Donald Trump’s personal pathologies aside, it has become obvious that the worst possible leader of a self-styled democracy is the patriarch of an enormous family business, especially one that likes to slap its name in huge gold letters on every item, whether skyscraper or towel – and to whom people inexplicably pay money to paste the name on their own wares. A Trump employee is loyal to Mr Trump, as he’s always called, and one disagrees with the boss man, however mildly, at considerable risk. A federal employee, below the top-level appointments, is loyal to the government. A patriarch rules by fiat; a president has to deal with all those annoying existing laws and the courts that enforce them, agencies full of hundreds of thousands of recalcitrant bureaucrats, know-it-all pundits in the media, a loudmouth opposition party, and contentious factions within his own party. Everyone has an opinion.
It’s no surprise, then, that Trump has done almost nothing as president, other than tweeting his rage at TV comedy shows, intelligence agencies, movie stars and department stores that drop his daughter’s fashion accessories. He has made a spectacle of signing ‘executive orders’ that are more like glossy prospectuses for a golf resort he hopes to build. They announce that he is going to fight drug cartels, reduce crime, end violence against the police, eliminate Isis, deregulate business, repeal Obamacare, build the wall and deport the undocumented, bulk up the bulky military, renegotiate trade agreements, rebuild the infrastructure, ‘enforce all federal laws’ and so on. The orders are either platitudes or vague proposals that are oblivious to their dependency on the legislative branch to pass the laws and raise the money. His one major concrete order, banning Muslim immigrants and visitors – which he reportedly didn’t bother to read – was quickly overthrown by the courts.
The first act of the newly empowered Congress on its first day was to virtually eliminate its ethics oversight committee, but this was withdrawn after the members were surprised by public outrage. Otherwise, the Senate has been immobilised trying to approve Trump’s bizarre collection of unvetted and unqualified or inappropriate crackpots and zillionaires for cabinet and other positions. And the House, after seven years and sixty votes to repeal Obamacare, is still clueless about replacing it, and is shocked that 20 million people appear to be unhappy about losing their health insurance. Existing trade agreements would take years to redo or undo (and Republicans are free-traders). Crime has been dropping for 45 years, regardless of who is president. It’s doubtful the Republican paragons of austerity will want to spend $20 billion on a new border wall, when they’ve already built 700 miles of barriers, let alone Trump’s vaunted trillion dollars on infrastructure – especially when revenue will shrink after the inevitable tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
Two things are certain about Trump: He sees the presidency primarily as a way to expand the Trump brand (and make a little money on the side) and he is in way over his head. An iconic moment of the first weeks was Trump’s dinner for the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, not at the White House, as is customary, but at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago (where the annual membership fee has just doubled to $200,000). Interrupted by news of a North Korean missile launch, Trump chose to display his presidential power to the wowed and tweeting club regulars by holding an emergency security meeting at the restaurant table. Aides used their cell phones as flashlights to read classified documents while waiters served entrees over the papers. One member even posted a selfie (‘Wow!’) with, he wrote, ‘Rick’, the guy who follows the president with the ‘football’ – the briefcase carrying the nuclear codes. Luckily, the missile landed harmlessly in the ocean before dessert. It would have been unfortunate to lose Alaska with the Baked Alaska.
It’s become a cliche to refer to the white nationalist fanatic Steve Bannon as ‘President Bannon’, but one suspects his days are numbered. Trump can’t stand to be upstaged. Michael Flynn – who was fired by Obama as director of national intelligence for his abrasive management style and propensity for what his staff called ‘Flynn facts’, now known in Trumpworld as ‘alternative facts’, and who led the ‘lock her up!’ chants at the Republican convention – was already on his way out two weeks ago, when, in the meeting with Theresa May, he wouldn’t stop talking. It was said that Mr Trump was not pleased. Bannon is far too visible as the unshaven devil whispering in Trump’s ear, and surely Jared Kushner, the trusted son-in-law and Orthodox Jew – whom Trump expects to broker peace in Israel-Palestine – is merely biding his time until the notoriously anti-Semitic Bannon is sent back to his Aryan media headquarters.
The tortoise in this race to the abyss is Vice President Mike Pence, patiently waiting for his ascendancy to the presidency, either in this term, if Trump flames out, or in the 2020 elections. Meanwhile, he is quietly filling administrative posts with like-minded evangelical theocrats who want to eliminate abortion and LGBT rights, give political power to the churches, and have the government pay for Christian schools – along with enacting the usual benefits for the rich and the (very Christian) drastic cuts in programmes that help the poor. In his way, the pleasant-looking and soft-spoken Pence is scarier than the blubbery and blustering Trump. Mr Nice Guy, after all, has the kind of mind that could invent, as he did while governor of Indiana, a law that women who have abortions must pay for a funeral for the fetus.
Like all scandals, this week’s revelations merely add concrete details to what was already intuited: the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russian intelligence to affect the election. The director of the FBI – besides illegally announcing ten days before the election that they were investigating new Clinton emails and waiting more than a week to admit that it was nothing – actively tried to cover up the Russian involvement until the CIA, NSA and DIA forced his hand. It is inconceivable that Trump – who, in campaign speeches, asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s personal emails – was unaware of what was going on.
It is known that Trump is billions of dollars in debt. He can’t sell his assets as presidents normally do – even Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm – because he needs the income from rents and branding licences to pay the interest on his loans. As the large American banks have refused for years to lend him money, it is presumed that Russian oligarchs are holding a great deal of that debt (as is the state-owned Bank of China, the biggest commercial tenant in Trump Tower, where the Department of Defense is also now renting a floor, profitably for Trump and conveniently for Chinese hackers). For their part, the Russians are losing billions on the oil sanctions, which Clinton was unlikely to lift. Not coincidentally, ex-Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, decorated with Russia’s Order of Friendship and opposed to the sanctions, has become secretary of state.
After the eight scandal-free years of Obama, it’s hard to keep up with all that has happened in less than a month. The money-grubbing and blatant conflicts of interest among most of the cabinet appointees, the Trump family – the pomaded sons, Uday and Qusay; Ivanka Barbie; and ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ Melania the Sphinx – and Mr Trump himself would have had the Republicans waving Obama’s head on a pike. Trump’s campaign collusion with a foreign government is already an impeachable offence, though it will take a lot more for the Republicans to send him down his gold-plated drain. And then we would be stuck with Pence, who, it will be assumed, probably wrongly, was in his room the whole time reading his Bible while the frat party was going on.