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The Enduring Delusion of a Chastened Trump

From time to time, the president seems to grasp the gravity of his situation. It never lasts.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

“I just spoke to our great General [James] Mattis, just now,” Donald Trump said near the end of his first State of the Union address back in 2017, “who reconfirmed that—and I quote—‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’” Trump was at that point deep into a familiar State of the Union ritual—a speedrun of local heroes and Forever War martyrs whose inspiring stories give everyone in the chamber a light applause-based workout shortly before the speech winds up to its conclusion.

Trump, who has always seemed happiest when serving as Master of Ceremonies in Chief, delights in doing this sort of thing not just in major addresses but in his daily Covid-19 press conferences. On Monday, Trump invited the mustachioed conservative demi-celebrity Mike Lindell—he is the creator of a product called MyPillow, which is a pillow—to say a few words. Through pipe-organ sinuses, in a voice that sounded like a chopped-and-screwed imitation of former WWE heel and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, Lindell veered boldly off script. “God gave us grace on November 8, 2016, to change the course we were on,” Lindell honked. Lindell said that Trump had been sent by God and encouraged Americans to “get back in the Word.”

On Tuesday, Lindell went on the former Family Research Council chief Tony Perkins’s radio show and said that MyPillow’s website kept breaking down. “I just think it’s the devil,” Lindell told Perkins. “I mean, it’s evil attacking MyPillow because it knows we’re winning.” That same day, Trump won raves from a host of political commentators for a somber and serious press conference performance in which he claimed that “we will altogether have done a good job” if anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000 Americans die as the result of a pandemic he spent months ignoring, spinning, minimizing, and furiously misapprehending. “Trump sounding different today,” The New York Times’ Eric Lipton noted early in what wound up being the longest public address of Trump’s term. “Scale of death appears to have changed his tone, at least.” Politico’s Jake Sherman tweeted later, hailing “an absolutely new message and new tone.”

Even given that reporters like Lipton and Sherman function less as journalists than TV recappers—running down new plot developments, sketching the performances, offering on-the-fly prognostications of what it all might mean for the next episode—they should have known that Trump’s tone was not really “new.” It’s one he has tried on before, when the moment calls for it and when he feels like it, but seldom for long.

There are extenuating circumstances here, of course. Vanity Fair reported that a New York real estate peer of Trump’s is in a coma as a result of Covid-19, which, given Trump’s lifelong struggles with object permanence, is the sort of thing that would shake him more than the deaths of a quarter-million strangers; a former West Wing official also confided that “the polling sucked … they don’t expect to win states that are getting blown to pieces with coronavirus.” Trump likes to believe that he’s capable of turning this sort of thing on and off—“to trigger praise from a typically adversarial press simply by acting ‘nice,’” as The Daily Beast had it—but it is always a better bet, when encountering a somber Trump, to presume that he’s pouting over a real or perceived offense against himself than that he is troubled by the crushing responsibilities of his job. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about Donald Trump—and they are all truly the slightest things—knows that, for him, there is always only one type of suffering, and one person’s suffering, that he is capable of caring about.

It is also a good bet that Trump’s new seriousness will not grow old. Reporters like Lipton or Sherman will describe a fresh outbreak as and when it happens; pundits a rung higher will credulously Put It All in Perspective and speculate as to whether this marks an important change in a man who shows no indication of having changed his mind about anything at all since, let’s say, 1983. Even Trump’s likely opponent in November seems incapable of letting go of the idea that Trump might somehow flip the Become President switch. “We should be making those masks, moving on those ventilators,” Joe Biden said to MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace on March 25. “We can do that. Why doesn’t he just act like a president?”

This aimless search for something to revere is not terribly useful even during circumstances less harrowing than these. But in circumstances as harrowing as these, it is all so spectacularly useless—either so preposterously gullible or so criminally arch—that it scans as an insult. Trump is not a subtle performer, or really capable of expressing anything but whatever urge or anxiety is currently troubling his damp and roiling essence. As a result, it does not take an expert to detect a change in Trump’s tone any more than it takes some sort of interpretive expertise to tell if, say, a whining beagle would like to be fed. But it apparently does take an expert to take that change seriously.

The Ryan that Trump was talking about back in 2017 was a 36-year-old Navy SEAL named Ryan Owens, who had been killed during a brutally botched raid in Yemen staged just days into Trump’s administration. The decision to go ahead with that mission, which produced neither the Al Qaeda leaders that Mattis had hoped for nor what the military internally deemed “any significant intelligence,” was made by Trump’s national security team over dinner, and without consulting the State Department. NBC News drily noted that this was “a departure from common practice in past administrations of both parties.” This was long enough ago that General Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser and now a federal inmate, played a crucial role in the decision to go ahead with the raid, which he reportedly deemed a “game-changer.” Owens was killed during the first five minutes of a firefight in which the SEALs were instantly at a disadvantage. A military aircraft crashed and then had to be destroyed by another military aircraft. The SEALs killed 16 civilians, 10 of them under the age of 13.

The White House called it “a very successful raid” the next day. “Obviously,” then–White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the day after that, “we recovered a tremendous amount of information.” This was just not true, and by February 27, Trump was referring to it as “a mission that was started before I got here,” by the previous administration. “They explained what they wanted to do,” Trump went on to say, “the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I would, I believe. And they lost Ryan.” Trump gave his first State of the Union the next day.

“Ryan’s legacy,” Trump went on after crediting that first, whopping lie to Mattis, “is etched into eternity. Thank you.” The chamber rose in applause, and the cameras found Owens’s wife, Carryn, in tears, her eyes cast upward. She had been invited as a guest of the first family. “And Ryan is looking down, right now—you know that,” Trump went on. “And he is very happy, because I think he just broke a record.” At this point the official transcript reads “(Laughter and Applause).”

If you remember any of this, it would be less for the drearily familiar sentiment or Trump’s stumblebum speechwriters’ attempt at soaring rhetoric—both hover right around replacement-level when it comes to how leaders hymn the nation’s unrelenting output of collateral damage—than because of how eagerly the national media rushed to praise Trump’s performance of both. “The most presidential of manners that we have heard from Donald Trump to date, period,” Dana Bash said on CNN. Even normally less-than-friendly commentators noted that Trump’s mention of Owens’s death was, in Bash’s colleague Anderson Cooper’s words, “without a doubt one of the most kind of emotional moments we have seen in a political speech like this in quite some time.”

By dialing back the Bannon-scented comic-book-villain dada of his inaugural address, Trump managed to spin the first of his many tossed-off executive cock-ups into the media praise he craves above all other things. He cleared the low and lazy bar of Appearing Presidential by appearing, if only briefly, not to care about the actual human cost of his whim-tossed laziness but to appreciate the grand seriousness of it all. In the context of televised presidential performances, Trump’s standard-issue posture of executive indifference is understood by all sides to be an “all in the game” thing that’s as fundamentally unmanageable as the weather. It’s the latter simulation of gravitas—projecting some Olympian appreciation of the somber significance of it all—that our political media has decided a president does.

Even that, though, is not something that comes naturally to Trump, both because he can’t quite feel any of the concern he’s supposed to presidentially evince and because his all-devouring narcissism guarantees he’ll always be more put out by the obligation to try than he would be troubled by whatever thing he might otherwise be supposed to care about. Trump’s careening and chaotic approach to the world has not been tempered or focused or in any way changed as a result of him assuming the highest office in the land. If there is any true and essential thing about Trump beyond his reflexive cruelty and wild avarice, it is that there is nothing in the world, government epidemiologists very much included, that could or would ever cause him to change. To change, or grow, or even learn something new would to some extent be an admission of defeat for someone who lives so deliriously, delusionally in the moment.

Trump’s bizarre, blustering approach during the first months of the coronavirus crisis was not so much tactical as it was instinctual—the decision to bloviate and lie and pick weird fights all day long in hopes of Making the Numbers Go Upand to do that every single day, was less a decision than it was simply Trump doing the only thing he knows how to do. In the same way, his unwillingness to direct ventilators or personal protective equipment toward states that don’t yet need them reflects his lifelong incapacity to understand the relationship between things done today and things that happen tomorrow. He has always lived in a sort of weightless suspension between his last lie and his next one. He’s focused on nothing more than whatever is in front of him at that moment, inhabiting no identifiable reality but the one blurring in front of his nose. Trump understands the scope of his job, and it seems likely that this is what appeals to him about it. But it’s fundamentally not in him to grasp the scale of it.

“The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept,” Peter Baker wrote in the Times on Wednesday. As it happened, Trump’s sobriety didn’t even get all the way through the press conference, which saw him pointing to the specious miracle cures that have beguiled him over the weeks since he grudgingly admitted that Covid-19 was not under control. “I knew everything,” Trump responded when asked if he knew how bad the situation could become back when he was still claiming there would soon be zero cases of the virus in the U.S. “I knew it could be horrible. And I knew it could be maybe good.”

It is not news, at this point, that Trump is fundamentally incapable of doing any of the important and urgent things required of him as president in this moment. Baker, in the allusive and opaque house style of Times political reportage, doesn’t quite suggest that Trump has developed that capacity. Instead, he does what the political press has done with Trump from the first moments he came onto the political scene—they described not what he does, but how he appears. “Experts have been warning of a possibility like this for weeks,” Baker allowed. “But more than ever before, Mr. Trump seemed to acknowledge them.”

It’s hard to imagine any person less well suited to a long, multifront campaign like this than a man incapable of comprehending the idea of “two weeks from now.” But in some sense, the idea of a “new” Trump isn’t wrong. He is new every morning, awakening into the same sour dream; the future and the past are both gaudy, gilded blanks. When Trump speculated, weeks into the pandemic, that the virus might “vanish like a miracle”—or when he boosts some unproven gimmick cure, or when he attempts to strong-arm a rampaging pandemic into an end-date with his signature hardball deal-smithing, or when he accuses governors seeking respirators in anticipation of a coming surge of political calculation or corruption—he is revealing the only plan he has ever really had, which comes from the only person he trusts, which is that tomorrow might somehow just be different. People are dying behind this faith today, but it goes without saying that none of their names will be etched into eternity. He can really only remember one name, and eternity is just some other time.