Like some kind of Shakespearean villain-clown, Trump plays not to the gallery but to the pit. He is a Falstaff without the humour or the self-awareness, a cowardly, bullying Richard III without a clue. Late-night US satirists find in this an unending source of high comedy. If they did not laugh, they would cry. The world is witnessing the dramatic unfolding of a tragedy whose main victims are a seemingly helpless American audience, America’s system of balanced governance and its global reputation as a leading democratic light.
As his partisan, demeaning and self-admiring speech to the Boy Scouts of America illustrated, Trump endlessly reruns last year’s presidential election campaign, rails against the “fake news” media and appeals to the lowest common denominator in public debate. Not a word about duty, service, shared purpose or high ideals was to be found in his gutter-level discourse before a youthful gathering of 30,000 in West Virginia. Instead, he served up a sad cocktail of paranoia and narcissism. It was all about him and what he has supposedly achieved against the odds.
Which, for the record, is almost precisely nothing. After more than six months in office, and despite full Republican control of Congress, Trump cannot point to a single substantial legislative achievement. The bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which finally went down in flames in the Senate last week, was the most spectacular and telling of Trump’s failures. His executive orders, such as the racist ban on Muslim travellers and last week’s bigoted attack on transgender people in the military, have mostly run foul of the courts or been pre-emptively ignored by those charged with implementing them.
Anthony Scaramucci, the recently appointed, foul-mouthed communications director, has unfinished business with Steve Bannon, Trump’s top strategist. Trump seems determined to undermine his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Then there is the self-interested leverage exerted by Trump family lightweights Ivanka Trump, Donald Jr and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. On top of all that, Kelly must work out how to handle the ever-expanding investigations of special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. A good start would be to halt scurrilous White House efforts to dig up dirt on Mueller and his team.
Yet even if Kelly succeeds in cracking the whip, curbing the in-fighting and containing the Russia scandal, he still has to deal with Trump himself. He has proved far more interested in settling scores, berating adversaries and showing off than in advancing a coherent domestic policy agenda. The next prospective car crash, following the Obamacare pile-up, is a September deadline for a federal budget and linked tax reforms and increased military spending promised by Trump. A budget deal proved impossible last spring and may do so again. If there is no agreement, a government shut-down looms, an outcome in line with current Washington trends. Lazy, feckless Trump has no interest in the onerous business of lobbying Congress or working the phones. He wants quick, easy wins or else he walks away.
...Having played Trump to its advantage, Moscow’s open hand is turning into a clenched fist as it threatens reprisals over a new Congressional sanctions package. It was not hard to see this tactical switch coming, once it was clear Trump could not deliver the sort of concessions on Ukraine Putin craves. Except, in his fecklessness and blind vanity and courting Putin to the end, Trump didn’t see it coming at all. You can almost see Putin’s lip curl.
The common factor in all these situations is Trump’s self-induced powerlessness and ignorance, his chronic lack of credibility and presidential authority and consequent perceptions of US and western weakness. And in the case of all three actual or potential adversaries – North Korea, Iran and Russia – these perceptions are highly dangerous. Precisely because US responses, actions and reactions can no longer be relied upon or predicted, by friends and enemies alike, the potential for calamitous miscalculation is growing. This uncertainty, like the chaos in the White House and the extraordinary disarray of the American body politic, stems from Trump’s glaring unfitness for the highest office. As is now becoming ever plainer, this threatens us all.