On the eve of their convention, the erstwhile chief counselors of the GOP had, at last, comprehended the horror which is Donald Trump.
There is comedy in this. One imagines the ministers of some obscure Ruritanian monarchy, awakening to discover that their new King is the idiot former Crown Prince, who combines congenital feeble mindedness with preposterous vanity, irrational willfulness, unpredictable outbursts of rage, the attention span of an infant, and a frightening ignorance of statecraft. In short, the not-so-good King Drumpf.
If only Peter Sellers still lived.
Regrettably, this is not a movie set in Moldavia. It is an American presidential campaign, and the idiot King is the Republican nominee. Which is way too serious to serve as farce.
Still, one must grant its farcical aspects -- not least in the two weeks prior to his coronation in Cleveland.
A chief source of drollery is what happens when his counselors cannot control him, which is pretty much all the time. The pluperfect example of which is his meanderings in the wake of a political gift from God -- James Comey's root and branch critique of Hillary Clinton's email practices.
Leaving nothing to chance, his aides gave him a script dedicated to Clinton's demolition. He read it for a while before, abruptly bored, throwing it away. What followed was that which his handlers most feared -- lint plucked from His Donald's all too woolly mind.
Never good. Even less good when, as often, Trump begins reciting his grievances. He attacked Chuck Todd and savaged CNN. He complained that the media had (accurately) reported his baroque praise of Saddam Hussein for supposedly killing terrorists -- which Saddam never did -- and then repeated it, cementing Saddam's place along with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un as the despots Trump admires for being "strong." But even worse was his irrationally perverse revival of an incident which raised the specter of anti-Semitism.
The controversy began with yet another tweet -- this passing on material from a white supremacist website. Small wonder, then, that the site made its point about Clinton's supposedly reality by imposing a Star of David over a pile of money. Not subtle. So when the media pointed this out, Trump's tweet patrol covered up the star before deleting the image altogether.
To the normal mind, mere damage control, and high time to move on. Not Trump. He was outraged -- at the media for reporting the origins of the tweet and, remarkably, at his campaign for taking it down. For Trump, this was a matter of principle -- and his chief principle is that "Trump" is never wrong. And so, bizarrely, he complained that the whole thing amounted to "racial profiling" by the media -- directed at Donald Trump.
In itself, this performance was nothing new. His entire primary campaign was one rally after another stuffed with ignorance, insults, lies, boasting, inflated poll numbers, and moronic bits of apocrypha snatched from God knows where. His policy statements were less positions than attitudes -- racism, nativism, xenophobia and a certain mindless machismo -- supplemented by an alarming obliviousness to known reality, and cemented by constant complaints that the media, his opponents, the GOP and pretty much the entire world was being grossly and inexplicably unfair to Donald Trump.
Trump's entire life has been a self-centered exercise in self-branding which blinds him to all else.
But somehow the panjandrums of the GOP told themselves this was all okay. It was only the primaries, after all, and the party been selling a milder version of this bilge to the lab rats for years. Surely, sobered by his anointment, Trump would listen to their advice.
And so, for them, his latest burst of mania was a bit like looking up from a belated reading of the DSM, scales falling from their eyes, to discover that their leader was not the unpredictable but canny operator they imagined, but flat-out nuts.
Which, given that he is in the grips of a profound personality disorder, is true enough. Trump's entire life has been a self-centered exercise in self-branding which blinds him to all else. Thus his campaign has been a hall of mirrors in which he sees nothing but himself. And he brings nothing to the quest -- not self-discipline, self-knowledge or any interest in learning.
He has not bothered to build a sufficient staff or fundraising network, or a ground game in key states. His egotism and inattention repel the advisors he needs most, including in a critical area- foreign policy. He shows no appreciation, or even awareness, of the awesome responsibilities imposed on America's president. In sum, his quest for power is a rolling disaster which but augurs the disasters which would follow should he attain it.
Potentially disastrous, as well, for Senate Republicans batting to maintain their majority. Trump's gift for repelling Hispanics, women and millennials is potentially lethal -- for Republicans in swing states, he is the political equivalent of the Zika virus. And just to make things tougher, Trump has not built a campaign infrastructure which can help struggling senators win down-ballot races.
One would think, then, that he would approach this endangered species with at least a trace of faux humility, as behooves a man with an exceptionally impressive 70 percent disapproval rating.
Not our Donald. In a calamitous meeting with Republican senators, he began by asking a prominent dissenter, Ben Sasse, if he preferred Hillary Clinton. This provoked Jeff Flake to introduce himself as "the other senator from Arizona -- the one who didn't get captured," adding that, to date, things like Trump's remarks about Hispanics had kept him from being supportive.
A lesser man might have attempted to mollify a senator concerned about an important voting bloc. Instead, Trump retorted that absent an attitude adjustment he would make sure that Flake lost his seat in November. This menacing threat was reduced to the merely astonishing by the fact that, apparently unknown to Trump, Flake is not up for reelection.
But the Idiot King did not reserve his bile for those present. In a particularly gratuitous attack, His Petulance labeled Mark Kirk of Illinois "dishonest" and "a loser." This did not go over well: if Kirk, indeed, turns out to be a loser, a principal reason will be Trump himself. Not that the man cares all that much. Asked by a reporter whether retaining a Senate majority meant anything to him, he answered, "Well, I'd like them to do that. But I don't mind being a free agent, either."
Having treated senators to a glimpse of a brave new era in congressional relations, Trump breezed on to a meeting with House Republicans. This, mercifully, was more pacific, if not altogether reassuring. Asked for his understanding of the powers of Congress under Article I, King Drumpf assured his minions that, as a "constitutionalist," "I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII" -- adding, with a monarch's grandeur, five nonexistent articles to the current seven.
Afterwards, His Superbity pronounced the meeting a howling success. But just to ensure that his new subjects expressed the appropriate appreciation, Trump gave them a script for the press: "It would be great if you could say we had an unbelievable meeting. 'Trump loves us. We love Trump." It's going to be so good. Okay? You gotta say great things."
As an expression of Trump's worldview, if not reality, it was perfect.
Of course, the essence of Trump is a vast internal emptiness, a void of curiosity, a penchant for lying, a lust for attention, an infinitesimal attention span, a stunning deficit of self-awareness and yet, paradoxically, a monomaniacal absorption with self. Combine this with the need to dominate, an indifference to consequence, the complete absence of conscience, and an awe-inspiring lack of empathy for other human beings, and you have a would-be satrap who stiffs small contractors, stints on charity, treats women like serfs, and scams the credulous, whose business career is larded with fraud, bullying and mendacity and whose mode of inspiration is to talk about himself.
This is the man with no soul against whom journalists have warned us -- most recently in Jane Mayer's New Yorker article about Tony Schwartz, the conscience-ridden former journalist who, by ghostwriting The Art Of The Deal, created the myth of Donald Trump. Depicting his internal wasteland -- not parsing tactics or handicapping horse races -- is political journalism as it should be. Over time such portraits take their toll -- as truth often does. And the truth is that a man so dangerous and so damaged should never become president.
Granted, the bar for Trump remains astoundingly low -- all too often, the media still treats his stray scripted moments of simulated sanity as revelatory of the statesman within. But as more reporters capture the real man, more voters take notice, including a cadre he desperately needs: the college educated whites who boosted Romney within shouting distance of Obama. For every blue-collar white entranced by his persona, there is a more prosperous Caucasoid Trump repels. Instead of redrawing the electoral map, he may well be sticking the pencil in his own ear.
Trump's promises are the economic equivalent of bread and circuses.
But this demographic divide also reflects a fault line within the GOP itself. To appeal to blue-collar workers, Trump once again rejected the free-market dogma of the party with an imperious flick of his hand. Not for him the "financial elite," "powerful corporations" and "Wall Street funders," who have "rigged the system for their benefit." Not for him the politicians -- and that means you, Paul Ryan -- who practice "economic surrender" to the forces of free-trade.
Not for Trump, indeed, is the global economy as we have come to know it.
No, the new King promises a very old deal -- a call for protective tariffs which harks back to the 18th century. Like any satrap without sense, Trump proposes to repeal reality, throwing the engines of globalism into reverse. How? Simple -- he will magically restore manufacturing jobs which began vanishing years ago by exhuming the protectionism of centuries ago. Let lesser men -- or women -- propose job retraining for workers dislocated by the new economy. King Donald will simply abolish the new economy.
Never mind that automation has transformed manufacturing: it's not American products which it disappeared -- it's American jobs. And so Trump's promises are the economic equivalent of bread and circuses.
Which poses a dilemma for the erstwhile GOP powers that be -- free-market politicians and their patrons, the donor class. Their modus operandi was to distract the dislocated by inventing imaginary scapegoats -- minorities, moochers and the government itself -- while preserving for themselves the enrichments of the marketplace. But their new leader has skewed the playbook, elevating minorities to arch-enemy status while deriding the free market as a scam.
The sans-culottes he has awakened are a restive bunch. Trump's blandishments may be fantastical, but their suffering is real. And the one thing they know for sure is that the apostles of "limited government" and "economic freedom" don't give a damn about them. Indeed these privileged grandees, in Trump's telling, are the very mustache-twirlers who "are moving our jobs, our wealth in our factories to Mexico and oversees."
Which, for the GOP, is a problem. For what Trump is proposing is to swap the politics of distraction for an outright fraud. When the bread is eaten and the circus disappears, his subjects will still be starving.
So what are party traditionalists to do? Some schemers fantasized about a coup. Others imagined that, in time, their dimwitted leader would revert to looking in the mirror while they replaced his "policies" with their own. One might call this Ryan's Hope.
Given His Vacancy's vacancy, this is always possible. But he may well have gelded Ryan and his honor guard, the free marketeers. For one thing, the blue-collar base has routed their program. And Ryan's own principality, the House of Representatives, is so riven by GOP factionalism that the speaker can't even pass a budget. One looks at Ryan and, in moments of sympathy, imagines Prince Charles.
His impotence is equally apparent on matters of race and ethnicity. Granted, the GOP has shown little concern with the struggles of minorities. But, several times now, Ryan has felt compelled to rebuke Trump for racist rhetoric like the Muslim ban and his denunciation of a "Mexican" judge.
Trump rolls merrily on, racial animus bubbling in his wake. Compelled at last by the murders in Dallas to issue a limpid statement of sympathy, Trump shortly reverted to type, declaring himself the "law and order candidate" and, with his keen historical and sociological insight, blaming America's racial divide on Clinton and our first black president. And why not? After all, racism, nativism and xenophobia is what got Trump this far. And so the GOP arrived in Cleveland as the party of bigots and bigotry.
Not to mention fundamentalism. Here, yet again, Trump's regal inattention to detail had consequences: a platform which sprang straight from the heads of the furious fundamentalists who -- rejected again and again by our society writ large -- came to Cleveland to stake their claim to the party's soul.
Left unsupervised by the Trump campaign, the GOP's cretinous creationists doubled down on denunciations of abortion, gay marriage and gay rights in general. The Bible, we discovered, is not merely a text for Christians but should be taught in public schools. Particularly ironic then, is the party's large-spirited definition of "religious freedom": the freedom to refuse service to gays.
One can but admire its principled stand against tolerance and diversity -- social or religious -- and its firm rejection of those enemies of society: women, minorities and the young. If only in the way one admires a herd of lemmings headed for Lake Erie.
In the meanwhile, tragedy struck again: the slaughter in Nice -- in Trump's world, a marketing opportunity. He responded with his usual gaseous bluster, calling for a congressional "declaration of war" against ISIS while offering no actual solutions to the hydra-headed problem of transnational terrorism. And so one was grateful for a moment of comic relief -- the King's audition of crown princes or, before she fled in horror, a princess.
The most prominent possibilities regarded this prospect less as a glass slipper than a political cement shoe, rooting them to the bottom of the lake as they expelled their last air bubble. They sought dry land in droves: John Kasich, Rob Portman, Scott Walker, Kelly Ayotte, Nikki Haley, Brian Sandoval, Susanna Martinez and pretty much anyone else with hopes of a better life.
Introducing Pence, Trump spoke glowingly and at length about... himself.
Lesser lights endured the seriocomic, compelled to audition for the king by praising him to gatherings of subjects and, as a reward, to flock to Indianapolis to seek the blessing of his kids. Fresh from his ordeal, the erstwhile establishment choice, Bob Corker, declared that he was otherwise employed. Joni Ernst too declared her fondness for the Senate, though her prior experience as an Iowa farm girl -- spent neutering pigs -- seemed ideal for any woman forced to work under Donald Trump. The four stragglers who remained were a perfect reflection of the party's plight -- second-tier white guys with nothing to lose.
The two most gifted were, politically, extinct volcanoes: Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. The third, Jeff Sessions, was qualified only by that which was utterly disqualifying -- the actual belief that Trump should be president. And the fourth, Mike Pence -- faced with a potentially career-ending loss for reelection as governor of Indiana -- seemed to view becoming Trump's lackey as the political equivalent of the witness protection program.
True to character, Trump treated his quartet of bobbleheads with the whimsy of a monarch and the empathy of a puppeteer. Invoking the tragedy in Nice as a pretext, he kept his prospects dangling by canceling his stated announcement date of 11 a.m. on Friday, as the rumored selection, Pence, flew to New York in anticipation of a joint press conference, only to be left twisting in the ever-shifting winds of King Donald's public musings. In this messy interregnum, conflicting rumors issued from inside the campaign; Gingrich and Christie publicly angled for the slot; and Pence faced a legal deadline of noon on Friday to withdraw his candidacy for governor.
As hours passed, decorum dissolved, replaced by a dispiriting glimpse of palace intrigue in the court of an idiot king. Trump took to the airwaves to deny choosing anyone; Gingrich launched a scene-stealing denunciation of Muslims; and Pence silently suffered the stature-shrinking role of puppet in waiting. Angry at the leaks from within naming Pence as his choice, Trump began looking for a way out.
Filled with hope and desperation, both Gingrich and Christie pleaded with the monarch for his favor. Reports buzzed that Trump regarded Pence as a drag on his "brand," another tired iteration of the also-rans he had kicked around in the primaries. But Pence was the choice of party regulars because he was precisely that -- just like they are. And so the professionals surrounding Trump were reduced to begging for Pence's life as if it were their own.
Then, abruptly, Trump popped his announcement -- in a tweet. Bypassing the risky personae of Gingrich and Christie, he at last anointed the humdrum but compliant Pence, a standard-issue evangelical conservative with all the fascination of a tire leak.
Pence's principal distinction is his stalwart opposition to abortion and gay rights in any form, most recently as champion of Indiana's anti-gay "religious freedom" statute. But while Pence buys Trump nothing outside the airless antechamber of the right -- save, of course, the potential for further alienating young people, women and social moderates -- the Sun King can be confident in the infinity of his gratitude. Not to mention his capacity for enduring all the humiliations to come.
Their strained and tepid debut as a ticket augured their relationship. There was zero electricity in the room or chemistry between the candidates, and Trump looked like he had just committed an unnatural act -- taking advice.
Introducing Pence, Trump spoke glowingly and at length about... himself. "Back to Mike Pence," he said at long last, then forgot Pence altogether. After several minutes of this a certain fascination settled in -- how often, one wondered, would references to Pence interrupt Trump's song of self. Rarely, it turned out.
Finally, he summoned Pence, treating America to a middling Republican cheerleader, speaking as though to persuade a crowd of Rotarians that Trump was, contrary to the evidence of their senses, one of them yet also their salvation. His hit parade of provincial pieties -- God, country, family, freedom, Reagan, and the diabolical threat of Hillary Clinton -- culminated in a church organ recitation of his Majesty's mythic virtues. With enough huffing and puffing, one thought, Pence might inflate himself sufficiently to resemble the last vice president from Indiana - Dan Quayle. Nostalgia did not ensue.
As for the coronation in Cleveland it, too, boasts those special touches worthy of a rump regime in Ruritania. One particularly charming feature may turn out to be armed Republicans -- a redundant phrase, perhaps -- brandishing assault weapons outside the convention hall to dramatize their support for an armed America. Some stalwart delegates, thwarted by the Secret Service in their desire for a convention bristling with handguns, plan on packing heat at satellite events. As one delegate explained, "I think its part of Republican values, American values, to be responsible for our own safety."
Good luck with that. Under Ohio's open carry law passed by Republican legislators, other upstanding Americans are also free to carry weapons outside the hall. Less enthusiastic are the Cleveland police, hoping not to be caught in the crossfire.
Should they make it inside, those delegates willing to brave the combat zone unarmed could anticipate a no doubt tasteful exploration of Bill Clinton's sex life. Further intellectual sustenance is being provided by Rudy Giuliani; practitioners of mixed martial arts; several border patrol agents; The Donald's third wife; and all four of Trump's kids.
This Z-list of luminaries is intended to compensate for the absence of the last two Republican presidents; the two prior presidential nominees; the entire Bush family; a brace of Republican senators whose alternate plans include getting reelected; the governor of the host state, John Kasich; and pretty much every GOP officeholder who ran against Trump save for the ever-charming Ted Cruz. The chief difference between purgatory and four nights in the court of King Donald is that the latter may feel like forever.
And so they have bunkered down in Cleveland, a once great party which now stands for little but racism, fundamentalism and AK-47s...
But day one was merely what this year has taught us to expect. As demonstrators gathered outside the convention hall, Trump blamed the murder of three Baton Rouge police officers on Barack Obama's "lack of leadership." And on Monday night we learned from various hectoring speakers that the poisons of terrorism, race and racial violence -- fed, in their telling, by a black man and a woman, Obama and Clinton -- will vanish if we but license Donald Trump to "make America safe again."
But that was not all. Not content with victory, Trump's campaign manager picked a pointless fight with John Kasich. Clumsily if briskly, Trump's housekarls put down a rebellion on the floor, an unwelcome reminder of discontent in the realm. Then a cadre of brave or emotionally wounded men and women appeared to pillory Clinton -- one, the mother of an American who died in Benghazi, to accuse her of lying and worse -- while certifying the strength and patriotism of a man who had pretzeled himself to avoid military service.
Good enough for a night's work, one would think. But though a would-be nominee has never spoken before his actual nomination, Trump could not deny his followers the balm of his presence. And so The Donald appeared from a cloud of blue smoke to introduce his wife -- for a brief, crazy moment, the imagination struggled to substitute Mitt and Ann Romney before accepting that the GOP as we knew it was, indeed, smoldering embers in a dumpster fire.
To the surprise of those who have never read from a script, Melania affirmed that Drumpf is every inch the king we never knew him to be -- a caring friend to women and minorities, the spirit of American inclusiveness. Even by the standards of conventions this was, to say the least, a bold reinvention.
But though Mrs. Trump delivered it well, her text was oddly impersonal, without a trace of emotion or anecdote to attach it to the man she lives with. No accident, it turns out -- whoever wrote her speech appeared to have plagiarized whole chunks from the 2008 convention speech delivered by, of all people, Michelle Obama. Thus the evening ended on a bizarre if not disastrous note, evoking the hollow panoply of a craven court, assembled to clothe its naked Emperor's ravenous ego in empty praise and cynical falsehoods designed to gull the masses.
And so they have bunkered down in Cleveland, a once great party which now stands for little but racism, fundamentalism and AK-47s, led by a bombastic narcissist with no program but self. Leaving the rest of us with nothing but the hope that, like lemmings, they will save the country by drowning in November.