We live in interesting times.
For the second time in our lives, for many of us, the president is a former television personality. Ronald Reagan was a B Hollywood actor who became the spokesman for General Electric. Reagan appeared weekly on the little screen, and while doing that he made a lot of money traveling around the United States giving speeches, spreading the conservative word. Eventually, of course, he became governor of California and then president.
Reagan, for the most part, surrounded himself with good people. Ed Meese was an exception, but James Baker—later secretary of State—was a first-class White House chief of staff. Michael Deaver was a first class message shaper for Reagan. Although not Reagan’s first choice for secretary of State, George Shultz, was another quality pick.
So whether you agreed with Reagan or not, he was serious about being president and had good people advising him.
That was then. Now we have another television personality serving as president. Unlike Reagan, Donald Trump, has no prior political experience. Unlike Reagan, Trump has no vision for America other than the vague “Make America Great Again” (which Trump copped from Reagan by the way). And, unlike Reagan, Trump lacks a positive outlook and message. Where Reagan helped the sun come up in America, Trump plays on his supporters’ grievances, stoking their anger and delighting them by poking his thumb in the eye of tradition and whatever establishment still exists.
Reagan had trouble with facts, and he could invent events that never happened. Yet even when Reagan was being creative, his points were usually positive. Reagan’s MO was making America feel good about itself.
It isn’t necessary to review the pernicious fictions that come out of Trump’s mouth. His most prominent characteristic is his disdain for the truth. This is one of those times when the bromide “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” is an understatement. It isn’t merely sad, it’s dangerous.
Worse than Trump’s mendacity is his totally unjustified confidence in his instincts and judgment while he either disregards his “advisers” or chooses them because they mirror his beliefs and goals.
Trump’s declarations too often are totally contrary to reality. His assertion that “the world isn’t laughing at us anymore” is a prime example. Part of Trump’s pathology is his fear of looking like a fool, and in his braggadocious machismo he becomes the very thing he fears of being, taking us with him. The world is laughing at us, or at him, and is bewildered by America. Traveling abroad means dealing with the puzzlement of non-Americans who ask “What’s going on in America?” Where America once had the image of stability and reliability, it now projects chaos and randomness—a country where decisions emanate from a machine driven by an eccentric gear.
America has never had a president so flawed, so lacking in character. We have had flawed presidents before, a few lacking in character, but none who displayed it so publicly on a daily basis.
I hadn’t intended to begin this way, but the sad fact of this moment is that it’s difficult to get away from this topic. Donald Trump has succeeded in appropriating the public dialogue. A clown and a buffoon who has his finger on his very big nuclear button, he is Topic A, B and C. It’s ludicrous that our public discussion should be consumed by debating the president’s behavior rather than the real challenges confronting us. But that’s where we are.
I’m afraid I’ll be returning to this subject.