The Incredible Shrinking President – The American Prospect
As a businessman, Donald Trump had a theory that success could be created through a cycle of superlatives, an act of turning words into reality. If he claimed often enough that he was already the richest, the greatest, the biggest, and the best, and got enough people to believe it, then he could become all those things as they bought his condos or visited his casinos.
Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but he took that philosophy into the presidency. The grandiosity of his rhetoric is comical: He has accomplished more than any president in history, this is the greatest economy ever, he “knows more than anyone” about everything, at Mar-a-Lago he served Xi Jinping “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”
Yet nearly three years into his presidency, Donald Trump has never looked so small.
Let’s consider the extraordinary events that took place at the end of last week. In the midst of a crisis in which he is likely to be impeached for abusing the powers of his office in order to benefit himself politically, Trump decided to abuse the powers of his office to benefit himself financially. A man who never misses an opportunity to say how rich he is insisted that the G-7 summit should be held at his struggling Doral golf course in Miami, so he could take in a few million extra dollars and give the place a days-long advertisement that might help boost profits in the future.
Unlike most of the other ways Trump has sought to profit off the presidency, in this case he couldn’t even come up with a remotely plausible cover story that would allow his advocates to justify the grab for cash. He might be able to say, “It’s not my fault if foreign governments want to book rooms in my fabulous D.C. hotel,” but when he’s the one awarding the contract to his own golf course, there isn’t any ambiguity about what’s going on. People have gone to prison for steering government contracts to family members, and Trump wanted to give one to himself.
Within two days he pulled back, tweeting that “based on both Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility, we will no longer consider Trump National Doral, Miami, as the Host Site for the G-7 in 2020.” The truth, of course, is that he was spooked by the appalled reaction from Republicans—and perhaps the likelihood that this blatant self-dealing would become yet another article of impeachment. The result was another episode of weakness and humiliation.
Before he finally woke up, all Trump could see was the chance to give a boost to one of his resorts. And this is apparently par for the course (so to speak); Politico reports that Trump spends his days pitching Trump properties to anyone who will listen. “He talks up his properties every chance he gets with anyone—with staff, with members of Congress, with the press, with the public, with foreign leaders, with anyone,” one former White House official said. It’s as though all the weighty matters of state and the historic events happening around him are less important than whether he might be able to bump up summer bookings at one of his golf courses.
Meanwhile, last week, with everything else going on, he literally threatened to sue CNN for not giving him good enough coverage.
Threatening to sue news organizations is something Trump has done many times before (he never follows through), but it’s remarkable that in the midst of an impeachment crisis, a Middle East crisis, a trade crisis, and everything else that’s happening, Trump finds time to indulge his pettiest impulses.
It’s not that he wouldn’t like to accomplish great things, but when he finds the going difficult, he retreats to the smallest of victories (or the smallest of fights). Getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons would have been a historic achievement, but Trump couldn’t make it happen, so now he prattles on about all the “beautiful letters” Kim Jong Un has sent him, as though no other president could have procured such a prize. He can’t convince Congress to fund his border wall, so he obsesses over the details of the non-existent wall, such as whether it will be painted black and have spikes on top.
And despite his obsession with looking strong, Trump seems weaker than ever. He writes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a childish letter demanding that Erdogan not launch a military operation into northern Syria, which Erdogan promptly ignores. He sends Rudy Giuliani on an international mission to pursue lunatic conspiracy theories and dig up dirt on Joe Biden, a project that will lead to his own impeachment—and Biden was probably never going to be the Democratic nominee anyway. He complains about Fox News polls.
Some presidents have thought in bigger, longer-term ways than others, trying to effect deep and lasting change and worrying about how history will judge them. But all have had at least some largeness of vision, the understanding that the office confers on them a unique responsibility to the country and the future. Donald Trump is, if anything, a smaller man now than he was before he took office: pettier, more insecure, more impulsive, more juvenile, all his character flaws only heightened by his unique position.
It might be nice to think that at some point that will change and he’ll become “presidential,” as so long ago he promised he would. But nobody believes that anymore. He’ll only get smaller.