense of his own interest, but slave only to his desire to consume and destroy whatever frustrates his appetites or wounds his vanity. He has the mental age of an 11-year-old and the emotional age of a five-year-old, and for the past four years he has been president of the United States.
This amazing fact can be put down to three things. The first is the consistent inability of his opponents to grasp the full dimension of his nullity: his character is not deficient in certain qualities, but wholly lacking in all of them. No matter what the evidence that he is, in this regard, utterly without precedent, the tendency is always to consider him in light of some historic example of awfulness, as if he were merely corrupt or stupid or treasonous, and not all three of those and more. And so we are constantly surprised by what we always knew, never expecting him to go as far as it was always evident he must.
The second, related to the first, is the normalizing power of his example. It would be one thing if Mr. Trump were odious only in secret: if the public face of Mr. Trump were honest and kind and otherwise approximately normal, and it were only belatedly discovered that in fact he was a lying, racist conspiracy theorist who gloried in violence and toadied to dictators and all the rest. But because Mr. Trump makes no attempt to hide it – because it is all on public display all the time – it is invisible. Because Mr. Trump so evidently disdains to be held to any standard, it is the standards that fall away, rather than him.
Throughout his time in office he has had the benefit of being graded on a curve – not against other presidents, but against his own past behaviour. After each fresh atrocity, we ask ourselves not “was that objectively abhorrent” or “was it worse than any president, ever,” but “was it worse than what we have come to expect from him” – worse, that is, than all of his previous atrocities? But because his behaviour has constantly worsened, we are forced, as it were, to take the second derivative: Did he fall short of his own debased standards by a greater margin than he has in the past? And so on. Not: what is his mental state, or is it declining, or even is the speed at which it is declining increasing, but is the decline accelerating more rapidly than it was?
And the third? The third is the willingness of his enablers to exploit the first two. The sudden statesmen who are only now – four years after he was elected, two months after he was defeated, in an election whose legitimacy he still refuses to accept – distancing themselves from him, in professed horror at what he has become, must know that he was always like this, that it was always bound to end in this; that the madness of the insurrectionists was only the inevitable terminus of the four-year, two-month campaign of madness that preceded it. People such as Mike Pence or Mitch McConnell or Bill Barr were content to ride along with him every step of the way until now, while their apologists in the media dismissed every warning about where Mr. Trump was headed as Trump Derangement Syndrome. It is a little late to ask to be let off the Trump train now.
All that distinguished Wednesday from what had gone before was the overreach: Rather than subvert democracy by degrees, dressed in the trappings of legality, the Trumpist mob leapt all the way to violent insurrection – and what is truly unforgivable, did so on TV. That Mr. Trump himself had urged them to march on the Capitol just minutes before, that he had spent weeks whipping them into an intoxicating rage at the “stolen” election, made his own culpability too obvious to deny, and any support for Mr. Trump, among the GOP leadership, too dangerous to continue. (Up to a point. For now. Will they support his removal from office, as the Democrats are now demanding? Unlikely.)
Yet the disease of Trumpism will not be cured by a mere Trumpectomy. A majority of House Republicans voted late Wednesday night to reject the results of the presidential election, even after the events of the day. Fully 45 per cent of Republican voters told a snap YouGov poll they supported the assault on the Capitol (35 per cent blamed it on Joe Biden). At the same time, Mr. Trump’s most fervent idolators are insisting it was not the work of Trump supporters – the “special people” Mr. Trump assured he “loved” in the wake of the carnage – but leftist provocateurs. When madness is your only logic, madness becomes your only argument.
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