TRUMP THE DESTROYER

Mar 25, 2017 by

Trump has stuffed his Cabinet with tyrants, zealots and imbeciles – all bent on demolishing our government from within

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

It’s like the campaign never ended. It’s the same all-Trump, all-the-time madness, only exponentially worse.

Morning, February 24th, National Harbor, Maryland, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Chin up, eyes asquint, Donald Trump floats to the lectern on a sea of applause and adulation. The building is shaking, and as fans howl his name – Trump! Trump! Trump! – he looks pleased and satisfied, like a Roman emperor who has just moved his bowels.

“Great to be back at CPAC,” he says. “The place I have really …”

The thought flies into the air and vanishes. Last year at this time, Trump was bailing on a CPAC invite because a rat’s nest of National Review types was threatening a walkout to protest him. There was talk of 300 conservatives planning a simultaneous march to the toilet if the formerly pro-choice New Yorker was allowed onstage.

Whether Trump remembers this now, or just loses his train of thought, he goes silent.

“We love you!” a young woman screams, filling the void.

“I love this place!” Trump exclaims, sunnily now. He recalls the tale of his first major political speech, which was delivered to this very conference six years ago. Back then he was introduced to the beat of the O’Jays soul hit “For the Love of Money,” and over the course of 13 uncomfortably autoerotic minutes flogged his résumé and declared it a myth that a “very successful person” couldn’t run for president.

He starts to tell that story, when suddenly he spots something in the audience that knocks him off script.

“Siddown, everybody, come on,” he says.

A lot of the people can’t sit down because they’re in standing-room-only sections. There’s confusion, a few nervous laughs. Frowning, Trump plows ahead.

“You know,” he says, “the dishonest media, they’ll say, ‘He didn’t get a standing ovation.’ You know why?”

Those of us in the dishonest-media section shoot befuddled looks at one another. Not one of us has a clue why.

“You know why? No, you know why?” he goes on. “Because everybody stood and nobody sat. So they will say, ‘He never got a standing ovation.’ Right?”

This makes no sense, but the crowd roars anyway. Trump leans over and pauses to soak in the love, his trademark red tie hanging like the tongue of a sled dog. Finally he turns and flashes a triumphant thumbs-up. A chant breaks out:

“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Reporters stare at one another in shock. They were mute bystanders seconds ago; now they’re the 1980 Soviet hockey team. One turns to a colleague and silently mouths: “U-S-A? What the f … ”

Nearby, another press nerd is frowning to himself and counting on his fingers, apparently trying to use visual aids to retrace Trump’s reasoning. Was the idea that reporters wouldn’t notice a standing ovation unless the crowd eventually sat down?

Helpless shrugs all around.

In a flash, Trump is launching into a furious 15-minute diatribe, bashing the “Clinton News Network” (Trump continually refers to Hillary Clinton as if the campaign were still going on) and describing the press as the “enemy of the people.”

Within hours, Trump’s aides will bar a group of news outlets from a White House gaggle, in a formal declaration of war against the media. The next morning, a still-raging Trump will tweet out his decision not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – no great loss, since the event has never not been a wretched exercise in stale humor and ankle-biting toadyism, but still. How long can he keep up this pace?

Since winning the election, Trump has declared interpersonal war on a breathtaking list of targets: the Australian prime minister, an acting attorney general, seven predominantly Muslim countries, a “so-called” federal judge, Sweden, “Fake Tears” Chuck Schumer, Saturday Night Live, the FBI, the “very un-American” leakers within the intelligence community, and the city of Paris (it’s “no longer Paris”). He’s side-eyed Mark Cuban, John McCain, millions of protesters, Lindsey Graham, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Cuomo, the University of California at Berkeley, ratings “disaster” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nancy Pelosi, the “TRAITOR Chelsea Manning,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Barack Obama and the city of Chicago, among many, many others.

There is no other story in the world, no other show to watch. The first and most notable consequence of Trump’s administration is that his ability to generate celebrity has massively increased, his persona now turbocharged by the vast powers of the presidency. Trump has always been a reality star without peer, but now the most powerful man on Earth is prisoner to his talents as an attention-generation machine.

Worse, he is leader of a society incapable of discouraging him. The numbers bear out that we are living through a severely amplified déjà vu of last year’s media-Trump codependent lunacies. TV-news viewership traditionally plummets after a presidential election, but under Trump, it’s soaring. Ratings since November for the major cable news networks are up an astonishing 50 percent in some cases, with CNN expecting to improve on its record 2016 to make a billion dollars – that’s billion with a “b” – in profits this year.

Even the long-suffering newspaper business is crawling off its deathbed, with The New York Times adding 132,000 subscribers in the first 18 days after the election. If Trump really hates the press, being the first person in decades to reverse the industry’s seemingly inexorable financial decline sure is a funny way of showing it.

On the campaign trail, ballooning celebrity equaled victory. But as the country is finding out, fame and governance have nothing to do with one another. Trump! is bigger than ever. But the Trump presidency is fast withering on the vine in a bizarre, Dorian Gray-style inverse correlation. Which would be a problem for Trump, if he cared.

But does he? During the election, Trump exploded every idea we ever had about how politics is supposed to work. The easiest marks in his con-artist conquest of the system were the people who kept trying to measure him according to conventional standards of candidate behavior. You remember the Beltway priests who said no one could ever win the White House by insulting women, the disabled, veterans, Hispanics, “the blacks,” by using a Charlie Chan voice to talk about Asians, etc.

Now he’s in office and we’re again facing the trap of conventional assumptions. Surely Trump wants to rule? It couldn’t be that the presidency is just a puppy Trump never intended to care for, could it?

Toward the end of his CPAC speech, following a fusillade of anti-media tirades that will dominate the headlines for days, Trump, in an offhand voice, casually mentions what a chore the presidency can be.

“I still don’t have my Cabinet approved,” he sighs.

In truth, Trump does have much of his team approved. In the early days of his administration, while his Democratic opposition was still reeling from November’s defeat, Trump managed to stuff the top of his Cabinet with a jaw-dropping collection of perverts, tyrants and imbeciles, the likes of which Washington has never seen.

En route to taking this crucial first beachhead in his invasion of the capital, Trump did what he always does: stoked chaos, created hurricanes of misdirection, ignored rules and dared the system of checks and balances to stop him.

By conventional standards, the system held up fairly well. But this is not a conventional president. He was a new kind of candidate and now is a new kind of leader: one who stumbles like a drunk up Capitol Hill, but manages even in defeat to continually pull the country in his direction, transforming not our laws but our consciousness, one shriveling brain cell at a time.

It seems strange to say about the most overanalyzed person in the world, but Trump arrived in Washington an unknown. His shocking victory had been won almost entirely outside the Beltway, via a Shermanesque barnstorming tour through white-discontent meccas in states like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where he devoured popular support by promising wrath and vengeance on the federal government.

Trump didn’t appeal to K Street for help, didn’t beg for mailing lists or the phone numbers of millionaire bundlers, and never wrung his hands waiting for favorable reviews on Meet the Press. He was the first president in modern times to arrive in Washington not owing the local burghers.

What that meant, nobody knew, but it probably wasn’t good. Leaders in both parties had reason to panic. Democrats were calling him illegitimate. Leading Republicans had abandoned Trump during the “grab them by the pussy” episode. In a true autocracy, theirs would be the first heads gored on stakes as a warning to the others. Many D.C. bureaucrats had no idea what to expect. They were like shopkeepers awaiting the arrival of a notorious biker gang.

Candidate Trump had lied and prevaricated so fluidly that it was impossible to be sure where he really stood on any issue. Was he “very pro-choice,” or did he think women who got abortions deserved “some form of punishment”? Was he an aspiring dictator and revolutionary, or merely a pragmatic charlatan whose run for president was just a publicity stunt that got way out of hand?

The mystery seemed to end once Trump started choosing his team.

Some appointees were less terrifying than others. Former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson at least pays lip service to climate change and probably has enough smarts to complete one side of a Rubik’s Cube. Treasury pick Steven Mnuchin would struggle to make a list of the 30 most loathsome Goldman Sachs veterans. These and a few others were merely worst-case-scenario corporate-influence types, industry foxes sent to man regulatory henhouses.

But the rest were the most fantastic collection of creeps since the “Thriller” video. Many were blunderers and conspiracists whose sole qualification for office appeared to be their open hostility to the missions of the agencies they were tapped to run.

Trump’s choice for EPA director, Scott Pruitt, was a climate-change denier who infamously zeroed out the environmental-enforcement division from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. For secretary of labor, Trump picked a fast-food titan who prefers robots to human workers (robots, he said, don’t file discrimination suits!).

Trump put a brain surgeon in charge of federal housing, picked a hockey-team owner to be secretary of the Army, and chose as budget director a congressman best known for inspiring a downgrade to America’s credit rating by threatening to default on the national debt.

Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, reportedly not only admitted that he didn’t know what the Department of Energy actually does, but had called for that very agency’s elimination as a presiden

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