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Stop Saying Trump Is Unpredictable

Modified from flickr/Gage Skidmore

Trump is quite predictable. It’s the people who have the power to stop him who aren’t — and that is the true core of the danger we now face.

Mike Flynn is where he belongs: in the dock. We are, undoubtedly, entering a new phase of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election, and with it the inescapable question of whether Trump will try to do what some will say is “unthinkable”: fire Mueller and smother the investigation.

Will he or won’t he? The drama of Trump’s unpredictability has chewed up hours of air time and miles worth of column inches.

But that hand-wringing, I’ve come to believe, is entirely the wrong way to approach the situation. Trump is quite predictable. It’s the people who have the power to stop him who aren’t — and that is the true core of the danger we now face.

Trump is often described as “unpredictable,” and not without reason; if he has any capacity for cultivating an image, he’s used it to “keep [us] in suspense,” as he infamously said at the third presidential debate. But as I look back on the last two years I find myself wondering if anything he’s done has been truly surprising coming from a man with his qualities (or lack thereof).

The notion that Trump is unpredictable is, if anything, a gross mythologization of the man. The only “success” that Trump can truly claim as his own is his branding, and the notion that one can’t predict what he’s going to do next is one he’s spun to great effect as proof of both his negotiating acumen and creativity. But he possesses neither.

To some he stands in the established Nixonian tradition of appearing unstable to keep enemies off balance. The so-called “madman” theory of governance. But, for one, this is deeply undesirable on its face; and two, Trump lacks the capacity to do such a thing with strategic intent, even guided by others.

He’s often described as “delusional,” and again, not without cause. Virtual reality has truly hit the big time here: it consumes the White House, swaddling our president and his adjutants in a universe of his own imagining. And yet, the grander and more consequential delusion has been that of all the journalists, commentators, and political leaders who convinced themselves that Donald Trump could be anything other than what he is.

As I look back on the last two years I find myself wondering if anything Trump’s done has been truly surprising. Click To Tweet

At each stage, the latest “unpredictable” thing Trump had done was, after all, eminently predictable. We were merely swept up in the surprise of an upper class that did not want to truly believe what was unfolding before their eyes. Thus, that elusive “pivot” was always just around the corner. Thus, the new line in the sand would surely never be crossed.

And yet, it was always predictable — almost to the point of being a given — that he would cross it.

Some cast Trump as a chessmaster, keeping his opponents off balance with his wild moves; others believe him to be dementia-addled. In each case, it serves as a bizarrely convoluted excuse to ignore what has always been obvious about Trump: He is a spoiled rich boy who has never been told “no” in his life.

Hence, he believes his own lies because he believes what he needs to be true. Hence, he will say and do as he pleases, satiating his slovenly appetites, lurching from one impulse to the next.

What you see is what you get; Trump’s “soul” is exoskeletal. He has no inner life. He is so shocking to some precisely because he is so knowable from even the briefest of looks. He has no hidden depths. He is that empty stream of consciousness that defines nearly all his public speeches. He wings it because he not only has no plan, he is incapable of making one. He substitutes base instinct for sense, pursuing his hungers and uncontrolled emotions like white rabbits in some alternate universe.

But this has been obvious almost from the start. I want to be clear here: I am not presenting this as a genuine insight culled from the mists of Washington’s arcane insider culture. I am telling you, simply, that you can believe your eyes.

Trump’s ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz—who penned The Art of the Dealcame out swinging when Trump announced his Presidential candidacy; he had crushing remorse at having helped to create a monster.

A few choice quotes from the New Yorker article include:

“The problem was Trump’s personality, which he considered pathologically impulsive and self-centered.”

“It’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement…”

“More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true…”

We seek alternate, elaborate, or even ableist explanations for all this because we cannot quite believe that Trump really is this shallow, that our democracy is now in the hands of a villain so overwrought and obvious. A man who is somehow less than the sum of his impulses. A man who cannot even get through an event literally scripted to make him look magnanimous and presidential without being petty and cruel because he just couldn’t help himself.

Everything Trump has done — pick your moment, be it attacking families of color on Twitter, trying to start a war with North Korea, firing James Comey — has been all too predictable. None of it is actually surprising.

What else would a man like him do when given this much power and attention?

What has been dangerously unpredictable is how the political class has responded to him, and whether or not at any given moment they will enable him. What has been truly delusional has been the efforts of many to suggest that Trump hides some inner depth that is inaccessible to us. Take this recent, brief article by New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait:

“The prevailing interpretation of Donald Trump, shared by all his enemies and many of his allies, is that he is a con man. It is a theory that explains both his career in business and politics, and has carried through his many reversals of position and acts of fraud against customers and contractors. It remains quite plausible. But new reporting has opened up a second possibility: The president has lost all touch with reality.”

Is it really so shocking that Trump is disgusting in private as well as in public? What did Chait honestly want to believe? That after hours, Trump muses before a fireplace chortling the night away with Mitch McConnell while saying things like, “Oh yes, the press were such cads today, but the plebes believed me when I said it was fake news; the proles are ever so gullible”?

No, Trump believes his own nonsense.

The shocking thing is that anyone believed he had the guile and cunning to affect a public persona for strategic reasons. What you see is what you get. No more, and certainly no less.

He can con people only insofar as he can con himself. He believes the bullshit he’s sold to all those crowds, and he believes any lie that flatters him—but that doesn’t make him mentally ill. It is merely the very definition of the kind of selfish self-importance conferred by wealth. That Trump remains a Birther, that he denies the Access Hollywood tape’s veracity, should not surprise us.

What is dangerously unpredictable is how his staff and Republican leaders will respond to this. Will they go along with the lie and try to force the rest of us to dwell in it? Or will they try to ease Trump out of an office to which he is eminently unsuited? Thus, our anxiety about whether Trump will try to fire Mueller is really about whether our political elite will let him.

What is unpredictable is not Trump’s temperament —trying to fire Mueller is very predictable. We know he sees the investigation as a “hoax” and as an insult, and that he has tried multiple times to ward away legal scrutiny; he would make it all go away if he could.

What is not quite as predictable is whether this will be the red line for enough Republicans to finally take a meaningful stand against their president.

The idea that Trump is a “poor man’s idea of a rich man” is part of a similar genre in elite thought, one that tries to ignore the ways in which Trump is merely the logical conclusion of values and practices that are common in our upper class. He must, instead, be an interloper. No, better, a “crazy” interloper. A singular aberration.

This, in the end, is what unites liberals who want to pretend everything was fine until January 2017 with conservatives who pretend everything’s been fine since.

To such people, whatever Trump is, he is an exception whose manifest failings indict no one beyond himself. To them, he does not speak to the flaws of wealth and privilege, of our upper class, of whiteness, or of the entire American political project, even though all of these things produced him.

He is remarkable only for being the apotheosis of otherwise commonplace Americanisms.

Yet time and again, pundits and scholars alike have tried to discern the Trump Code, the method to his rantings and seemingly senseless pugilism. Most recently, no less than a Berkeley scholar advanced a theory that Trump’s tweets were part of a four-pronged strategic “weapon to control the news cycle.” Esoteric Star Trek lore has gotten a boost from all the commentators arguing that Trump is playing 3D (or 4D or 13D or multi-dimensional) chess.

But the truth is far more simple than that. His tweets are what they appear to be. Spasmodic impulse restrained only by the running schedule of cable news — if anything. As Media Matters for America’s Matthew Gertz put it in Politicorecently: “There is no strategy to Trump’s Twitter feed; he is not trying to distract the media. He is being distracted.”

Now that a white guy’s said it, perhaps people will believe me.

Yet the shocking thing has not been what Trump said or did, but the way those in power have debased themselves by adapting to his ascent as if it were a change in barometric pressure. Acting as if he were a phenomenon they had no direct control over.

The ableism inherent to much of the criticism directed at Trump is obvious, and performs the same distancing function. He’s nothing like us, ergo he must be “crazy.” That, too, feeds the “he’s unpredictable” narrative — with the added bonus of antagonizing people with disabilities, who are already suffering because of Trump. But his unpredictability is dependent only on our inability to believe what he’s capable of, in the face of all evidence.

We know he’s the kind of man who would, flippantly, seek to ban an entire religion from the nation, who wants to build a Berlin Wall for the 21st Century, who would mock a disabled reporter, a Muslim family who lost a son to a Republican war, a grieving mother of another fallen soldier whose only crime in Trump’s eyes appears to have been her race, who will use an event honouring Navajo code talkers to use anti-Native slurs to attack a political opponent, who picks a fight with the mayor of London after his city was hit by a terrorist attack, who drags his feet on condemning terror against Muslims, who sees no tragedy too great for him to exploit in the most callous way, who seeks to profit from his presidency at every turn, who tried to ban transgender people from the military via Twitter, who has all but directed the harassment of ordinary citizens and political opponents via Twitter, whose idea of diplomacy has been to taunt North Korea’s thin-skinned Dear Leader while brazenly undermining his own Secretary of State, who bragged of committing sexual assault and who threw his support behind a child molester, who called Nazi terrorists “very fine people,” who initiated a diplomatic incident with Australia for kicks, who said of the now-convicted Flynn that he was a “good guy” and who tried to pressure the then-FBI director to stop looking into him, who got into a days-long Twitter feud with the father of a basketball player who he deemed insufficiently grateful for securing his son’s release from Chinese custody.

Trump is the logical conclusion of values and practices that are common in our upper class. Click To Tweet

The list can and does go on. Trump’s recent sloppy break-up with Bannon, and his response to Fire and Fury, spawned a litany of childish tweets and threats.

One disastrous, squalid affair after another, all of them quite predictable when you simply ask yourself: “What would be the worst possible way he could handle this situation short of actively shitting himself and/or launching nukes?”

Your answer won’t fall wide of reality’s mark, I’m sure.

But about those nukes…

Here’s where the unpredictability question gets even scarier. Recently, Air Force General John Hyten said something that seems, at first blush, extraordinary to an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum. In his capacity as the commanding officer of U.S. Strategic Command — which oversees the American nuclear arsenal — he said this:

“I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do. And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

Actually, it is. The scenario Hyten presented to the audience (and a nervously watching world) is one that takes no account of Trump’s demonstrated contempt for law, norms, reason, and empathy. The laws governing use of the nuclear arsenal themselves are also not entirely clear.

Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept asks:

“Does Trump, who rails against ‘so-called’ judges, strike you as the kind of leader who is bothered by the rule of law? Why wouldn’t he just fire Hyten and replace him with a more compliant general?”

What’s more, when has the U.S. let international law stop it from taking illegal military action in the past? So, once again, using the schema I’ve laid out: What is unpredictable is not whether Trump would order a nuclear strike (you should assume he would, eagerly), it’s whether STRATCOM would stop him, whether John Kelly and James Mattis actually would “tackle him to the ground.”

…Or whether they would just swallow the last bits of their souls and comply?

After Trump’s infamous tweet about his button being bigger than Kim’s, there should be no doubt about Trump’s depravity and childishly maniacal intentions. It’s all predictable. His brief, pitiful political career is defined by violating norms; norms are all that constrain a President’s nuclear authority.

“If [Trump] gave the command,” writes nuclear security expert Bruce Blair, “his executing commanders would have no legal or procedural grounds to defy it no matter how inappropriate it might seem.”

Therefore, what’s really up in the air is whether the men around him—in suits and neatly pressed uniforms—defy Trump nonetheless, preventing him from opening the nuclear satchel and accessing its codes.

In the end, what will condemn us all is not Trump’s bottomless depravity, but the utter lack of moral courage among the people empowered to stop him.