The 5 Stages Of White House Grief

A speculative look at Donald Trump’s psychological prison.

When history looks back on President Donald Trump’s latest week ― the “Seven Days In May” that ran from his firing of James Comey to the plethora of self-inflicted scandals and bombshell news developments that came after ― there is going to be much rejoicing, if for no other reason than relief that we survived it. This is what passes for unbridled optimism these days.

But this brief period of history has been, if nothing else, quintessential Trump. If the media deserved to don the sackcloth and ashes after badly botching our predictions of the outcome of the 2016 election, we’ve all found our salvation in the fact that Trump’s presidency is going exactly the way we predicted ― incompetence, followed by chaos, followed by an incompetent response to that chaos. The only person Donald Trump’s actions have blindsided at this point is the president himself.

What we have now is a White House in which the Kübler-Ross stages of grieving have combined with the Dunning-Kruger effect ― in which incompetent people come to believe they are actually great masters ― to create a new psychological prison in which disorder piles on disorder, nothing ever gets resolved, yet no one seems to want to escape from its confines.

Stage One: “This is fine!”

It wouldn’t be proper to suggest that Trump experiences “denial.” Denial, after all, is just our cheap and dirty brain-chemical defense against our own self-awareness, something Trump lacks. While extant reports suggest that Trump’s staffers were gearing up for a rough fight over Comey’s firing ― once they were briefed that it had happened, anyway ― it seems that Trump thought his decision was something of a political master stroke. His two-dimensional view of the political landscape led him to believe that Democrats, who’d so recently had cause to criticize Comey, would welcome his departure.

It didn’t work out that way! Turns out, Democratic lawmakers were actually aggrieved to learn that Trump had fired the person who was investigating him. At this point, most people in Trump’s situation might think, “Having further inflamed everyone’s sense of Russia-noia, I’d better mitigate the situation by not drawing further attention to it.” But no! Trump makes a big point of meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the next day. There, he shares highly classified intelligence with them. Hey, no big deal, right?

Stage Two: “Somebody better fix this!”

Here, at Kübler-Ross’s anger stage, anger is in fact manifesting. At this point, an irate Trump orders his small army of aides-de-camp into battle to mop up whatever mess has been created.

This is a tricky task. In the first place, those on the cleanup crew have to figure out what, exactly, happened. More importantly, their corrective mission cannot include any advice or constructive criticism directed at the president, because he views those things as egregious personal attacks. And the final challenge they face is the knowledge that, sooner or later, Trump is going to send out some impertinent tweets.

No one, anywhere in this chain of command, is empowered to say something like, “Don’t tweet anything until this dies down.” Worse, everyone in this chain of command is afraid of losing their job, or being left holding the bag. So, while they’re trying to mop up the effluvia of another dumb Trump decision, they’re on the phone with reporters, diming each other out.

Eventually, however, some thin but acceptable bulwark is constructed to defend the president.

Stage Three: “Fuck it, I’ve got this.”

And then, in a perversion of the “bargaining” stage, the president dynamites the bulwark! This is how it always goes:

It’s not hard to guess at why this happens. Trump’s team does what they can to mitigate the president’s problems, but because the story never ends with every cable news anchor intoning, “I get it now, Trump is wise and just. Hail Trump, our divine savior,” then it’s not good enough for the president, who is regularly driven crazy by negative coverage of his presidency.

Trump doesn’t understand that constantly urging his aides to mount their best defense, only to watch as the president levels it in the manner of Godzilla stomping through Tokyo, has the knock-on effect of eroding what little credibility his defenders have. At this point, why even listen to White House spokespersons and their spin? Everyone knows that Trump, at some point in the near future, is just going to undercut it with his own daft explanations.

He could always just not do many of the things that lead to negative coverage. As New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore noted, Trump had the opportunity to spin the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation into something of a win. And initially, Trump greeted the news in a fairly sober manner. He told his beleaguered team, “This is an opportunity to let them do their work so that we can do ours.” It was reported that Trump “didn’t yell or scream.” You read that correctly! Trump made a “pivot” to “not screaming.”

It didn’t last: Hours later, he was back on Twitter, a-froth with rage.

Stage Four: “It’s all your fault!”

And because no one is empowered to just tell this man-child “no,” they are met with a fresh wave of blame each time the train doesn’t get back on the rails.

For example, it becomes the communications team’s fault for not hitting on the right message to make “firing the guy investigating the White House for colluding with the Russians and then meeting with those Russians and, oh hey, did I mention revealing classified information to those Russians and also, don’t look now, but I’m going to blackmail the guy I fired in a tweet and suggest that ‘tapes’ of our conversations exist ― by the way I’m not going to give you a means of answering the inevitable questions that will arise about the alleged existence of these tapes ― oh look, there’s another rake, I have to run and step on it WHEEEEEEEEEE” look intelligible.

And here, I’m afraid, we have to shift the focus to those staffers who are on the receiving end of this abuse, and truly feeling the “depression” stage of the cycle. What are you people doing? As New York magazine’s Margaret Hartmann points out, the media keeps depicting Trump’s White House staff as “hostages,” which, to Hartmann, “seemed a bit odd, since Trump staffers are adults who chose to work in the administration of a man who hosted a reality-TV show about firing people, and are free to leave at any time.”

Caught between their extreme dislike of their job and their terror that they might be fired at any time, Trump’s staffers are a weird cargo cult, forever gaslighting themselves in the name of surviving a brutal game with no rewards at the end for those who make it that far.

Stage Five: “The Airing of Grievances.”

Did you think this was going to end with “acceptance?” You fool. There will never be “acceptance.” No, this is the point at which Donald Trump goes to the Coast Guard Academy, to tell new graduates that as they leave their academy life behind and venture into the real world, they’ll need to be true to an important lesson ― namely, that Donald Trump is the most mistreated politician in the history of the world.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Trump’s most ardent critics experience a whiplash cycle of their own. But it’s much less complex:

1. Each new incident gives birth to the belief that this is going to be the thing that finally takes Trump down.

2. And then, inevitably, he survives.

And so, for the rest of us, daylight fades, we succumb to slumber, and hours later we awake and reach for the nearest device to gawk at whatever dreadful news notifications have appeared on our magic murder mirrors overnight. Shaken, we arise to greet a new day, trapped together on this swiftly spinning planet. This is our life now.


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.