“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”
― H.L. Mencken
I read this piece from The Washington Post today and it made me genuinely wonder how this political moment and the personality of this president is going to be viewed, both in a few years and further down the line. George W. Bush has gone from being almost universally derided to being seen as a gentle sort of man who probably wanted to the do the right thing but was perhaps not equal to the task. This is an enormously flattering take, in my opinion, but it exists. Barack Obama is increasingly seen as a idealistic and probably personally good man who fell short of his own ideals and disappointed many. What are we going to make of Donald Trump with his frankly brilliant showmanship and his seething grievance, his apparent privilege and his ever present resentment of scrutiny and criticism? I then realized something that I’ve been struggling to put into words about Mr. Trump that finally clicked into place. That’s what defines so much of his behavior and statements since coming into office: a reaction to scrutiny.
Mr. Trump is strange because he catapulted from celebrity into public life (which are NOT the same thing, just ask the Royal Family). Celebrity is a space where personality is everything, selling your own narrative arc to the public in the great public theatre of pop culture is part of the job. In this world, your foibles and failings can be winked at if not treated as actual assets. Mr. Trump cultivated shamelessness as armor against criticism and leveraged it into a successful brand. The only thing that matters is your fandom, they are your social leverage and quite often your marketing.
Public life is different. Shame is one of the great levelers in it and is supposed to act as a policing measure, something we are now watching fail in real time as an administration (far from one person or personality) copes with several scandals in any given week which would have ground most previous administrations to a halt or broken them. Fans are not the same thing as allies and in this world you need the latter. And yet, in this world, the glare of attention does not just come with adoration or outrage, it comes with scrutiny. That seems to be what Mr. Trump didn’t really expect and which he is coping with extraordinarily badly.
On just a personality level he simple doesn’t seem capable (or indeed interested) in behaving with the reserve we have historically expected of our presidents and insists on emoting publicly. I’m personally wrestling with the idea that this is something I’ve been clamoring for in men and masculinity for a long time. If we are going to insist on space for different emotional displays in women than what has been historically acceptable and encouraged, we must do the same in men. Does the president of the United States have a right to be petty in public? Maybe he does. But like so many of the gender changes we are going through as a culture, this is such a rapid shift that we are having to grapple with the fallout of it in real time. Some of this fallout is an omnipresent attention on the president’s emotional state. He finds this unflattering and unfair, but in many ways it’s a self created problem. More on that in a moment.
On a higher level, how dare his business life be looked into? How dare the movements and actions of his children be front page news? How dare his motives be questioned or his rants on Twitter be evaluated as statements of policy? In other words, how dare we the public (especially the unfriendly public whose votes he didn’t win) scrutinize him?
He didn’t seem to realize that this is literally part of the job. This is what being a president is. It’s often one half of the country hating you, and everything you doing carrying weight. He seems love and crave the attention while resenting it at the same time. He enjoys the spotlight, but that same spotlight is shining into areas of his life and business that he probably thought (with good reason) might not see the light of day and he’d rather it not.
I’m fascinated by reporting that focuses on his businesses because having worked in similar industries, I know how often those industries (while absolutely following the letter of the law in most cases and doing nothing illegal in the slightest) can be vehicles for transactions and behavior that the vast majority of the population finds distasteful at the very least. The business world of the very wealthy is one of the great engines of capitalism, but there are also a lot of shades of gray around the edges. In its most extreme cases, there is an awful lot of white collar crime that goes on that is simply never paid attention or prosecuted. I would not be surprised if the Trump Organization participated in this, what reporting is out there indicates that this is at least possible if not likely. But this sort of crime and behavior is so rarely punished. We kind of wink at it as a society–which is a whole topic in and of itself. Had he never won the presidency, it’s entirely likely to me that Mr. Trump could have continued existing in this probable space as well as his celebrity space very comfortably and profitably for the rest of his career.
But the office brings scrutiny and that’s fundamentally different from publicity. For better or worse, the office is different from the man and no matter how hard he tries to combine the two (which it really seems as though he is trying to do, which is also a topic for another day because I think this has interesting potential to affect our politics as a nation permanently), holding this office means that the stakes have changed and certain people or groups are going to hold him accountable for things he has never been asked to answer for. His emotional state is a matter of national interest. His business relationships may have security implications. His bad behavior is suddenly not a brand consistent foible, it’s a liability.
It may very well turn out that the Trump Organization did nothing illegal or even unethical during the campaign, especially with foreign interference. They sure aren’t acting like it, but it’s possible. It’s also possible that it never occurred to key people that the meetings they were taking may have been dangerous and unethical–I genuinely wonder this. Again, none of these people with few exceptions had engaged in public life before. Celebrity yes, but not public service. They may simply have not realized what a massive conflict of interest it was to take meetings with certain actors, how unethical and in appropriate it would seem for the office. Ignorance doesn’t make them less responsible or mean they shouldn’t be held accountable, but as an explanation it too is possible.
When I say I think Mr. Trump is unfit for the job, this is a big part of what I mean. He didn’t seem to understand some of these implications about winning the office and as he learns the implications in real time, he throws temper tantrums in public that are damaging to the country’s ability to govern itself domestically and abroad. I happen to think he’s brought a lot of drama on himself by making the Mueller investigation about himself when ostensibly it’s about Russian interference in the election–especially as he insists that it’s a topic that has nothing to do with him personally. This would not be the clown circus it is if he had kept a tighter reign on his Twitter temper. In fact, he probably would be under a lot less scrutiny overall if he himself hadn’t insisted on making various claims publicly over the years–the size of his fortune, various relationships, and so on.
Donald Trump, and frankly a lot of American electorate, have badly confused politics and entertainment for years now. He’s the public face of this phenomenon and depending on how this scrutiny on him plays out, he may be the most public victim of it…or its first great success. Either way, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying the ride. I have a strange level of sympathy for him on this point alone: I really don’t believe that he really knew what he was getting into when he won; he did not want and is not prepared (or possibly emotional resilient enough) for this level of scrutiny. I guess no one in his life or team prepared him for this reality, and if they tried he clearly didn’t listen. There are no stakes if you’re just playing role, after all, and he’s built his whole public persona on role playing until it all suddenly became very real. I believe reporting which suggests that he was terrified of his first year in office and is now just sort of winging it.
Because I don’t think Mr. Trump ever really wanted to be president. He just wanted to play one on TV.
ETA later this same day, the President tweeted this, once again changing the official version of this story. More intelligent people than me have commented about this but I am baffled by what he chooses to be defensive about under scrutiny and what he chooses to just blurt out to the world. For some reason, probably going back to the idea of shame as a public policing mechanism, our system seems totally unable to hold him accountable to what he admits publicly. If this had leaked or been revealed a la Nixon, it would be a scandal in any other administration. I suspect this confessional style statement will have precisely zero effects.
Fake News reporting, a complete fabrication, that I am concerned about the meeting my wonderful son, Donald, had in Trump Tower. This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere. I did not know about it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 5, 2018