President Donald Trump’s immediate response to deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was to draw an equivalence between murderous Nazis and those who assembled to protest them. At the White House the next day, he amended those comments—reluctantly, and incompletely—to center his condemnation on the racists, only to take it all back at an unhinged Tuesday press conference in which he said some of the racists were “fine people.” He claimed that his meandering position on whom to blame for the violence, and whether to call it terrorism, reflected his commitment to “the facts.”
On Thursday, a terrorist killed at least dozen people in Barcelona. Within minutes of the news breaking, Trump tweeted the following:
Trump was correct that it was a terror attack, though his impulsiveness belies the idea that he ever waits for the facts or has any principled commitment to being accurate or truthful when he speaks. In all his supposed patience for the facts on the ground in Charlottesville, he still managed to make errors from the lectern on Tuesday, to say nothing of larger errors he’s made such as accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping him and of being born in Kenya.
Trump’s decision to lie about his commitment to facts may be the most irreducible statement he’s ever made about his own character. It has been apparent for some time, but can no longer be denied by anyone who doesn’t value the subjugation of minorities: Corrected for power and wealth, Trump is America’s most irredeemable man. There is nothing about him worth praising as a virtue unto itself. It’s vices all the way down.
In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton hinted in a sense that she also sees essentially no merit in Trump as a person. Asked at the second presidential debate to identify something she respected about her opponent, she said, “I respect his children.” She clarified that she believed their abilities and their devotion reflect positive qualities Trump instilled in them.
But even this grasping compliment by proxy gives Trump credit where none is deserved. Not because he didn’t contribute to his children’s decency, but because his children—the adult ones, that is—are awful, morally vacant people just like their father. They are loyal to him because he made them in his image, and that image is one of narcissism, selfishness, and (in at least Don Jr.’s case) bigotry.
On Wednesday, The New York Times confirmed what should have been obvious to everyone who saw the Access Hollywood “grab ’em by the pussy” video, and who heard rumors of Trump’s conduct in the B-roll footage during tapings of The Apprentice. Referring to Trump’s spittle-flecked defense of neo-Nazis, the Times reported that “members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private.”
It’s no credit to Trump’s low-character aides that they work tirelessly to filter as much of Trump’s vitriol and racism from public consumption as they can. There is some honor (or at least there was) in the idea of working for the Trump administration to stop the sky from falling. There is no honor in concealing the president’s true nature from the voting public on the basis of how awful and unlikeable and destabilizing it is. But of course, Trump could never attract any significant number of true public servants to his inner circle. The casual admission that Trump foiled their plan to deceive the nation about what a contemptible man he is, and the fact that he attracts sleaze and only sleaze, speaks as much to Trump’s character as it does to the character of those around him.
Trump’s predecessor convened the public multiple times after national tragedies, speaking from the White House and at memorial services, to ease the country through its collective mourning. Trump himself can not be trusted to speak at a funeral without digressing into lies about the historic nature of his electoral college victory.
During the presidential campaign and after, there was a good-faith effort among Trump’s opponents, particularly on the part of progressives, to find something redeeming in Trump and his platform. Perhaps the confines of governing would drive him to make common cause with people whom he’d written off as enemies. Some hoped he’d renegotiate trade deals in ways that benefitted working people. Some thought he’d be the less war-like of the two contenders—the “peace candidate.”
But Trump was never a dove so much as a unilateralist, tempted by state violence at slight provocations. The worker-friendly items on his platform were all lies, as were some of the race-baiting items (the wall) meant to inspire loyalty from a white base he has largely abandoned in favor of corporate interests.
Over the course of his political career, Trump has had only one genuinely humane response to world events. In May of last year, Cincinnati Zoo officials decided that saving the life of a three-year-old boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure would require them to kill a gorilla named Harambe, who had found the child and appeared to be trying to protect him.
“I think it’s a very tough call. It’s amazing because there were moments with the gorilla the way he held that child it was almost like a mother holding a baby. It looked so beautiful and calm. And then there were moments where it looked pretty dangerous,” Trump responded. “I don’t think they had a choice. I mean, probably they didn’t have a choice. You have a child, a young child who’s at stake, and it’s too bad there wasn’t another way.”
This was the moment that the unhealthy extent of Trump’s cable-news diet became clear to me. He had all but clinched a major party presidential nomination, despite being unable to explain the most basic things about federal governance, but he understood all of the moral and emotional dimensions of Harambe perfectly. It was perhaps the first and only time in all of his 71 years on Earth that Trump displayed a purely decent instinct, and it was in response to a cable-news feeding frenzy about a zoo animal.
Given everything we know about Trump now, it’s remarkable he didn’t lash out at the dead gorilla for stealing the spotlight.