Some of my favourite people keep telling me that we should all be less harshly critical of Donald Trump. The pragmatic instinct is commendable, and I hear what they say and take it seriously. He is going to be President, barring impeachment, for at least the next four years and he is said to be well-disposed towards trade with Britain. Tired, smug multilateralist assumptions probably need a kick up the backside anyway. In addition, the American system is said to be constructed with its famed checks and balances to constrain a dud or dangerous President. An economic boom – unleashed by the reshoring of vast amounts of US wealth locked out overseas – may ensue from his team’s policies, and energy self-sufficient America can anyway afford to go a little more insular and still regenerate its economy. Trump has also appointed some good people, including the bookish warrior General Mattis to run the Department of Defense.
All of that I can see. But every time one is tempted to give Trump a small chance – to see him as more than a narcissistic man-child craving attention, knowing close to nothing other than how to do construction deals with unions and order vulgar interior decor – he out does himself and makes even a hint of sympathy impossible to muster.
We have become immunised by excessive outrage, and overexposure to his behaviour, to the point that its true implications barely register. So, pinch yourself and observe the following.
The President-elect of the United States in the row over intelligence and hacking is backing a foreign government, Russia, against the United States. I’ll say that again. The President-elect of the United States in the row over intelligence and hacking is backing a foreign government, Russia, against the United States.
Trump has declared that Russia was not involved in hacking the US election, and even said that he had some special information on the subject. That special information seems merely to have been forewarning of an interview one of his dimmest supporters conducted with an enemy of freedom and democracy in London.
This week, Trump’s favourite journalist, Sean Hannity of Fox News, travelled to see the King of the Useful Idiots, Julian Assange, in his London Ecuadorian eyrie for an interview. Hannity was once described by conservative commentator Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal opinion page as the “dumbest of anchors” and a “media munchkin” for Trump, descriptions that are entirely fair and possibly even rather generous.
Wikileaks had nothing, nothing, to do with Russia, Assange told Hannity. Russia had no hand in hacking, said a man whose word is surely by now a byword for unreliability and anti-Western agitation. The interview caused Trump stooge Sarah Palin to apologise to Assange. Yes, really, she apologised to a man whose activities have undermined the West at every turn and caused him to be celebrated by our enemies. Trump has endorsed all this nonsense, and made it clear he has no faith in the apparatus of American security and the work of the agencies involved.
It is embarrassing for America that its next President is playing this ego-driven juvenile game on Twitter, but beyond that does it matter, other than in terms of the encouragement it gives Putin to menace Europe unimpeded?
Yes, Trump’s behaviour is extremely dangerous because it starkly demonstrates the greatest single threat or risk from Trump’s presidency. His determination to see everything – everything – through the prism of Trump, and what it means to him personally, means that the normal national considerations around security and intelligence are secondary to the Trump project, which is himself, always himself.
As conservative commentator Jennifer Rubin put it in the Washington Post: “For Trump’s team the concern is about Trump being “mocked,” not about threats to the country.”
His ego drives all, even if that leaves him backing a foreign demagogue such as Putin rather than the CIA and the intelligence community with genuine experience, all because Putin has been nice about Trump. But that’s all just pre-inauguration tomfoolery, surely? Trump in office can be stopped from doing anything stupid, or lashing out to satisfy his ego if he feels slighted, right?
We have heard much about the checks and balances of the US system and the supposed superior wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Up to a point this provides protection, but there is plenty of damage a President can do before they are removed by Congress or tied down by doctors. The growth of what used to be termed the imperial presidency, and the excessive use of executive order, means that Trump and his closest advisors have scope for plenty of independent action that it will be difficult to track, perhaps until it is too late.
Worse than that, the constitutional constraints are at their very weakest in an emergency. During or after a terror attack or another national emergency, the President has enormous scope as Commander in Chief. That is when good judgment and calmness are needed most. That is what Trump – on the evidence so far – appears inherently incapable of bringing to bear. America is about to get a President who puts himself and his frail ego above country, and above the rest of us. Good luck everyone.