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Donald Trump Is Devouring His Country

Stuff himself as he may with refried globs of culture war muck, the president has a hole in his gullet that he’ll never quite fill.

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It’s not nearly the same thing as getting used to it, but there is by now an identifiable rhythm to the Trump presidency. That rhythm is jittery, chaotic, and atonal, just one squashed-flat brown note after another. But as the Trump presidency bumbles from one skronking improvisational tantrum to the next, there is also a discernible pattern. Trump only knows how to play a few notes, but he absolutely fucking lives to make noise. And for better or worse, the sounds the man makes are distinctive, to the point where there’s both a bleak comedy and buried burlesque in his staffers’ game attempts to replicate his usual bombast and peevy rhetorical curlicues in his more overtly ghostwritten tweets.

This is what it means to elect an absolutely finished mansomeone who cannot grow or care or even reconcile himself to any new thingto a job like the presidency. Everything Trump does sounds the same, because whether it happens on Twitter or in the quintuple-byline newspaper stories about bleary behind-the-scenes White House upbraidings, it fundamentally is the same. Trump will always and only be upset about the same things in the same stupid way; he will stay mad about them even as the country shudders and cracks around him. It will never be any way but this for him, because Donald Trump will never be any way but this.

Every day unfolds in the shadow of this sour and soggy fact—that recursive and stubborn idiocy is at the heart of why the federal government has effectively and intentionally abandoned the management of a (still) rampaging pandemic because the president thinks it’s both boring and a loser of a campaign issue. This blank, militant incomprehension of the world at large is also the chief explanation for the new battalions of uniformed state agents loyal only to the president who’ve been dispatched to kidnap and gas protesters in American cities because the president saw statues being toppled on the news. Living with the knowledge that we’re being governed by a bottomly malicious dope who actively and openly wishes much of the country ill is unsettling. There is a basic presumption of good faith built into the broader American project: Presidents might be right or wrong, but they are at least supposed to try. But that is not where we are, because that is not the kind of president we have. And so all of this is still very much being worked out from one moment to the next, as Americans try to figure out how to live in a country so manifestly abandoned.

That’s not really new work for many communities, but it is also a lot to try to pick up on the fly. Trump’s presidency has long played as a vicious satire of American politics in the way that it stripped every cheesy grift and smug savagery of its familiar euphemism and disguise: All the violence that previous administrations in both parties had justified with administrative static or ideological fuzz are now scuttling and swaggering hideously in the open. The long-standing technocratic debate over whether and how well it all “worked” was answered in the most unflattering way through the exposure of how it worked. What had once seemed a flawed but extant system grounded in variously compromised institutions was suddenly visible as a series of naked and individuated deals; “working” for any other purpose, least of all a rough approximation of the common good, was simply never the point.

So, for example, what originated as a bipartisan border crackdown assiduously marketed as a smart and streamlined approach was revealed as a brutal bureaucracy feeding an archipelago of concentration camps overseen by the unaccountable dregs of the Violence Worker community. And in response to the pandemic, the Republican version of a long-standing business-positive economic policy consensus stepped forward as a regime of frank and unapologetic redistribution that exalted the interests of capital over those of workers so profoundly that the relationship between the two was no longer even identifiable; industrial giants received billions of dollars on demand and seemingly on principle while out-of-luck workers braved denuded state bureaucracies and waited on hold to see what pittance they might get. (The unfortunate jobholders deemed “essential” to the daily operation of the economy were dispatched to face a life-threatening pandemic, hymned as heroes and, briefly, given a nominal bump in their hourly salaries. The less said about what would happen to them if they were forced to tap into their stingy and punitive health insurance plans the better.)

Through it all, Trump’s tweets and damply volatile public presence have always been just what they were; the sheer bulk of the man’s damage has always crowded out subtext. There was never any chance that he would grow with or into his important new job, and he has never even suggested otherwise. He has had exactly the presidency that his public life would suggest—a brazen win, followed by an inevitable decline born of laziness and pure hubristic dipshittery, and finally a catastrophic and vehemently denied collapse. This is the story of his life, and the story of his presidency.

But the pressures behind Trump’s failure did more than reiterate how manifestly incapable he is of doing the job he backed into four years ago. They brought every discordance that made this moment possible into harmony. The country has, belatedly and perhaps inevitably, come to mirror its leader. America itself was as uncanny and arbitrary and disastrously stupid as the president it elected on the day that it put Trump in office—just as angry, just as confused, just as unappeasable and deluded. It has only been in these last few bottomed-out weeks, though, that it has truly come to feel like him.

Trump’s monotonous days have proceeded as usual even as the nation has staggered into a slow-rolling slog through preventable illness and death, and economic collapse, and paroxysms of unaccountable state violence. There has been not just no growth, but no change. It’s unclear at this point whether Trump even likes the things he does most often, which are gossip on the phone with other rich people he knows, berate the doll-eyed careerists and clammy grifters who come and go through his offices, watch television, play golf, and eat the sort of high-end catered luxury fare that has been congealing on country club steam tables since Gerald Ford was president.

But this, too, scarcely matters: They are just the things he does because they are what he believes rich men do. That there is nothing really animating them—no desire beyond the cessation of an unceasing insecurity, no pleasure beyond the knowledge that he has two scoops of ice cream where everyone else has one—is what keeps them constant and has held them all fast for decades. There’s nothing he really wants, beyond credit and praise, and there’s no sense that he even really wants either of these beyond his fear of their opposite numbers. Still, how much Trump wanted the dumb things he wanted is the single biggest reason he is in office today. Not wanting anything else, he has mostly just sat there since, watching himself on television and following various numbers up and then down. And there he stands still, very much at the center of things and with no remarks prepared, canted forward at an unusual angle and squinting. He can do no other.

It has long been clear that Trump understands the presidency as primarily being America’s Boss, and as such, a job to which he was entitled due to all the tremendous success he’d been having. So those CEOs come in with their hosannas, and the executive orders go out with their impatient executive responses to what he sees on the television, and then it happens again, and then again after that until the weekend. Occasionally he trudges before television cameras gleaming like a caramel apple to talk about how he made the toilets better and more like before, or flutters pale eyelids while blearily reciting misremembered Fox News headlines, but just as often his schedule is blank. The actual work of the job was not so much abandoned as long-evaded; the old dopey grievances that fill his days are the only things that fill them. The government scientists he jealously works to discredit, the little feuds and grandiose conspiracies he rides and dismounts, the high-summer cable news folderol like the brief and preposterous culture war posturing over Goya-brand beans—a kerfuffle touched off by the company’s CEO making an especially obsequious White House visit—are all tasks he transparently cares much more about than managing a pandemic or even overseeing his loyal shock troops’ progress in teargassing civilians in the Pacific Northwest.

Only the greasy culture war stuff is really real to him, because that’s the only part that’s explicitly about him. Where slavish devotion to Trump can stand in as a metonym for virtue—“There are only two options when #CancelCulture comes for you: courage or surrender,” Heritage Action, the overcaffeinated public arm of the Heritage Foundation, tweeted during the Goya flap. “Only one will guarantee that our country and freedom survive. #Goya”—Trump is interested. Where his actions might benefit other people he is notably, reliably, helplessly not.

For decades, Trump has woken up to the chaos that his venality built for him the day before and spent his waking hours running from and denying it. It should have ruined him, but the cushion of his wealth and blithe sociopathy, combined with a culture built to protect people just as defective as him, all conspired to prevent that outcome. Now Trump’s self-imposed regimen of chaos for chaos’s sake is doing its best to ruin everything else. Of course it feels bad.

The thing to do is to fight against it, and it is heartening to see that happening all across the country; the widespread protests that began after the police murder of George Floyd are by now the largest and most sustained in the nation’s history. Trump and the institutions loyal to him still have it in their power to deal out and evade responsibility for immense and terrifying violence. Some of the unreality of everyday life in Trump’s America stems both from how unprecedented the movement against all this is and the latent threat arrayed against it from a state that can no longer really manage to do much but inflict harm. But there is also a clue as to how things slipped so devastatingly out of joint buried in Trump’s undignified and uninterrupted normality.

Whatever is or isn’t in his still-contested tax returns, there are no secrets to reveal about Trump. Everybody knows that there is no crime he wouldn’t commit, just as a practical fact, but it’s the toxic mundanity of the “normal” Trump that does the most damage from one moment to the next. The usual people and institutions pointed out, during the Trump family’s counteroffensive on behalf of Goya, that the advertisements the Trumps cut for the brand online were ethics violations. It felt almost quaint, given both the broader context of his presidency and the narrower one of its brutal apotheosis. In its pettiness and its criminal obtuseness, in its laziness and its latent viciousness, everything he does is transparently a violation.

Confronted with a pandemic that’s claimed the lives of 140,000 Americans, he shrugs and announces, “It is what it is,” and turns with much more interest to some new litany of culture war fabrications. And it’s for this array of self-administered inertia and delusion that the federalized corps of violence workers is now beating and gassing Navy veterans and suburban moms in the streets of Portland. Amid the wreckage he’s made, the president goes about his business as usual, unmasked and at war with everyone who isn’t him.