Political media coverage over the last few months seems to have become more superficial than ever. I think this owes to the collective sigh of relief after the Democrats took back the House of Representatives, which took some of the pressure off of the tension between the tones of Apocalyptic Proclamation and Traditional Horse-race. So the coverage of Trump’s Game-of-Chicken government shutdown focused primarily on the latter, with a vague smidge of the former.
Which is to say that the most important stories are receiving far less coverage than facile ones. We hear much about Gillette advertising campaigns and McDonald’s lunches. We hear a lot less about John Bolton’s plans for war with Iran. This is very much the usual order of things, but as Trump supposedly represented a break with the usual order of things, the increasingly inessential nature of most media either shows how little we’ve learned or how little control we have over the doings of our own institutions.
And there still remains Trump at the heart of things, still more a force of nature than a politician. Because he has lost prestige, much of Trump’s weirdness is currently hard to see in light of the incredible desire of most of the institutions surrounding him to treat life as otherwise normal.
One new development that’s been mostly overlooked is Trump’s increasing self-conception of himself as alone. For the last two years he’s publicly bemoaned all the people who have let him down and betrayed him (namely, pretty much everyone), but the stress on his sheer aloneness is a new one.
This wasn’t a one-off either. Trump repeated the same line a week later in a way that suggests that genuine isolated misery and swollen self-pity:
I was here on Christmas evening. I was all by myself in the White House. It’s a big, big house — except for the guys on the lawn with machine guns,” he said, veering into a tangent about the guns his Secret Service protection carries.
“Nicest machine guns I’ve ever seen. I was waving to them. I never saw so many guys with machine guns in my life. Secret Service and military. These are great people. They don’t play games, they don’t, like, wave. But I was all alone with the machine gunners. I felt very safe, I have to tell you. There’s a lot of them.”Politico
I doubt that Trump intended to invoke the trope of the paranoid third-world dictator who can’t trust anyone but his security services, yet he couldn’t have done a better job had he tried. Most politicians would invoke their administration and their huge arsenal of executive power, but Trump evidently does not feel like either of those are truly at his disposal.
Even in January, he echoed the Lonely Man theme by repeatedly saying that he was in the White House waiting for the Dems to come by and negotiate. I know Trump doesn’t like to share credit, but tweets like these paint him as pitiable, powerless, and alone, sitting around while everyone else enjoys themselves.
There is no shortage of theories of power which depict the absolute sovereign as the most miserable and lonely individual of all. (Plato and Elias Canetti are only two who have said as much.) Such a sovereign needs to be wary of being stabbed in the back by everyone around him, while being unable to trust the exercise of power to anyone else.
This trope has enjoyed such a long life because it’s usually true. Stalin managed to avoid it by building competing organizations that reported on each other. But Stalin was intelligent and meticulous, and Trump is neither—and lazy to boot.
So instead Trump sees defections all around him, while being unable to reassert power or influence. Trump’s new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, doesn’t try to manage him like John Kelly did, but Mulvaney is already lobbying to be secretary of commerce, since being Trump’s chief of staff is a thankless job. Trump’s right-wing sycophants wavered when he backed down on the government shutdown. People leave the room when the Mueller investigation comes up:
Many of the president’s closest aides want nothing to do with the investigation, fearful of legal fees and subpoenas. For example, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly would often walk out of the room when the president began talking about the probe — or had a meeting scheduled with his lawyers. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has sought to avoid questions about the investigation and to have statements put in her name.Washington Post
And Trump never did figure out who wrote that anonymous New York Times editorial about him. (My best guess is Larry Kudlow, for what that’s worth.)
So Trump is alone in many substantive ways, but indications are he increasingly recognizes that fact, now that he’s confronted daily with indicators of the limits on his power and the conditional loyalties of his sometime-sycophants.
Trump is left with the 35 percent of the country that still supports him to the hilt. As much as the Republican establishment sees his utility as being at an end, they are unlikely to do much until that number drops another ten points or so, and possibly not even then. George W. Bush sank into the mid-20s after Hurricane Katrina. I don’t know what it would take for Trump’s stock to drop so low. I do believe it’s possible, but even giving up on the wall might not dissuade those who see Trump as the single thing standing between them and the New World Global Order.
Yet I think Trump’s evolving self-perception is the greatest influence on what the remainder of his presidency will be like, since he pays so little attention to anything else. As I said two years ago, Trump’s main desire is for adulation, and so I suspect he would most like to be going on rally tours, though even those aren’t what they once were.
What is the presidential equivalent of taking your ball and going home?