(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, Sept 20.)
I’ve been trying to make sense of Donald Trump. It’s not easy.
It’s now 10 months since he was elected president of the United States and eight since he was inaugurated – time enough, you’d think, to prove that he’s fit for office.
I know people who have defended him throughout that time and continue to insist that he’s the man for the job. I've given them the benefit of the doubt and waited for some evidence that they were right. I thought that perhaps they saw something in him that I couldn’t see.
Besides, the contrarian in me instinctively rebels when I see the weight of public and media opinion so overwhelmingly arrayed against one person. Mass groupthink carries its own risks.
But here we are, almost one-quarter of the way through the Trump presidency, and I no see sign that his critics are anything but correct.
Hillary Clinton is hardly an impartial judge, but I believe she was on the mark when she recently described Trump as “immature, with poor impulse control”.
She went on to say that the president has a limited understanding of the world. “Everything is in relation to how it makes him feel.” My own impression is that he’s a man who has probably never read a book.
One of the striking things about Trump is that he behaves as if he’s still in campaign mode. In his tweets and at his rallies, he rants and blusters just as he did when he was contesting the presidency. He’s still fighting the same enemies.
It’s as if he didn’t give much thought to what he would actually do if he found himself in the Oval Office. Perhaps he never seriously expected it.
He’s like the dog that chases cars and doesn’t know what to do after they’ve stopped, so just keeps barking. I keep waiting for someone to take him aside and gently explain that he’s the president now, and that people expect him to behave presidentially.
It may be significant that the only major policy initiatives Trump has ticked off so far involved undoing things – namely, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord, both of which he’s pulled out of.
Otherwise he doesn’t appear to have achieved any of the key policy objectives that he campaigned on.
There's no sign of The Wall and attempts to roll back Obamacare turned into a fiasco. He has back-pedalled on some promises – America’s military commitment in Afghanistan, for example – and substantially watered down others. On the deportation of “illegals”, he’s all over the place.
He seems to have little respect for either truth or consistency. He will say whatever occurs to him at any particular moment, but thinks nothing of doing a handbrake turn later. As some commentators have pointed out, he doesn’t appear to be guided by any coherent ideology.
He promised to be a man of action, but the supposedly forgotten Americans who voted for him must feel betrayed and disappointed. Trump has delivered mainly chaos and uncertainty.
In the meantime, the White House has been in a state of almost constant turmoil. Key appointees come and go like pizza delivery boys.
The most entertaining of these bum appointments was the spectacularly brash Anthony Scaramucci, who roared in like a hurricane, promptly got offside with crucial people and was fired – all in the space of 10 days.
Those who have clung on, including members of Trump’s extended family, have reportedly been in a state of war as the Trump purists – the reformist zealots bent on re-inventing the way Washington does politics – vie for influence with those advocating a more pragmatic, conventional line.
The Republican Party is in disarray and Trump has been publicly at odds with such respected party grandees as former presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.
This is an incredibly disruptive and destabilising way to conduct affairs of state, and it’s not only Americans who should be worried. The frightening brinkmanship currently being played out between Washington and Pyongyang is a sobering reminder of the possible consequences if Trump were to make a reckless call. The rest of the world can only hope that wiser minds would restrain him.
Through all of this, Trump has behaved like the braggart and buffoon that his detractors always said he was. But how could that be? Underneath all that vulgarian bluster, there must surely be an intelligent man. I mean, a stupid man could never have become that rich.
Or could he? I have a theory that some dumb people succeed in business because they are so blinded by greed that they don’t see the potential downsides of the big risks they take. They might experience embarrassing failures along the way (as Trump has) but it’s always possible that sheer greed and gall will pull them through.
In any case, success in business is no guarantee of success in politics. Trump comes from a world where he was the boss and expected everyone around him to do his bidding.
Politics is different. Politics is messier. Politics works through compromise, consensus and collaboration. Trump shows no sign of being able to make that transition.
The question is, will he last a full term, or will Congress tire of the whole demeaning pantomime and find a way, consistent with the Constitution (perhaps the 25th Amendment, which has never been put to the test), to get rid of him? No doubt some of America’s finest minds are working on this question even as I write.