The three years since Donald Trump first announced his campaign for president have been a dizzying, stressful blur. Our country has been through a full range of emotions, and the man continues to stir visceral reactions in many Americans.
Part of Trump’s attendant circus is a crew of journalists searching for the “real” man. They’re still wondering – is there more to him than his carefully cultivated stage image? Is there hidden depth, a reserve of gravitas, that will surge to the fore in times of crisis? In the beginning many people, including those who opposed his candidacy, wanted to believe that. Hell, they desperately needed to believe it. Unfortunately, the evidence accumulated so far suggests otherwise. It seems the occupant of the Oval Office is authentically what many have considered him to be for decades – an astonishingly shallow, thoroughly unethical salesman.
As for Trump’s ability to grow in office, or act “presidential,” he may possess it deep down somewhere in his psyche, but he is clearly not interested in exploring it and–alarmingly but predictably–he has taken a cynical approach to criticism about it.
A story recently in the New York Times Magazine chronicled a Trump campaign rally for Pennsylvania congressional candidate Rick Saccone where he, Trump, reacted to the criticism this way:
“I’m very presidential!” Trump told us, with mock indignation. Then he stiffened in his suit and adopted a stentorian tone, like a fourth grader doing an impression of his school principal. “Laaaadies and gentlemen,” he intoned, “thank you for being here tonight. Rick Saccone will be a great, great congressman. He will help me very much. He’s a fine man, and Yong is a wonderful wife. I just want to tell you on behalf of the United States of America that we appreciate your service. And to all of the military out there, we respect you very much. Thank you. Thank you.” He broke character for a second: “And then you go, ‘God bless you, and God bless the United States of America, thank you very much.’ ” He turned and faced the V.I.P. guests in the riser behind him, and did a sort of rigid penguin walk. The crowd whooped and laughed…It took a few more seconds for the spectacular strangeness of the moment to settle in: We were watching a sitting American president imitating an American president.
It genuinely seems that Trump has respect for nothing unless it makes him money.
The writer of the story went on to observe that in watching Trump on the campaign trail, he believed he was seeing the essence of the man, much like you might when watching Barack Obama reflecting quietly in his study, or like an exchange with any normal person in a private, unguarded moment. In this analysis the public Trump is the private Trump. Beneath the surface it would appear he is like Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland – there is no there there. That may be why, following a fire last weekend at Trump Tower that killed a man, Trump boasted about the durability of his building while offering not a scintilla of sympathy for the deceased or his family.
That character quirk doesn’t keep Trump from lashing out viciously on Twitter. In fact, it may actually fuel the behavior. His latest target is, of course, former FBI director James Comey, who has likened Trump to a mob boss in interviews promoting a book to be released next week. Comey stated that Trump is “untethered to truth” and said Trump demonstrated a fixation with stories about Russia and the so-called ‘pee tape’ in their private meetings, saying to Comey at one point, “Can you imagine me, hookers?” and then, “If there’s even a 1 percent chance my wife thinks that’s true, that’s terrible.”
James Comey is a truly legendary government lawyer – a Republican like Trump, but one who worked across the aisle, serving Presidents Clinton and Obama as well as George W. Bush. He has actually prosecuted Mafia figures, so the mob comment had a strong foundation behind it. In Beltway and legal circles Comey’s integrity has been regarded as beyond reproach, even though he drew extensive heat from both major parties for his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server in the run-up to the 2016 election. By contrast, Donald Trump and his businesses have been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits, a great many of them triggered by an alleged lack of integrity. An example is the fraud-riddled “Trump University,” a scam that resulted in a judge recently approving a $25 million payout to victims. Yet on Twitter, Trump called Comey an “untruthful slime ball.”
So as journalists and others continue their search for the real Trump, the elusive soul of the man, we wish them well, and we have our doubts. Among the many observations of James Comey are these:
“His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles.”
“I stared at the soft white pouches under his expressionless blue eyes.”
Speculating as to why he never saw Trump laugh, Comey said: “Deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others, which, on reflection, is really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president.”
Scary and shallow. Sociopathic and terrifying. There may not be anything else.