Let’s start with the smaller part: our President-elect is remarkably ignorant of how government works or the challenges our nation, and the world, face. He doesn’t appear to have read the Constitution, and doesn’t seem to think much of whatever he’s heard about it. He is remarkably uninterested in learning. His decision to stop attending the daily Presidential intelligence briefings because “I’m, like, a smart person” speaks volumes. One yearns to ask him, and those who voted for him: Is it your impression that being President of the United States is easy? Should a President-elect, even one who is, like, a smart person, approach the new job with a certain amount of awe and humility, even fear; or is it the kind of job where winging it is good enough?
But the larger issue is mental competence. I do not say this to be insulting, or partisan, but as a simple statement of fact: the President-elect has obvious psychological disabilities that render him unqualified to be President of the United States. The rash insults, the constant self-praise, the clear tendency to shoot from the hip, and to double down when attacked — these are the hallmarks of a narcissistic personality with a brittle ego.
There is nothing particularly subtle about Donald Trump’s psychology. He’s not the charming guy who reveals himself to be a sociopath after you marry him. He’s an open book: what you see is what you get. That will also be obvious to foreign leaders, the more unscrupulous of whom will find it ridiculously easy to manipulate him, by goading him, or flattering him, or challenging him, or telling him that somebody else is laughing at him or doesn’t take him seriously. Consider that this childish, thin-skinned man will soon have his finger on the nuclear button, and realize that the United States is in as grave peril as it has ever been in.
Not the decency of Mr. Trump, which appears never to have existed. But decency on the part of the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him. The howling mobs yelling, “Lock her up” — at the Republican convention! The harassing of protesters, the racist taunts …. A friend sent a photo of a nice, middle-class home in Sebring, Ohio, the kind of place where parents likely work hard to pay the bills and raise their kids. And there on the front lawn is the sign: “Trump that bitch”. Some family values!
I have known my countrymen and women to be remarkably open, kind, and decent. I’m not blind to the thuggish mob behavior, the gross brutalities and indecencies we’ve regularly engaged in. This country was founded by conquering and displacing the previous inhabitants. It took almost a century for us to renounce slavery, and the racial divisions and wounds that atrocity engendered are with us still. But we keep trying to do better. And we mostly shun the angry mobs, the extremist inciters, and the cheesy demagogues. We listen, but we don’t let them run the show. That might happen in some third world countries, but not here. We’re better than that. Father Coughlin can have his radio program; Joe McCarthy can ruin quite a few lives before being exposed as a charlatan and ruining his own; George Wallace can carry six southern states. But we turn away; we always turn away. We would never actually vote someone like that into the Presidency. It’s just not who we are.
Or it’s not who we used to be, anyway.
This is the biggest one, because a democracy cannot function without it.
None of us has a perfect handle on the truth. We don’t have complete information, we’re not infinitely observant or intelligent, and all of us are prone to denial and wishful thinking. It’s part of being human.
But for a democracy to function at all, we have to agree that there is an external truth that exists independent of our needs, wishes, and fears; and that we trust our fellow citizens — at least most of them, most of the time — to acknowledge the existence of that external truth, and to arrive at peaceful compromise and effective government in the shared pursuit of it. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts. It never actually works that way in practice, of course: it’s an aspirational model. But aspiring to it is a good thing; and the closer we get to it, the better we do, in governing ourselves equitably and in our dealings with other nations.
Donald Trump simply ignores the truth. Those who describe him as a serial liar may be missing something: he may simply consider the truth irrelevant, as opposed to considering it and deliberately telling a lie. Actual liars try harder to cover their tracks. Trump doesn’t bother. He baldly contradicts written and video records, and simply expects us not to care. He has treated the American people as if we were dumber than potatoes. It gives me absolutely no pleasure, no smug, coastal sense of superiority, to point out that that strategy actually worked.
Who can say what goes on in his head? He probably couldn’t tell us, even if he wanted to, introspection not being his long suit. My own sense is that Jonathan Chait got it closest to right when he said that Mr. Trump’s one core belief is that whatever is coming out of his mouth at any given instant is true.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump should not be our main concern. Every nation has people like him. But we take the measure of ourselves in the voting booth: what are we willing to put up with? Do we care about what’s true, and what’s simply made up on the spot, do we allow ourselves to be distracted from our civic obligations as the citizens of a democracy? Forget, for a moment, holding our public officials accountable. Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable? On the answer to that question rests the health, indeed the survival, of our republic.
And the news is not good.