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It was the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt, who coined the term “bully pulpit” to describe the presidency of the United States. “I suppose my critics will call that preaching,” he was reported to have said, “but I have got such a bully pulpit!” That was in 1909, when “bully” meant “capital” and “first rate” and when you could have a “bully dinner” or sail in a “bully boat”. The “bully pulpit” simply described how the presidency was the best way a politician could ever hope to have to get their message out.
Yet in 2017, we’re left in little doubt as to what “bully” really means. With Donald Trump in the White House, the pulpit of the Oval Office has never known such a brute, never seen such a risible, narcissistic, mean-spirited caricature of infantilism behind the Resolute Desk. Make no mistake, irrespective what comes next, whether it’s war with North Korea or much worse, it will merely amount to the consummation of what is already the most psychotic presidency in American history. Compared to 45: Lyndon Johnson was demur; Richard Nixon a president with deep moral convictions; and George W. Bush a towering intellect.
We seem to rehearse the same condemnations week after week but the past few days have been different. We have reached the nadir of this presidency; the moment it no longer seemed necessary to focus on Russian meddling and to instead focus on the mental and emotional fitness of a tyrannical egoist who can no longer rise above petty personal insults. This week, the Trump presidency descended into madness.
It’s perhaps not surprising that this huckster of a president is so consumed by himself that he has been entirely blind to the continuing humanitarian crisis of the citizens of Puerto Rico. He has played golf and boasted that he is the finest present that the country has ever seen, whilst those very people he swore to protect are starving and living dehydrated in the ruins of their homes. He has yet to tweet about the three US Green Berets who were killed in Niger last week, and he seems oblivious to the fires that have swept through northern California, killing 17. Instead he’s too busy mocking the height of Senator Bob Coker, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and tweeting out a book recommendation for Christopher Bedford’s toadying drivel “The Art of the Donald: Lessons from America’s Philosopher-in-Chief”. If that weren’t condemnation enough: this week the President of the United States challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ test. This from the barely lucid man who claims that his IQ “is one of the highest”; the man whose boast about fluency was exactly the opposite: “I know words. I have the best words”.
If this week does not mark the moment when Republicans stop and admit this clown presidency has turned America into the world’s one-ring circus, one wonders, when will they reach that point of self-awareness?
Over the first nine months of his presidency it has become obvious that, like all bullies, Donald Trump has deep insecurities that need to be pandered to on an almost minute by minute basis. This is the man who has a button on his desk so he can immediately call for a glass of his favourite soda. This is the presidency as the wish fulfilment of a five year old child with fizzy drink on tap and who plays generals with real five star generals and who would casually launch missiles whose power he cannot comprehend, producing repercussions he is simply too dim to imagine.
This would be grimly laughable if Trump didn’t represent a breakdown of American politics as well as culture. He represents the death of the Republican Party, which sold itself so cheaply for four years of power. Their reward has been an impotent president, too insecure to establish bipartisan deals and instead demeaning his office by making enemies where true politicians would forge alliances. Much scorn was levelled at the so-called “triangulations” of Bill Clinton but America is crying out for such pragmatic triangulations now.
If the hormonal sweat of Trump’s great heaving narcissism is rotting his presidency from within, he’s also giving American culture an example that might be harder to eradicate. Billionaire Mark Cuban was reported this week to be considering his own run for the presidency and, before Facebook became the face of Russian interference, it was rumoured that Mark Zukerberg might also consider moving into politics. This is Trump’s other legacy: turning the presidency into a bauble for the egoist rich to claim for their own. In Trump’s case, his presidency has been a protracted statement of self interest; used to cajole and cauterise, insult and inflict damage on those that would challenge him. This is the ultimate weapon for an immature man who seeks to extract a lifetime of revenge on those that mocked him in the past. The NFL saw off Trump’s rival USFL in 1985 but now the bull-headed bully is back, threatening to use American’s tax code to punish the NFL because its players refuse to indulge his authoritarian view of patriotism.
And what does that patriotism amount to? The man who once used the excuse of heel spurs to avoid fighting in Vietnam is now demanding absolute loyalty to the anthem, the flag, the country, and, no doubt, by extension, to himself. He defends the Second Amendment in the face of mass killers but walks roughly over the First; calling for censorship of the free press as casually as he disregards safeguards on speech. And in all that he does, he appeals to the very worst instincts in America: the vainglorious isolationists filled with a patriotic ardour that stifles and sickens anybody who understands the great promise of American freedom. He beats his chest and demands that all worship his tyranny of soap opera tropes, reality TV clichés, and hackneyed patriotism. And in none of this does Trump know what he’s doing.
He is oblivious to the damage he does and the dangerous sentiments he unlocks in the America psyche. He fumbles through foreign policy, disguising his lack of knowledge with threats whispered in his creepy uncle voice. The advice of wiser councils amounts to nothing when this imbecile can bully his way through, exposing the sad truth of the American system of government, the flaw that the founders could never have imagined. This is a system that gives the president the last word, no matter how dumb that last word. The Iran deal was, perhaps, too generous an act by America but it was also a distillation of the nation’s finest spirit, using the promise of freedom to lead Iran from its theocratic present and towards a new democratic future. But Trump’s only instinct is to bully and so his America gives nothing and expects the world to bend its knee. It’s the politics of subservience, by which servility replaces rapprochement.
This is surely the only conclusion we can reach after a week when Trump has proved himself to be the very worst of America. He is the president of the nation that gave the world the gun spree and small men with big grievances. Petty, rancorous, tiny in mind as he is enormous in body: he is America’s Bully-in-Chief and it’s about time that Republicans proved they are true Americans by standing up to him and bringing this madness to an end.