The most effective characteristic of the Trump presidency is that it is exponential in shock factor. The assaults manage to be both relentless and escalating. Before we have got over Donald Trump slating Nato, then undermining Theresa May in the British press on a state visit, and then calling his own interview fake news, we have to process a press conference with Vladamir Putin in which Trump criticised and discredited his own government institutions in order to exonerate the Russians and therefore himself, from the charge of collusion during the election campaign. It’s not “the new normal” because there is no time even to absorb, reflect, and react. It is abnormalisation, the suspension of the laws of nature as agreed upon by a social and political consensus.
And yet nothing happens. Tomorrow, he will still be president and tomorrow he will still have supporters who believe that it is all a witch hunt.
It’s like a torture device that manages to inflict ever higher electric shocks without killing you. Even though with every last twist of the dial you were certain this would be it. It is never it. But it means that the world is always effectively functioning in a pain state of pre-blackout. The result is a sort of paralysis of hyperbole, where the only way some can process the latest assault is to call it something big; impeachable betrayal, a deliberate campaign to destroy the democratic global order as we know it, the arrival of fascism. But somehow what is happening is never really quite captured by the analysis, it is too incoherent, too huge, and happening too fast.
It is one thing for the president of the United States to go about dismantling supranational alliances across the world and alienating allies. It is another to stand with a country whose agents are currently in the process of being indicted for interference in American politics and say that Putin’s denial was powerful and convincing enough. As I write these words a news notification of another charge against a Russian agent pops up.
The presidency of the United States as we know it no longer exists. There is only Trump, and everything is channeled through the very few grey cells he possesses, and the very many chips on his shoulder he carries. To Trump, all that he registers is that Russian collusion, whether with his knowledge or not, casts a shadow over his victory. If it means he must discredit his own intelligence agencies in order to maintain his pristine win over Hillary Clinton, then he is stupid enough to do it.
And really, why would he not? He is not burdened with any notions of patriotism or allegiance. He is free to roam off the reservation because he is a sociopath who does not even seek the respect of his peers and does not even understand the language in which they address him. It is pathetic and jarring to see American politicians respond to his latest betrayal in rousing rhetoric.
As John McCain, another Republican who once ran for president, said: “Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are — a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
It is like watching someone read Homer to a dog that has wet the carpet.
Why would he not, when no challenge will come from his own Republican party whose pact with the devil now includes endorsing espionage, when his advisers and the staff who populate his civil service will not walk out en masse? Why would he not when his base relishes the nihilism because it makes them feel like through him, they have scored a point in an imaginary grievance? Why would he not when the executive office of the president has been vested with so much power that the Supreme Court would uphold a Muslim ban and in its justification take into consideration the authority of the office of the president? America invested in its exceptionalism so much that it believed it could never produce a president like Donald Trump, and in doing so, handed him the tools for the dismantling of that exceptionalism. Your precious FBI, your omnipotent CIA, your carefully forged alliances and diplomatic calculations, the integrity of your political processes that you so fetishise, even your pretensions of morality are to be trampled under the feet of a man who is unnerved by these things, because all he sees in them is an undermining of his own authority.
When James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee 12 long months ago, he made a last passionate appeal that felt like the address of someone who instinctively could feel that all that a very basic principle was in danger of being diluted.
He spelled it out very simply and carefully: “We’re talking about a foreign government using technical intrusion and lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognise it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them, and so they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.
“That’s what this is about. They will be back, because we remain, as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill, and they don’t like it.”
What he didn’t anticipate was that the person who didn’t like the shining city on the hill, who wants to run it down and dirty it up, is Donald Trump himself. If he has not committed treason by collusion in practice, he is committing in spirit. That is a enormous shock to process, but we won’t have to because there will be another, larger one coursing down the electric wires soon.