Probably the smartest thing anyone said about Donald Trump before his election was the explanation by Salena Zito in The Atlantic of why he could get away with making wildly exaggerated or flatly false statements: "When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."
And yet Zito’s insight has turned out to be insufficient. In the mad days that have followed his inauguration, it has become clear that Trump takes himself both literally and seriously.
He mistakes his own impulses for facts. He does not know the difference between self-aggrandising symbolic gestures and lived human realities, and this tiny-minded literalism has very serious consequences for millions of people.
The most important thing to understand about the executive order keeping immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim countries out of the US is that it has no relationship whatsoever to its stated purpose. That purpose is, supposedly, to keep America safe from terrorism. The order is actually called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”.
Memory of 9/11
As the chaos, anguish and shame erupted last weekend, Trump’s surrogates and supporters repeatedly evoked the memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But Trump’s order would do absolutely nothing to prevent a repeat of those attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Saudi Arabia continues to be the primary sponsor of the extremist versions of Islam that feed into militant jihadism. Yet Saudi Arabia is not one of the seven countries whose citizens are affected by Trump’s order.
On the contrary, the Saudi government this week reiterated its delight at Trump’s accession to the presidency and declined to utter the smallest criticism of the order.
By contrast, not one American has been killed since 9/11 by any immigrant or refugee from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – the countries targeted by Trump. Every jihadist who carried out a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal permanent resident of the US itself.
The most recent major attacks – the Orlando nightclub massacre last June and the killing spree in San Bernardino in December 2015 – were carried out principally by people born in the US. (The San Bernardino shooter was helped by his wife, who was born in Pakistan, which is not on Trump’s list.)
And, in fact, the biggest terrorist threats to US citizens come from disturbed people, many of them high on white supremacist fantasies, who are allowed by US laws to have access to extremely lethal weapons. Trump’s own rhetoric and his close association with elements of the white nationalist right have, at least in their own eyes, further legitimized many of these extremists.
Further, Trump’s absolute commitment to insuring that extremely lethal weapons remain easily available to anyone planning a terrorist attack makes a nonsense of his claims to be “protecting the nation”.
The problem the executive order is really meant to address is not terrorism, but Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The order relates, not to actual, living, breathing events or conditions, but only to language.
It is pure postmodern politics: The order is a text that refers only to another text, which is Trump’s stump speech on the campaign trail and its dark promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” (If the lifting of the ban really has to wait for Trump to figure out what is going on, it will last indefinitely.)
Many people within the US media and political worlds, including some Republicans who support the intention of the order, wondered why Trump did not consult more widely before signing it. But this is to entirely miss the point. Once you start to consult, you recognise that you are intending to do something that will have consequences for real people in the real world – and that you have to modify your intentions to take account of those consequences.
What the world is struggling to come to terms with is that this is not what Trump is about at all. He is not engaged in rational politics. He is a character in a story of his own invention. And the only rules he understands are the rules of the narrative.
The president does not read books (though he watches a lot of TV), yet he instinctively understands the rule laid down by one of the greatest of storytellers, Anton Chekhov: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Trump gets this, and the anti-Muslim executive order shows him applying it. First, remove everything that has no relevance to the story, which in this case is all the real people with real lives that are being thrown into further turmoil, whether it is an Iranian mathematician studying at an Ivy League university or a desperate orphan fleeing Islamic State in Syria.
There is a paradox at work here: precisely because these people are in fact entirely irrelevant to what Trump claims to be doing – keeping America safe from terrorism – they are all the more easily erased. You just tell everybody to shut up and talk about the real story: 9/11, jihadists, Islamic State.
Next, Chekhov’s rule requires that Trump has to fire in his second chapter all the shotguns he put up on the wall in his first. That first chapter – his long rampage through the Republic primaries and the general election – was all about loading the big guns with vicious ammunition: fear-mongering, xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim vitriol, white revenge for a perceived loss of power and privilege.
He knows that the shaping of the story requires that these weapons, once loaded, must be fired at somebody.
There has been much talk of liberals being in a bubble when it comes to Trump. But his first days in office have shown that the biggest bubble of all was the one occupied by the sneaking regarders and the old-school political cynics.
These are the people who – some with a slightly desperate smile, some with a superior smirk – have informed everyone that President Trump would not be the same as candidate Trump. In the wishful thinking of old-style conservatives and the buyer’s remorse of people who voted for him in the belief that he could not possibly be as boorish as he seemed, there was an assumption that old patterns still held.
The old pattern is, as the New York politician Mario Cuomo put it, that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Campaigns are primarily rhetorical; being in office is primarily practical.
But this is a political dictum – and Trump is not a politician. He is a reality TV star, a semifictional invention. If your character is a big, blowsy burlesque of a mogul, like Trump's in The Apprentice, he doesn't suddenly become a quietly competent chief executive. You stick with your shtick.
Forget poetry, forget prose – they are for people who read books. This is spectacle. This is entertainment. The vulgar, reckless narcissist, the pathological liar, the panderer to prejudice, is a vastly popular character. It gets the ratings with which Trump is so dementedly obsessed. Why on earth would he change it?
And besides, the political skill of being two people – one for the campaign trail, one for the office – requires some subtlety of mind. It may not be especially admirable, but those who are good at it are able to keep contradictory notions in their heads at the same time. They can juggle different realities: what they would like to do and what they can do.
But Trump has neither the brain nor the personality for such complexities. He is the one-dimensional man. And that dimension is all Trump. The narcissist has eyes only for his own reflection: when President Trump looks in the mirror, he sees only candidate Trump. He hears only his own voice from the platform.
To his credit, this is one thing Trump didn’t lie about: he said on the campaign trail that he was his own chief adviser. The president listens to the braggart, the bully, the blowhard that roars in his ear. And what it tells him is what the last Russian Tzar, Nicholas II, constantly told himself: “I wish it, therefore it must be.”
His first traitor
Donald Trump’s frantic signing of grandiose orders has about it the air of a despot’s last days, not his first. Deluded tyrants, their grip on reality faltering, simply issue more directives, ordering nonexistent tank divisions to take up their positions, or firing traitors. It is remarkable that Trump got to fire his first traitor, the acting attorney general, who he explicitly accused of betrayal, just 10 days into office. She will not be the last.
There is no place for argument or consultation or a weighing of consequences: I wish it, therefore it must be. Trump, in other words, takes himself, and his own desires literally. And this is both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.
It should be borne in mind that literalism has a strong grip on American culture. The born-again evangelicals who were so crucial to Trump’s victory take the Bible literally as the word of God. (They are, of course, highly selective in their application of this principle, but that does not stop them from being literal-minded.)
And the right-wing “originalist” legal tradition that Trump honoured this week when he nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is also proudly literal: it purports to be able to discern what the framers of the US constitution really meant in the 18th century and be able to apply this meaning quite literally in the 21st.
Trump’s style resonates with these habits of mind, even in its narcissistic weirdness: he is a fundamentalist believer in the literal truth of the Book of Trump; an originalist interpreter of the constitution of Trumperica. This places him, for his fans, somewhere between God and the founding fathers.
However, taking himself literally is also Trump’s weakness – because what he is being literal about is a dystopian fiction.
The “American carnage” he evoked in his inaugural address, the graveyard landscape and ruined republic, the communities stalked by immigrant rapists and jihadi terrorists, does have some distant correlatives in an actual America. But it is so wildly distorted that it has no practical use as a map of the country Trump is supposed to rule. And Trump doesn’t know the difference between his crazy map, with “here be monsters” scrawled all over it, and the real territory it is supposed to chart.
What has been clarified this week is that Trump will not – and most likely cannot – do what a successful ruler needs to do: separate the fictional place in his head from the country he has to govern.
The president will go on as he has started, with empty gestures that have no purpose other than allowing him to claim that Trump has obeyed the sacred word of Trump. The misery wrought in people’s lives and the damage to the global standing of the US will never matter beside that great imperative.