“I’m gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump: This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth, and in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”
Senator Ted Cruz in May before endorsing Donald Trump in September
As opportunistic politicians go it is not an overstatement to say that Texas Senator Ted Cruz occupies a niche all his own on the scale of opportunism. Cruz, a Republican who condemned Donald Trump as harshly as any – remember the president-elect accused Cruz’s father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination and insulted Cruz’s wife for good measure – made a show of opposing Trump at the GOP convention and then totally capitulated to him.
Cruz is a fine example, maybe the best example, of what I’ll call “the regularization” of the man who will be president.
For the last year and a half Republican presidential candidates, most establishment media, and Hillary Clinton embraced the fiction that Donald J. Trump could be dealt with by conventional political methods. They all blew it.
Republicans “Regularized” a Man They Detest…
Republicans, like Ted Cruz, thought if only they could get Trump in a one-on-one situation they could finish him off. That belief resulted in one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in politics. The Republicans candidates who were maneuvering to be the last man standing against Trump spent weeks attacking each other rather than going after the clear frontrunner. Only when it was too late did anyone try to take down the leader. It was amazing and oddly it served to “regularize” Trump as the face and voice of the Republican Party.
Trump could claim and, of course, did that he beat them all, but those who lost to him let him off without a real challenge out of fear they would alienate his core supporters. Now he owns them all.
The media for the most part treated Trump as an outlandish, but not wholly different character in American politics. By the methods of false equivalency Trump’s abjectly irregular methods – threatening to jail his opponent, cavorting with Russia, refusing to release his tax returns, lying about everything under the sun – were balanced against Clinton’s emails and untrustworthiness. He was regularized.
Media attention was lavished on Trump, certainly in order to driving ratings, but also because many in the media seemed to think his own words would do him in. The coverage of his campaign, often live coverage of his rallies, served to regularize him as just another politician with a big following.
Admittedly this guy said outrageous things, but Trump was still just a variation on an old campaign theme. To many in the media he was a politician, but he isn’t, of course. Trump is a phenomenon, a media and self-created personality, a cult of personality really, and wholly unlike anything we’ve seen before.
As the campaign post mortem is conducted it is also becoming clear that the Clinton campaign, fixated on re-fighting the campaign of 2012, never got what was going on with Trump. They thought, as the media did, that Trump’s outrages would sink him, Democrats would turn out and Clinton would slip into the White House to begin Barack Obama’s third term.
The Clinton team used all the old tactics – television, policy pronouncements, debate traps – while never confronting their own candidate’s huge shortcomings or the opponents appeal. They fundamentally treated Trump as just another wacky Republican, but of course he is not just another Republican.
The regularization of Trump, from Cruz’s eventual capitulation – Cruz actually said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” but then he did – to Clinton’s treatment of his candidacy as an aberration that would be disposed of with talking points and policy papers now reaches an entirely new level as Trump measures the White House drapes.
I’ve heard it said that Trump in office “will behave pretty much like a New York-style Republican” and that he will inevitably come around to the norms of political Washington. It’s said that Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally and therefore we should, too. Actually being able to take him seriously, but not literally and having him morph into a New York-style Republican would be, under the circumstances, a highly desirable outcome for the country and the world.
But it seems just as likely those expectations are as unfounded as the notion that Ted Cruz would, just once, take a pass on political opportunism. The odds aren’t that great.
After making the mistake for the last 18 months of thinking that Trump is just another politician, many are about to double down on that calculation. He’s not a regular politician in any way, which of course is part of his appeal, but even more fundamentally he harbors no regard for any norm of political behavior and that ultimately makes him both completely unpredictable and entirely dangerous.
Here’s the Worry…
The president-elect is a deeply flawed human being with a serious personality disorder. He is obsessed with himself. There aren’t enough binders inside the Beltway to brief him, that’s how little he knows or cares about policy. He makes it up every day and the organizing principle is simple and always has been: he will do what is best for Trump.
Reading Trump’s life story – there was plenty of opportunity to do so during the long campaign if anyone wanted to do so – reveals a person unmoored from the norms – that word again – that govern most of the rest of us. He’s different. Special. Better in all ways. He has the best words. He’s the greatest. No one – ever – has come to the American presidency with such a glaring image of himself as a savior, while portraying the country as being in the final stages of destruction.
Why would Trump start behaving differently now that he has reached the pinnacle of a life that is all about him, his words, his image of himself? The answer is – he won’t.
The first rule of living under an autocratic, it is said, is to believe what the autocrat has said and promised.
Here’s the worry: Every president is challenged every day in a thousand ways. If the campaign revealed anything about Trump it was that he doesn’t suffer criticism or rejection well. He lashes out and punishes. He’s a bully, even when the offense is small or particularly when it’s valid. With Trump every confrontation becomes a question of who wins and who loses. To “regularize” the president-elect you must now embrace the idea that all his bluster, his threats and, yes, all his hatred will suddenly disappear. Somehow you have to believe a man who has never behaved differently will now behave differently.
And, of course, the president-elect spent the Sunday morning after his unexpected election bashing the New York Times on social media, but only after sending his chief surrogate out to the talk shows to threaten a siting United States senator who has been sharply critical of him.
Then in the afternoon he named Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist, a guy who runs a white nationalist website that routinely traffics in outrageous conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic and anti-gay hate speech. Regularize that, America.
In a few weeks when he finally gets his hands on all the levers of power you have to believe that a “regularized” President Trump will be able to resist the temptations of great power that men of vastly more accomplishment found difficult to avoid when they held the job. Will a President Trump avoid reaching into the FBI or the CIA or the IRS to deal with a critic? With a white nationalist whose “media” empire regularly attacks Muslims and gays and women soon sitting a few feet from the Oval Office will Donald Trump bring America together?
To “regularize” the president-elect, as journalist Masha Gessen, a close observer and critic of Vladimir Putin, has written, is to suddenly accept that “Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.”
To believe that is simply the triumph of hope over experience. Accept it at your peril.