Any attempt to distill a single drop of substance from Donald Trump is an exercise of wasted effort, self-sabotaging generosity, and wishful projection. Our forty-fifth president is nothing but a movie screen. Draped in an ill-fitting suite, tailored, yes, but tailored to conceal instead of to accentuate the man’s form, eyes, beady and bloodshot, scan his audience. Backed by a tall leather chair at the head of a boardroom table, TV cameras recording and producers standing off stage right, he plays the powerful CEO, reading his lines or ad libbing a Markov chain of buzzwords, he praises or maligns his “apprentices,” who, circled around the table, play act as apostles.
In front of a crowd of hand-written sign holding “economically disadvantaged” forgotten men and women, he is a demagogue. With vitriolic sloganeering and calls to violence, he acts out the charade of a strong man. On the phone with donors or foreign leaders, he says “don’t worry, it’s all an act”. That is the one truth you will get: the demand to take him seriously not literally. This is a man who built a successful empire based on nothing but his own personality. His businesses are generally failures, bankrupt, bought out by more competent magnates, or profitable only by skirting the law. His one success is his ability to convince, beyond all reason, that his name and image have value beyond his demonstrated abilities. The silhouette that emerges, backlit, from backstage at the Republican National Convention, or from the dressing room on the set of a reality show, smoke machines adding a sense of drama, that silhouette is the Donald Trump whose name rests in gold serif fonts on buildings and steak packages. The Donald Trump we create in our minds. The real Donald Trump is rarely seen, mostly he is found in bed with a cheeseburger in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Ever a con man, over and over he convinces his audience to buy into his charisma, his charm, and his empty promises. Bankers line up to give him loans, donors write him campaign checks, voters pull the lever feeling like it is the first time a politician understood them. In reality, they are voting for a mirror that reflects their own worst instincts, the parts of themselves the world told them to hide.
America bought a timeshare for ten times their yearly salary and now we are spending our two week vacation telling everyone what a good deal we got. Is it just the unwillingness to admit to being fooled? Or does the con man’s smile create in us a genuine desire to be robbed? Perhaps there is something in the brazenness of the con, the sheer balls it takes to lie to someone’s face, millions of our faces, that arouses a feeling of, if not quite respect, something close.
Trump’s administration is game of Jenga. Pieces of American tradition–rule of law, decorum, soft power, international relations–are being pulled out one by one while our leader brags about how his tower gets higher by the day. “Look at the rising profits, the stock market, the fear foreign leaders display, look at our ability to unilaterally impose tariffs, bomb whomever we want”. The con can only last so long, however, before the tower collapses under its own weight. On that day we will have a choice to make: we can pick up the pieces and rebuild, learning a lesson and making it so the mistake will not be repeated, or we can choose to leave the pile on the floor and tell ourselves that it never fell at all, that America is still great, world be damned.