We’ve all heard the jokes.
On Saturday Night Live. On Key & Peele. On the late-night shows.
Trump doesn’t even want the job!
But what if it’s true? How would that change our expectations for the behavior of Trump and his subordinates? Would there be any reason left for us to assume they’ll conform to social norms, if in fact they intend to be gone from the political scene—undoubtedly, much enriched and prepped for future riches—in four years?
What if the man who never expected to win never expects to win—or even run—ever again? What if the reason Mr. Trump so often cites his own nobility in giving up his business interests is that he doesn’t intend to do so for very long? Or, given recent reporting, at all? He’s already said that he won’t divest from his business while president, and now, according to Washington Post reporting, there’s no indication he’s even started the process of distancing himself from them—a process he himself announced with great fanfare over a week ago. Now that Trump’s repeated insistence that he’ll release his tax returns post-audit has been revealed as a lie, why shouldn’t we expect the same of a business divestment plan announced over a stack of blank papers?
We’ve long assumed that politicians won’t lie to us—at least, not too much—or break with longstanding norms of decorum (again, not too much) because doing so would (a) harm their political party irreparably, (b) destroy any shot they ever had for re-election, and (c) tarnish their personal reputation beyond salvaging.
Many Trump critics have joked that he’s a narcissist or even a sociopath, and therefore abnormal in all his calculations. But again, what if the jokes have more than a kernel of truth to them? Does a party-hopping narcissist who campaigned openly against “his own” party care what happens to that party after he’s left office, or even while he’s still there? Would a man for whom the presidency was merely another status achievement balk at simply stepping down from the job after four years, either because he feared losing or because he felt he’d proven all he had to by “winning” just once? Can a sociopath feel the pain of a reputation damaged beyond repair?
Whether you voted for Trump or against him, and whether you support him now or do not, you’ll probably agree that this is not a man incapable of framing a defeat as a win, and this is not a man who cares so much about what people say of him that he’s willing to modify his behavior to please. Nor is this a man who’d ever place party loyalty over the economic welfare of him and his family. In other words, there’s no obvious reason for Trump to need to secure or care about securing another term as president, and we in the media should start tailoring our assessments of Trump’s behavior—and that of his chief subordinates—with that possibility in mind.
Media coverage of Sean Spicer’s dishonest harangue of the White House press corps, and subsequent coverage of Kellyanne Conway’s Orwellian citation of “alternative facts,” both presumed that Spicer and Conway (a) have a sense of shame themselves, and (b) can be cowed into conformance with social norms through the implicit threat of not winning the mid-term elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020. The first thesis must be discarded in view of their repeated public behaviors, but what if the latter is a faulty assumption as well?
It seems a political sacrilege, but this sort of thinking is certainly not unheard of in the celebrity culture from which Mr. Trump himself hails. Have you seen the movie Dave, with Kevin Kline? Or Bulworth, with Warren Beatty? The Hollywood model for a presidency is a one-term gig with popcorn-munching theatrics aplenty and no sequel. Sound familiar? It’s the film the whole world is watching right now.
The question is, then, if basic decorum is out the window—because a re-election campaign is more or less out the window, and Trump can be expected to, with ostentatious grace, make way for his veep Mike Pence—what else will go by the wayside? What other pseudo-anarchic flouting of convention would make for good television? Cutting Medicare? Bombing North Korea? Spending most of one’s presidency on social media? Letting billionaire subordinates in the Cabinet make decisions previously (and properly) deemed presidential? Spending time and resources enriching oneself and one’s friends to the detriment of the nation? Treasonous liaisons with Vladimir Putin and Russia? Dalliances with anti-Semitic rhetoric? An end to press conferences and a “running war” with the media? A presidency marked by the high drama of personal vendettas being aired in public, but virtually no attention to governance or even the bare accoutrements of responsible, mature leadership?
You get the picture.
The national media long ago prepared itself temperamentally and professionally for this being a one-term president; now, a much more difficult pivot is necessary: accepting that the man with the highest office on Earth has the very same idea in mind.
The media, American voters, and humans around the world should be prepared for what follows when not only shame goes out the window but also the calculating shamelessness that comes—perhaps, we see now, mercifully—when a politician has long-term political ambitions.
Seth Abramson is an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire and the author of six books, most recently Golden Age (BlazeVOX, 2017).