To read the original in USA Today, click here.
The most tumultuous week of Donald Trump’s presidency began with his threats to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and ended with mayhem and murder in Charlottesville, Va. After more than half a year, our national crisis appears to be building toward some sort of climax, a swelling crescendo that was topped off by Trump’s flabbergasting news conference Tuesday afternoon in Trump Tower.
What strikes one first about Trump’s remarks is the absence of rationality, of any attempt to connect means to ends. The normal question one might ask of a politician’s pronouncements is: What was he trying to accomplish, what ball was he seeking to advance toward what goal? Here such a line of inquiry makes no sense. Instead of purpose and positioning and strategy, we were witnessing — and not for the first time — a volcanic eruption, a lava flow of anger.
The explosion should not come entirely as a surprise. After all, the view from the White House these days is bleak. Trump boasts incessantly, as he did at this news conference, of his economic accomplishments: record unemployment and a soaring stock market. Whatever credit he does or does not deserve for those developments is irrelevant. What is highly relevant is special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which has begun digging into Trump’s family finances, where there is dirt aplenty. What is just as relevant are opinion polls, which Trump dwells on obsessively, showing his standing at a record low. The walls are closing in on him.
Charlottesville added combustible ingredients to the dismal picture. Just as Trump has shown an unaccountable unwillingness to criticize Vladimir Putin, he has shown the same unwillingness, not quite so unaccountable, to single out and challenge the hardcore right. We saw the most vivid example of this in the campaign when, following David Duke’s endorsement of his candidacy, he refused to disavow it, affecting falsely not to know who the white supremacist leader was.
Yet in Charlottesville here they were again, the very people he evidently conceives of as a core element of his base, carrying torches, chanting “blood and soil,” adorning themselves with swastikas, running riot and allegedly committing murder. Trump came under enormous pressure to criticize them. And then, when he declined to do so in a full-throated way, pinning blame for the violence instead on “many sides,” he came under intense criticism for being mealy-mouthed. Forty-eight hours later, by the time he succumbed to the pleas of his desperate advisers and agreed to read from the teleprompter the words they told him the nation was waiting to hear, it was too late.
The result, for Trump, was the worst of all worlds. He meant not a syllable of what he had said and was being slammed for it all the same. Republican politicians were now joining Democrats in castigating him. Even worse, a growing list of CEOs of megacompanies were bidding adieu to his vaunted manufacturing council, adding cutting public farewell notes for his maximum embarrassment.
On Tuesday at Trump Tower, we saw all these crosscurrents converge. The result was a rant that made even his advisers visibly cringe. Trump effectively retracted the words he had struggled not to say on Saturday. He showered praise on the fanatical racist losers who invaded Charlottesville.
To be sure, some of them were “bad,” he said, using his characteristic infantile vocabulary. But many others were “fine people,” with a perfectly valid permit, “protesting very quietly” against the “the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Given such ardor in defense of racists, the question naturally arises: Is Donald Trump a racist himself? From the Judge Gonzalo Curiel affair to the Central Park Five to his illegal practices as a New York landlord, there is a wealth of evidence. The question, however, ultimately revolves around an unknowable grasp of what is in his heart. My own view is that Trump might not be a racist and might well be something worse.
Consider that to those injured in the murderous rampage that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Trump tweeted “best regards.” Consider also that at the Trump Tower presser, Trump focused on how Heyer’s grieving mother went on social media and wrote “the nicest things” about him and “thanked me for what I said.”
Who chooses such odd words to say such peculiar things about such sensitive subjects? These utterances suggest a person lacking in empathy, a person incapable of feeling anyone’s pain but his own. They are hardly the only and certainly not the most egregious examples of their kind.
Recall Trump’s cruel mocking of a disabled reporter. Recall Trump’s attacks on Khizr Khan, who had to bury a son who died fighting for our country. Asked by George Stephanopoulos to compare that terrible sacrifice with his own, Trump responded: “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. … I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success.”
Racists are all too human. They are propelled by hatred based upon a set of perverted core beliefs. Trump’s rage over Charlottesville has nothing to do with a particular set of beliefs about race or anything else. And it has nothing to do with hatred. It has everything to do with something else.
As the head of a family business in New York, luxuriating in his inherited millions or billions, Trump could live in a fantasy world of infallibility and invulnerability. In the White House, that fantasy world is repeatedly being punctured. For the first time the entire world is seeing — he himself is seeing — how severely limited he is.
Believing in nothing but his own greatness, concerned with no one but himself and the extensions of himself who are his children, the man we watched boiling over in Trump Tower, the president of the United States, the man who boasts “I’ve had tremendous success,” is a solipsist whose defective self is being inexorably destroyed as it falls under the relentless scrutiny that attends public life in our democracy.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld