The Fateful August Of Donald J. Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a round table with the Republican Leadership Initiative at Trump T
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a round table with the Republican Leadership Initiative at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

In the month since the conventions, the jittery surface of the 24-hour news cycle has been roiled by crosscurrents, its avatars trumpeting each new event as more dramatic than the last. But beneath there is a sickly stillness of a candidacy mired in the swampland of Donald Trump's own mind, creating a numbing ennui seeping through the electorate like encephalitis in slow motion. Too many Americans have realized who he is.

The contrast between the dystopia of Cleveland -- four midnights in America -- and the competence of Philadelphia left him trailing badly. But something worse had happened to Trump himself: instead of provoking excitement, he was inducing fear and stupefaction.

True, his lies come so quickly that none has meaning in itself. But the larger meaning comes through -- Trump's every statement has no meaning but Trump himself. To call him a liar is to assume deliberation in a man who cares nothing about the words he speaks beyond whether they serve him in the moment. Such people are not merely frightening -- they are exhausting.

With 10 weeks to go, he seems no more thoughtful or capable then he did during the primaries, when all he had to do was inflame a plurality of inflammable Republicans. The only difference is that, fearful of defeat, he reads more often from a Teleprompter, proving nothing but that he has the basic literacy to recite the simplistic sentences others write for him. Beneath his fantastical promises, he still has no coherent vision of America.

In short, Trump has no program but Trump. He may have changed his management team, but he cannot change himself.

The larger audience of the general electorate is on to this, and it worries them. They sense that the real man -- the only man Trump values -- resides in his spontaneous utterances. And those betray the stunted soul who lives within Trump 3.0.


In short, Trump has no program but Trump. He may have changed his management team, but he cannot change himself.

That is why his attack on the Khan family -- a far more egregious and persistent lapse than Mitt Romney's 47% moment -- lingers in the mind. His stunning lack of empathy, particularly for Mrs. Khan, was bad enough. Add lack of judgment -- a normal man would not disparage the parents of a dead American soldier. And, even worse, throw in his whiny claim that he was "viciously attacked."

He kept after this for four days, asserting on his own behalf that his pursuit of billions "involved a lot of sacrifices" -- though not, perhaps, quite as wounding as losing a son or, even more precious, his own life. But we swiftly learned that Trump was never at risk of this, having secured a medical deferment during Vietnam -- a safe harbor he falsely attributed to a high lottery number. Another man might have maintained a graceful silence.

But then another man would not try to recover his footing by accepting a Purple Heart from a veteran, then braying that this was a "much easier" way of acquiring one than actually getting wounded in the service of his country.

That's the thing. The principal truth emanating from Trump's mouth is the depressing revelation of Trump's character.

As with all the months before, August was replete with such defining moments. The difference is that more Americans are watching Trump more closely. And what they see disqualifies him -- not just as a leader, but as a man.

Instead of reaching out to Republican officeholders worried about his candidacy, he disparaged them. But this was as nothing to the several days he spent insisting that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the "founders" of ISIS, praising himself as a "truth teller" before retreating, under pressure, to the claim that he was merely being "sarcastic." Whatever he was being, it was not presidential.

Asked about sexual harassment, he opined that should his own daughter be victimized, "I would like to think she would find another career or find another company..." Startling -- until one remembered that Trump defended Roger Ailes against charges of serial harassment worthy of Bill Cosby, questioning the motives of some of Ailes's accusers.

But this is standard fare, for Trump's search for the bottom is bottomless. Having begun the month by attacking the Khans, he ended it by exploiting the separation of Hillary Clinton's aide, Huma Abedin, from the troubled Anthony Weiner -- suggesting that Weiner had access to classified information from the State Department. His grounds? There are none. For Trump, gratuitous cruelty to others is just another opportunity to get the attention he craves.

This ugly verbal incontinence has a way of turning sinister. Hence his suggestion that "the Second Amendment people" could find a way to prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing judges they don't like -- a casual recycling of the violent right-wing trope that "Second Amendment remedies" may be needed to address some imaginary federal overreach.

Thus, too, the rancid undertone of his commentary on race, religion or ethnicity. Not to mention an ingredient which, in its own way, is equally disturbing -- the sense that his statements in any given moment, while revealing his inherent bigotry and irresponsibility, stem from nothing deeper than the pursuit of personal advantage.

Speaking in Maine, he offended locals of all races by groundlessly portraying peaceful Somali immigrants to the area as sources of crime and potential terrorism. Having used every possible avenue to stoke fear of illegal Mexican immigrants, he briefly extended a supposed olive branch: after polling a town hall audience on how to treat them -- an appalling exercise in itself -- he implied that maybe, after all, he would not empower a deportation force to kick out all 11 million. 24 hours later he reversed himself in a near incoherent babble to Anderson Cooper, the essence of which was that his position had not changed at all. People noticed.

Ever more, his bewildering blizzards of words on all subjects have exposed the ignorance and vacuity at his core, creating a sense among voters that there is nobody home. Even his purported outreach to African-Americans -- delivered to a crowd of white folks in an obvious effort to mollify white suburbanites -- was riddled with condescension and inaccuracy and suffused with racial stereotyping: "You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?"

One can start with any hope of a responsible dialogue about race. Trump"s "alt-right" view of African-Americans -- so effectively skewered by Hillary Clinton -- decamps from reality. By any historic measure our cities are safer. Despite the stubborn scourge of our racial history, more black Americans are doing better, and few recognize their communities -- however grave their difficulties -- in the bleak "war zones" that Trump describes. To be sure, the devastating portrait he paints is about something real: not the lives of black people, but about how Donald Trump has always seen black people.

To the extent that he sees them -- or anyone else but himself -- at all. Over the weekend, the cousin of NBA star Dwayne Wade was randomly killed in Chicago by gunfire while walking her baby. Trump responded with a particularly odious tweet: "Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP " -- neatly exemplifying his insensitivity to personal tragedy and to black Americans as a whole.

Among increasing numbers of Americans, the overall effect is boredom and fatigue -- akin to listening to a cretinous uncle, deep in his cups as he spoils Thanksgiving dinner, spouting ignorant racial theories made even more dispiriting by the certainty that he shares them with his friends. All that jolts one out of stultitude is that Trump wants his friends to make him president.

trump purple heart

Equally noxious is his appeal to racism as a means of delegitimizing the general election in advance. "I'm telling you," Trump forecasts, "November 8 we'd better be careful because that election is going to be rigged." Though this line has a long history in the authoritarian playbook, its most recent antecedent is Republican voter suppression laws targeting minorities and the poor, rationalized as a shield against electoral fraud which is statistically nonexistent.

To Trump's noisy displeasure, courts across the country are striking down these laws as unwarranted and unconstitutional. So Trump has escalated by proposing voter suppression vigilante-style: encouraging squads of supporters to show up at polling places to identify suspect voters. One need not be a cynic to appreciate that the means of identification will involve, to put it gently, pigmentation.

The most immediate effect of this is likely to be race-based violence and intimidation. But just as corrosive is Trump's cynical effort to excuse defeat by eroding confidence in our electoral process -- in this case, because "the other" has stolen the election from his followers in collusion with government in key states. This is classic Trump, a cocktail of racism, paranoia and social grievance, spiked with his own moral bankruptcy. The residue will resemble the birther movement in its damage to our societal glue -- the feverish belief among a subset of Americans that Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, is not a legitimate president.

But there are conspirators enough to satisfy anyone with a grudge. Trump tells us that "if the media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning in the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20 percent." It is, indeed unfair for journalists to quote him. And so, ever presidential, he tweets gossip about the romantic relationship of two of his perceived enemies -- regulars on Morning Joe. Every time one's nausea passes, Trump revives it.

Even the world of science is suspect and corrupt. Vaccines cause autism -- despite all evidence to the contrary. Global warming is a fiction created by the Chinese to sandbag our coal and petroleum industries. And, no kidding, regulations to protect the ozone layer diminish the quality of his hairspray. This might be funny save that one function of a president is -- or should be -- to nurture science which enhances and saves lives. Once again, Trump spreads ignorance to advance his favorite and only cause -- himself.

A particularly disturbing compound of lies, stupidity, self-delusion and self-interest fuels Trump's vacuous commentary on Vladimir Putin. Start with the foundational falsehood: Trump's stunning claim in 2014 that "I was in Moscow recently and I spoke, indirectly and directly, with President Putin, who could not have been nicer." Or his assertion in a November, 2015 GOP debate that "I got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on '60 Minutes.'"

Six-year-olds are allowed to conjure imaginary friends. But not presidential candidates. It is beyond dispute -- as Trump has now been forced to admit -- that he and Putin have never met or even spoken. Even more bizarre is that Trump seems to imagine that the rest of us share his incapacity to separate fiction from reality -- and thus that no one would notice, for example, that 60 Minutes taped its interviews with Trump in New York and Putin in Moscow.

But his obsession with Putin transcends the merely fantastical, raising serious questions about our national security. He publicly encouraged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's email. And, quite clearly, he is the intended beneficiary of hacking against the Democratic National Committee performed, experts believe, by Russian intelligence, resulting in emails siphoned through Wikileaks to damage Clinton's campaign. One must wonder why Putin takes such an apparent interest in making Trump our commander-in-chief.

Could it be, just maybe, that this serves Putin's interests?

Trump's ignorance surely does. Questioned by George Stephanopoulos as to why the GOP platform softened its stance on defending the Ukraine against Russian aggression, Trump said of Putin, "He's not going into Ukraine, okay, just so you understand."

Astonished, Stephanopoulos rejoined, "Well, he's already there, isn't he?", compelling a clearly mystified Trump to fudge with, "Okay, well, he's there in a certain way..." That certain way, as any Ukrainian could tell him, includes the annexation of Crimea and insinuation of Russian troops and military hardware into that part of the country which remains.

But not to worry, Trump said -- "From what I've heard [the Crimeans] would rather be with Russia than where they were." The origins of this insight went unmentioned, though one possible source is his erstwhile campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who has raked in millions advising a pro-Russian autocrat who was formerly president of the Ukraine. Elsewhere, to Putin's larger benefit, Trump has declared NATO to be "obsolete," and questioned the principle that an attack on one member state is an attack on all.

Indeed, Trump's partiality for Putin partakes of callousness -- and not just toward Russia's external victims. He described Putin to Joe Scarborough as a "leader, unlike what we have in this country," fusing fondness for his imaginary friend Vladimir with an unseemly taste for authoritarianism. When Scarborough countered that Putin "kills journalists that don't agree with him," Trump blithely responded, "Well, I think our country does a lot of killing also, Joe."

Of journalists? Such moral and intellectual vacancy is a boon to cold-blooded men like Vladimir Putin.


This is classic Trump, a cocktail of racism, paranoia and social grievance, spiked with his own moral bankruptcy.

But perhaps, by pandering to Putin, Donald Trump is also looking out for himself. I have it on good authority that Trump can no longer get financing from American banks. There is no doubt that, under Putin's auspices, he could do much better in Russia -- if he has not done so already. Which may be one reason, among many, to conceal his tax returns.

Whatever the case, highly placed Russian officials have openly welcomed the prospect of a President Trump. No mystery here -- if anyone knows how to exploit ignorance and egotism, it is surely Vladimir Putin. Which is why Michael Morell, a former acting director of the CIA, has characterized Trump as an unwitting agent of Russia.

Given the cacophony surrounding Trump, his affinity for Putin has stolen but imperfectly into the national consciousness. Still, it is already seeding doubt. And August is the month when more Americans became fearful of Trump as commander-in-chief.

Nowhere is presidential latitude broader, and the risks greater, than in the conduct of foreign policy and the exercise of military power. The opportunities to take ill-advised and unilateral actions are legion -- abandoning allies, scrapping treaties and trade deals, arbitrarily barring all immigration from friendly European countries and, of course, lighting the powder keg of the Middle East. The latter threat, at least, is something that Americans get. But nothing focuses our collective mind like the specter of nuclear war.

Thus it is striking that the prospect of President Trump has provoked a broad discussion of the chief executive's power to go nuclear. The alarming consensus is articulated by nuclear expert Franklin C. Miller: "The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons." Perhaps the most effective ad run by the Clinton campaign in August addresses the danger of Trump's stubby fingers on our nuclear codes. And given his behavior -- this month, and every month -- more Americans are recoiling from the thought.

Just as, more and more, ever more Americans are disturbed by the ugliness Trump is stirring among his followers, and fear what might transpire should, as president, his narcissism morph into authoritarian behavior.

They notice that his "solutions" are simplistic -- and frequently divisive. They notice that his idea of "winning" involves degrading all who displease him. They notice his indifference to fact, and his addiction to conspiracy theories. They notice his appeal to anger and fear. They notice his reflexive recourse to images of violence. And they notice, above all, that his hard-core supporters are aroused by these traits.

Many other Americans are fearful or angry, and still more are worried about where we are headed. But they are worried, as well, about the spirit a President Trump might unleash in the land. Whatever their misgivings about the present, or the leadership of Hillary Clinton, they are unwilling to risk electing Donald Trump.

Or to live with his image in their living rooms. More and more voters notice his indifference to the people around him, or even to the words he is given to read from a Teleprompter. They notice a simple lack of interest in anyone other than himself. They notice that Trump evaluates others -- for good or ill -- based solely on whether they flatter him. They notice, in short, that Trump lacks the humanizing attributes of a normal human being.

That is lethal. Because August is the month when concern about Trump's mental state went mainstream. For the first time in recent memory, a candidate's pattern of behavior -- sustained for 14 months now -- made his psychological health the subject of serious and considered public discussion.

That is why -- merely as one small example -- his continued railing against the Khan family became so unsettling. It was not merely his lack of empathy. It was that he could not let it go -- and lacked even the self-control to pretend to let it go. This is not the psyche of a man who should be president.

For a good while, those of us who said so were a distinct minority of commentators, running afoul of the understandable journalistic reluctance to speak to a candidate's emotional stability. For many, this was a matter of ethics. But, at last, Trump's behavior swept all that away.

And so in August, in varying ways, some of our most prominent pundits across the ideological spectrum expressed fears about Trump's mental fitness to be president: David Brooks, Eugene Robinson, Charles Krauthammer, Peggy Noonan, Joe Scarborough and Robert Kagan. And, with annihilating thoroughness, Keith Olbermann spelled out in Vanity Fair how perfectly Trump's otherwise inexplicable conduct matches up with the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

Americans as a whole do not keep the DSM at their fingertips. But they do have instincts which, unlike Trump's, stem from their experience in noticing other human beings. August was the month that a critical mass of Americans noticed that Donald Trump notices nothing but himself.

Fateful.