Like just about everyone I know, I’m struggling to adapt to life under the Trump regime—especially mental life. That was a major part of the horror of election night and of the days and weeks since: the suffocating feeling of being stuck with having to pay attention to this terrible yet trivial and childish man. We had thought we were about to escape the miasma of his insults and lies and provocations, and instead we are condemned to live among them for an intolerable stretch of time. It felt, and has gone on feeling, like a prison sentence.
It’s degrading. It’s a humiliation for the whole country and all of us in it to have an ignorant, dim-witted, narcissistic bully as head of state, one without even a façade of grown-up decent behavior. I still, after all these weeks since Donald J. Trump won the election, can’t wrap my head around the fact that the forty-fifth president is a man who repeatedly called a U.S. senator “Pocahontas,” who insisted for years that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen, who mocked a disabled reporter at a campaign rally, who agreed with Howard Stern on live radio that his own daughter was “a piece of ass,” who bragged about his freedom as a celebrity to grab women “by the pussy”—and on and on. It’s as if we’d dropped in on some random fraternity party and selected the loudest, dumbest, meanest guy there to be our head of state. It’s too grotesque to be true. Yet it is true, and I can’t see how we’ll ever live it down.
It’s especially galling and demoralizing, of course, for us pesky intellectuals, for people who value such activities as free inquiry and reasoned argument and conscientious truth-seeking. What’s the use, when an empty-headed reality-television celebrity who couldn’t care less about the truth can do what Trump did?
His emptiness is frightening, possibly the most frightening thing about him. His cruelty and dishonesty and narcissism are appalling, but it’s his emptiness that makes it so impossible for him to be a better human being. He is not furnished with anything that would get in the way of his constant urges to attack people who fail in their duty to flatter him. It’s that crude and simple, as he artlessly tells us on Twitter every morning. Alec Baldwin parodies him on Saturday night, and, like a train arriving on time, Trump tweets his rage on Sunday.
As an example of his emptiness, take his tweet about Martin Luther King Jr. on January 16: “Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all of the many wonderful things that he stood for. Honor him for being the great man that he was!” “Many wonderful things,” “great man”—Trump could be talking about anyone or no one. He could be a child answering a test question without having done the reading. It’s embarrassingly obvious that he doesn’t know what the “wonderful things” were. That would be disconcerting in a property tycoon, but it’s shocking in someone who was just elected head of state.
A week before the inauguration, an interview with Trump was published jointly by the Times of London and the German newspaper Bild. The interviewers, Michael Gove (a former Tory cabinet minister) and Kai Diekmann, asked Trump if he looked up to anyone. His reply is instructive in a horrifying way.
Do you have any models—are there heroes that you steer by—people you look up to from the past?
Well, I don’t like heroes, I don’t like the concept of heroes, the concept of heroes is never great, but certainly you can respect certain people and certainly there are certain people—but I’ve learnt a lot from my father—my father was a builder in Brooklyn and Queens—he did houses and housing and I learnt a lot about negotiation from my father—although I also think negotiation is a natural trait, I don’t think you can, you either have it or you don’t, you get better at it but basically, the people that I know who are great negotiators or great salesmen or great politicians, it’s very natural, very natural. . . . I got a letter from somebody, their congressman, they said what you’ve done is amazing because you were never a politician and you beat all the politicians. . . . I believe it’s like hitting a baseball or being a good golfer—natural ability, to me, is much more important to me than experience and experience is a great thing I think it’s a great thing but I learnt a lot from my father in terms of leadership.
They threw him a rope, and he chose to go on floundering. They gave him a golden opportunity to tell us of some way in which he saw beyond his own precious self to more lofty values, and he spurned it in favor of bragging about his own “natural” skill at haggling over prices.
You would think Trump could have thought of something to say. There’s American history, for instance—there’s American presidential history, which he is now tragically part of. He could have murmured the name of Jefferson or Lincoln. He’s a property developer; he could have named an admired architect or city planner. He could have mentioned Olmsted and Vaux, who designed the Central Park that provides such pleasing views for the residents of Trump Tower. He’s a sports fan; he could have cited a star of golf or baseball.
But no. He did none of that, and instead chose to reject the whole idea of admiring someone better than himself. There are people who object to the concept of heroes because they are wary of hierarchy in general, but no one would ever accuse Trump of that sort of principled objection. It’s all too obvious that what he rejects is the discomfort of naming someone better than he is. The implications of that fact are a horror we now have to live with.