Did you see the coverage of our president in Europe last week or happen to watch his Rose Garden announcement that he is pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement? On video or in photographs, Trump looked like the unhappiest man on the planet. Even his patented forced smile was not in evidence. Appearing with European NATO leaders, he stood by like a man awaiting the gallows. Walking from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden, he was a man under house arrest.
Why? He’s the President of the United States, for crying out loud! He went on a nine-day grand tour of the Middle East and Europe! Wined and dined wherever he went, he flew on Air Force One; he was accompanied by his family and a huge entourage of White House staff, cabinet secretaries and military advisers. What was there to be unhappy about?
At home, the economy was booming: unemployment is as low as it had been in 10 years; the stock market is at or near record highs; his party controls both houses of congress; his approval rating among his own voters is above 80 percent. Sure, he has been dogged by an aggressive press and a burgeoning investigation of his campaign and transition inner circle, but he beat Crooked Hillary! He has transformed himself from a real estate huckster into the carrot-topped Ronald Reagan of a new Republican age!
It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that Trump suffers from the same afflictions common to dictators. Did you ever see a picture of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu smiling? Saddam Hussein looking like anything but a strutting, grandstanding fool? Putin appearing to have risen above the humorless, paranoid KGB apparatchik he has always been? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a side-by-side photo comparison of our president’s Trump Tower apartment and a pick from any one of Saddam’s 70-some palaces, or Ceaușescu’s grand manor for that matter? Cheerfully self-effacing doesn’t describe these fellows, nor does it describe our president. He appears from day to day preternaturally unhappy. His tweets reflect the musings of someone ill at ease with his place in the world. He sounds cornered, set upon by enemies. He seems to be a man who, having striven toward a goal and achieved it, discovered a dark and forbidding place where he expected to find sweetness and light.
Dictators have the same problems. Power having been attained, storms and disaster loom. Above all else, there is the struggle to stay in power. They find themselves surrounded by threats: political opponents of course, but also members of their own staff and party. Shake-ups and purges are commonplace. The number of people who can be trusted shrinks until it encompasses only family members and maybe one or two others, usually generals prized for their loyalty and willingness to follow orders. Powerful captains of industry and finance are held at bay with offerings of governmental largess, tax benefits, and allowance of monopoly. Law enforcement and the military are celebrated as heroes. Ordinary public servants are derided as losers living off public beneficence. The judiciary is defamed and accused of bias. Press scrutiny is not brooked. A ministry of propaganda wields lies and conspiracy theories as a matter of course. The press is denounced as unpatriotic, destructive of the national interest and an enemy of the people. Sources of opposing thought such as academics and their universities are denounced as elitist and unrepresentative of the common man. Education itself is assailed. Books and popular entertainment are declared untrustworthy and false. Formal disciplines such as science and art are discredited and vilified. Knowledge is reviled and condemned. Reality itself is dismissed as fake and a hoax. A separate world is constructed of alternative facts and invented stories. Lies become the currency of the realm.
Alliances with foreign nations are not to be trusted for fear of diminishing the power of the state. Treaties are depreciated, even violated outright. Foreign trade is suspect, an encroachment on economic sovereignty. Leaders of democratic nations who have been freely elected are distrusted and disparaged. Autocratic leaders who achieved power illegitimately are greeted with broad smiles and warm handshakes. The world begins to shrink, the nation with it, its leader becoming smaller and smaller. All of this occurs in the furtherance of power.
This week we reached an apotheosis of sorts. On a beautiful, sunny afternoon in the Rose Garden, Trump stepped to the lectern like a man fighting for a place in a lifeboat. He looked angry, depressed, and as he announced the reversal of yet another of his predecessor’s legacies, he was unable to derive any enjoyment from the lusty applause of his audience. His European allies had regarded him as an outcast because he behaved like one, and it still stung. “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country?” he asked plaintively. “We want fair treatment. We don’t want other countries and other leaders to laugh at us anymore.”
There it was again. The absence of fairness like it was something he had suffered all his life. An abject fear of being laughed at. A president alone among 200 nations in the world shouting “America first!” in the face of a global calamity. A clumsy attempt at identification with the common man: “I was elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh,” Trump said, “not Paris.” According to the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Hillary Clinton won with nearly 80 percent of the vote in the city.
Earlier in the week, Trump dispatched his spokesperson Hope Hicks to broadcast a North Korea-style appraisal of our Dear Leader: “President Trump has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy, which is infectious to those around him. He has an unparalleled ability to communicate with people, whether he is speaking to a room of three or an arena of 30,000. He has built great relationships throughout his life and treats everyone with respect. He is brilliant with a great sense of humor . . . and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible.” She wasn’t standing in front of a gigantic billboard depicting the president atop a mountain with the sun rising behind his head, but she might as well have been. All that was missing were cheering masses and the marching battalions and tanks and rocket launchers he had requested for his inauguration parade.
Dictators come in all shapes and sizes. After one of the longest, most expensive campaigns in the nation’s history, we elected ours, and he came in size small.