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11 January 2018

Donald Trump is half-Caligula, half the Toddler-in-Chief

Michael Wolff’s book may have done little to hasten the end of the Trump era, but it’s shown the President doesn’t have a masterplan.

By Helen Lewis

Searching round for a handhold – any handhold – to grasp during the broken rollercoaster ride that is Donald Trump’s presidency, I have turned to fiction. (No, not Michael Wolff’s book, don’t be mean.) Yet when the great novel or film about this era emerges, its central character surely won’t be Trump. He’s a pre-packaged parody of himself; a disarmingly camp authoritarian with so many personal pecularities it’s impossible to keep track. What’s weirder, the rumours about his Diet Coke button – or his own tweets about the nuclear button? The germophobia, or the strange pre-power obsession with Rosie O’Donnell’s weight and sexuality? The US president is impervious to mockery and immune to scandal simply because it’s impossible to conceptualise him as an adult human. He feels more like a giant untethered id haunting the West Wing; the Toddler-in-Chief, cranky because his nap is overdue.

When he first became president, there was a surprisingly durable fashion for seeing his madder pronouncements as evidence of some devilish plan. Yes, yes, explained the Serious Men of the Columns, to the untrained eye of course it looks exactly like the US president has a hair-trigger temper, poor impulse control and access to too many cable news channels. But what your humble brains can’t understand is that he is, in fact, a master tactician. See how this mad tweet distracts you from the federal government’s sluggish response to a natural disaster! Behold the skilful diversion tactic of rambling at a group of Boy Scouts about the size of the inauguration crowds!

Ironically, these attempts to rationalise the irrational did reveal something about how Trump came to power: the media failed to see what a threat he was because of a desire to demonstrate their own cleverness and insight. Most political journalism functions as a priesthood, asserting its own importance by offering insights into what a politician is “really saying” between the lines of their soundbites. Trump, however, is really saying whatever he is currently saying, even if he says something contradictory five minutes later. It would have been easier to take him at face value all along.

Take the promise of a Mexican wall, which we can now admit wasn’t some strategic masterstroke: Trump just threw out the idea in a speech and people cheered. He liked that. So he said it again. More cheers. You can dress this up as a savant-like grasp of popular opinion, but it’s like claiming a toddler who blows a raspberry and makes her parents laugh does it again because she has an intuitive grasp of how to manipulate human behaviour. She does. You probably shouldn’t give her control of a nuclear arsenal, though.

Although Michael Wolff’s book appears to have done little to hasten the end of the Trump era, it has at least killed the myth of Secret Genius Trump. “Everybody in the West Wing tried, with some panic, to explain him, and, sheepishly, their own reason for being here,” Wolff writes. “But there was palpable relief, of an Emperor’s New Clothes sort, when longtime Trump staffer Sam Nunberg – fired by Trump during the campaign but credited with knowing him better than anyone else – came back into the fold and said, widely, ‘He’s just a fucking fool.’”

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With that acknowledgement made, what does a staffer in the Trump White House do next? This is where I turn to fiction – specifically, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, which imagines the life of the future Roman emperor during the reigns of his increasingly barking predecessors.

In hindsight, it’s possible to discern the bad decisions and tolerance of norm-breaking among Republican presidents that led us to Trump. (Nixon was increasingly corrupt, Reagan was increasingly vague, the Bushes were increasingly keen to invade the Middle East.)

There’s a similar pattern with the Roman emperors. Little by little, it ebbed away: the facade of democracy, checks and balances, restraints on their power. In Graves’s telling, Augustus was over-mighty but competent; Tiberius was over-mighty, competent and viciously repressive; Caligula was over-mighty and viciously repressive, but lost the competence in a fog of insanity and by making his horse a senator. (Tell me honestly you can’t imagine Trump trotting round the Rose Garden with a Kentucky Derby winner in a MAGA cap, with Mike Pence gamely trying to signal to the rest of the party that this too is a price worth paying for those tax cuts.)

Eventually, Caligula decides he is a god – which one, he can’t decide, but definitely better than Jupiter, whose thunderbolt button is nowhere near as big as his, and his works – and summons Claudius and other high-ranking nobles to watch him parade around dressed as rosy-fingered Dawn.

The power of I, Claudius is in imagining what you, as an ordinary human, would do in such extraordinary circumstances. First, the rationalisation: yes, he’s bad, but anarchy is worse. Then the realisation: yes, he’s mad, but there’s no way to get rid of him. And finally, the reaction: the situation is now so bad we have nothing to lose.

Western democracies are set up so that final state is never reached. One of the lessons of the Trump era is how hard it is for a president to move the great oil tanker of the American state. For all the sound and fury, Trump’s anti-achievements have been limited, and usually nothing to do with him: he got a Supreme Court pick by sheer luck, thanks to the obstruction of House Republicans, and chose a candidate of whom they approved, for example.

For that reason, the temptation must be always to prop him up; the White House’s Baby Caligula can spit out his dummy as much as he likes. But look at the eyes of the people around him. They know. l

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief