Here at the end of the election, those of us who’ve watched our political norms crumble one after the other find ourselves posing a lot of questions and fretting about the answers we never obtained.
I have one myself. It’s right there in the headline: Why, of all the things that Donald Trump could have done with his life, did he choose to take on the American presidency?
I realize that not a few of you might find this inquiry naive. Indeed, there are two rather obvious answers.
The first, of course, is that the president-elect really wants to Make America Great Again and become the avatar of hope for a group of long-dispossessed, working-class Americans ― for whom he has never before been willing to offer a single product at a price point they could afford.
It’s absolutely true that America’s working class needs some help. It’s also true that one of the Clinton campaign’s gravest errors was to erect a candidacy based entirely on an obsession with the affluent professional class, which thrives and survives in any and all presidencies. Trump has made a series of specific and elaborate promises to the working class, which he must now endeavor to keep.
Speaking of: I’m reminded today that one of the best-paying jobs currently available for men without a college degree in America is long-haul truck driving. All you reporters itching to learn about middle America should maybe think about hooking up with a trucker. It’s a great way to see the country. Book those trips soon, though! Driverless trucks are coming, and with them will go all of these good jobs. I don’t recall hearing Trump talk about fighting off the robot trucks, by the way. Perhaps this was discussed during the time we were blacklisted.
Of course, the second obvious answer to the question I’ve raised is that Trump is in it for the fame and the precious personal vindication that so often comes with it.
It’s a weird thing to confront: that being a public servant in America is perceived by anyone as an avenue for fame. But we’ve somehow become inured to it ― we are, at all times, both constituents and autograph-seekers. And to forgive our current celebrity-besotted culture, it should be said that a certain amount of tawdry celebrity has always been baked into our political cake. We’ve always had the tendency to remember our past eras too fondly, to enshroud our leaders in a gauzy film and to send them from the White House cloaked in a sort of premature afterlife ― living angels of democracy with all their sins forgotten.
This is not without virtue, of course. It is perhaps right to think of our former presidents in this way, if only because the American presidency is an intensely difficult job ― a fact that we see for ourselves in the odd way the ravages of aging seem to hit our presidents harder than most.
I always spare a thought for most of the men and women who run for president ― and a second thought for those who get the job. Whether I agree with their politics or not, they volunteered to do the work. I sure didn’t! Neither did most of you. And most of the time, I look upon those who volunteer for the task and see that they understand the gravity of what they’re seeking to do ― that their ideas will be put to the sternest test imaginable.
But the thing about Trump is that he really seems to believe this job is going to be easy. In fact, this may be past mere belief ― his argument is that he alone can fix things, because all who came before him made things hard for themselves owing to an incompetence that Trump alone is free of.
There are 168 hours in a week, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how many of those hours are going to conform to Trump’s expectations.
I really don’t think that Trump understands the gravity of his situation. Trump has made a thriving life for himself successfully navigating the path of least resistance, started on his way with familial largesse and rescued from ruin by a similar bailout.
He rose up in the world of real estate development ― a world where the money stays fast, the promises are airy and the failures quickly forgiven. It was the perfect occupation for a man on the make. If you wonder how it came to pass that he failed so often, ripped so many people off along the way and maintained good social standing and business credibility, I encourage you to get to know the developers that are hard at work making and remaking the streets where you live. The only real difference between them and Trump is that they weren’t a Page Six staple.
Trump’s career arc has been all but perfect for a guy who’s temperamentally thin-skinned and extremely averse to criticism. But he’s moving into a job where scrutiny is continual, where criticism is constant and where bad decisions lead to outcomes that can’t be obscured as easily as your tax returns.
There are no good days when everyone’s slapping you on the back and leaving the hard questions for another time. Aside from the big decisions that presidents encounter, there’s a tiresome litany of smaller choices and petty problems that fill the endless numbered days of your presidential term. And whenever something goes wrong in the world, it’s the American president who’s awakened to deal with it. Whoever it is that runs Denmark gets to sleep a little easier.
President Barack Obama has been pretty open about the stress of the job and the way it forces you to live like no other person on earth. In fact, the way Obama described it to Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair was enough to make you wonder if just serving in the Oval Office forced a man to adopt some low-grade insanity just to function on a daily basis:
This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”
The part about eliminating the need to decide what color suit to wear proved to be important on the day Obama deviated from this routine, wore a tan suit and then watched as the world exploded around him.
That’s what Trump signed up for: leaving his world of casual luxury behind, entering a new realm in which he’ll get dragged for wearing certain clothes. There are 168 hours in a week, and I’m having a hard time figuring out how many of those hours are going to conform to Trump’s expectations.
It would have probably been very useful if someone very close to Trump had explained very early on that this is what life was going to be like. But it’s clear that didn’t happen. Trump’s aides couldn’t even properly instill the idea that he’d have to maintain a certain level of gravity and decorum on Twitter. Instead, they found the sort of workaround that mollycoddling parents use on their kids before they reach the age of reason, like sneaking vegetables into meals.
Trump’s aides are already concerned that he needs a regular dose of “instant gratification and adulation” just so he can go on mimicking functional adulthood.
Now we’re finding out that Trump’s basic calculations about the job were quite a ways from the reality in which he now finds himself. Word on the street is that Trump was perplexed to learn that Obama’s White House staff would not be around to help him figure things out. The guy looks shook. Those around him seem to be realizing just now what the president of the United States even does.
Consequently, Trump is now relying on another bailout, this time from a fairly unlikely source. As The Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender and Carol E. Lee report:
During their private White House meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
“After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do, people familiar with the matter said.”
Suffice it to say, it’s a relief to see that doughty irony has survived the election. I won’t be the first to observe, obviously, that Trump is now heavily dependent on the man whose Americanness he once sought to negate. You should be mad on Obama’s behalf, definitely. But don’t be mad at Obama for trying to help Trump cram for the four-year test he’s about to endure.
No, Barry O is gonna try to bury it and rise above, because that’s what duty calls for him to do in this situation. And in the end, his effort to steel Trump for what’s to come could be the most important work of this two-month interregnum ― and maybe Obama’s presidency ― and not just for the much-needed injection of conciliatory grace. So much depends on someone teaching Trump that the presidency is bigger than one man and his personal desires, and that’s why it is just for the American president to get his teeth kicked in on a daily basis.
The best thing Obama can do right now is put the question to Trump, “So, why did you want to do this, bruh?” Because the evidence suggests Trump hasn’t fully thought this through. Unless he does, I’m afraid to say that he ― and by extension, we ― are in for a world of hurt.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.