Watching Donald Trump in action, I sometimes imagine a drowning sailor desperately flailing to stay afloat. As leaks and scandals reveal the depths of his administration’s corruption and ineptitude, the president resembles a man grasping for driftwood on choppy seas, beset by the media he believes has long sought to discredit him and the “deep state” supposedly working to undermine him.
Mere days into his presidency, The New York Times reported that Trump was spending his evenings alone in his bathrobe, whipping himself into a rage as he watched cable news and tweeting angrily to his followers about the slings and arrows directed at him. The White House pushed back on the Times report. “I don’t think the president owns a bathrobe. He definitely doesn’t wear one,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. Yet even as his staffers work to make him appear presidential, Trump seems to revel in playing the victim. He is, he sometimes suggests, our most helpless president, one incapable of resisting the currents in which he willingly swims.
To Trump, any unflattering media coverage is “fake news” intended to “marginalize” him. “The failing @nytimes writes total fiction concerning me. They have gotten it wrong for two years, and now are making up stories & sources!” he complained in February. “This is McCarthyism!” he exclaimed in March, while accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping the phones in Trump Tower. And as questions have mounted about his administration’s contacts with Russia, he has declared the issue a “total witch hunt.” Never before has a commander-in-chief seemed so reluctant to assert his own capacity to command.
Conservatives have, of course, long played at being powerless while walking the path to power. Whether railing against the “war on Christmas” or stirring up panic about the threat of “white genocide,” they have turned often imaginary attacks to their advantage. In his famous 1952 “Checkers speech,” Richard Nixon—then campaigning as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate—helped to usher in a new era of grassroots conservatism with his emotional defense against elitist “smears” that he had inappropriately used financial contributions for personal expenses. “Like so many of the young couples who might be listening to us,” Nixon intoned, he and his wife had struggled financially throughout his career. “Pat doesn’t have a mink coat,” Nixon said. “But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.” Most famously, of course, Nixon admitted there was one gift for which he would not apologize: the little cocker spaniel dog that his six-year-old daughter had named Checkers. “The kids, like all kids, love the dog,” Nixon said, “and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech—in which Nixon also noted that his opponent kept his wife on the congressional payroll, and lashed out at the columnists and radio commentators who, he claimed, had opposed him for years—is largely credited with salvaging Nixon’s career.
In the decades since, appropriating victimhood and marginalization has grown central to the Republican Party’s strategy. Sarah Palin routinely chastised the left—and the “lamestream media”—in 2008 for besmirching her family, even as she used them to buttress her campaign for vice president. Similarly, in 2012, Newt Gingrich surged to an unexpected victory in the South Carolina presidential primary after berating CNN’s John King for opening a GOP debate with a question about allegations that Gingrich had asked his first wife for an open marriage. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” Gingrich said to thunderous applause. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” With the audience firmly behind him, Gingrich continued to scold King. “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he concluded.
As a candidate, Trump took Gingrich’s ploy even further, engaging in a protracted feud with Megyn Kelly and Fox News during the campaign. In September 2015, Trump announced that he was boycotting all Fox shows because, he said, the broadcaster “has been treating me very unfairly.” Last January, Trump withdrew from a Fox News debate because Kelly was moderating. Not even the most conservative of channels had his back, he suggested—a proposition that likely endeared him to voters who felt that no one had theirs. It is a technique that Trump had perfected decades before when he cast himself as a hardscrabble Queens developer, unwelcome in Manhattan’s inner circles. In The Art of the Deal, he claimed that he had to talk his way into a posh club, because no one knew his name. And even after he built Trump Tower, he still protested that he had been treated “unfairly” by the city, which had, he claimed, denied him a tax break that he was owed. Despite his wealth and his many “friends,” it was this fiction that he was an outsider that allowed him to address America’s “ignored, neglected, and abandoned” during his campaign, telling them, as he did when accepting the GOP nomination, “I am your voice.” Like them, he claimed, he was out of touch with Washington, and that was a good thing.
What’s striking about Trump, however, is that he’s maintained this position even as he’s assumed the most powerful office in the world. When the rapper Snoop Dogg released a music video in which he pulls a prop gun on a clown-masked stand-in for the president, Trump put on a show of appalled horror, as if he’d really been threatened by the entertainer. After the GOP’s American Health Care Act failed, he sought to blame everyone but himself. And months into his presidency, he has continued to suggest that Hillary Clinton was guilty of collusion with Russia. This is the Trumpian theater of helplessness, the pose of a prince pretending he was a pauper all along.
It’s difficult to overstate how strange Trump’s act is. Once in office, most politicians typically turn to the serious responsibility of governing the country, accepting that they are now in charge. This is particularly true of presidents. “The buck stops here,” was Harry Truman’s famous phrase. “I’m the decider,” was George W. Bush’s. Trump is remarkable for the extent to which he has avoided taking responsibility for anything, insistent on his own powerlessness. Forever raging against imaginary foes and complaining about persecution, he might have the most unpresidential motto in history: It’s not my fault.