The Screwball Tragedy of Donald Trump

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In just a few months, in June, it will be three years since

Donald Trump

announced for the presidency. It feels shorter ago and longer. I will never forget that day. I watched it live, at home, wondering where this circus act was going. But as soon as the speech was over the phone rang and it was my uncle—husky Brooklyn accent, U.S. Marine of the Korean era—who said, “So how do you like my guy?” There was silence. “He’s—your guy?” “Yeah! Maybe he can do something.” We no sooner hung up than my sister—working-class,


voter—called, and she too began without preamble: “I looooove him.”

And so I was alerted early on to an epochal change in our national political life. My uncle and sister are not ideological, are skeptical of both parties, and tend to back the guy who seems most promising. They love America and wear it on their sleeves. They’re patriots.

A great deal of embarrassed attention has been paid by the press as to why half the country in 2016 refused to do what it was supposed to do and reject

Mr. Trump.

Granted: Mr.


didn’t start the fire. A great deal had to go wrong before America put a man like him, a TV star/brander with no political experience and a sketchy history, in the presidency. The political class right and left, Dem and Rep, had to fail, and did, spectacularly, with the 2008 crash and two unwon wars. Their biggest sin the past few decades: The wealthiest and most powerful Americans, those who had most benefited from its system, peeled off from the less fortunate and made clear they were not especially concerned about their problems. Stupidly, and they are stupid, they didn’t even fake a prudent interest. The disaffected noticed this lack of loyalty and decided to respond with a living insult named


Trump, whom they sent to


to contend with a corrupt establishment.

All granted and, in these pages, previously stated at great length.

But this is about those who do not back him, many of whom are centrists and moderates. I’m not sure enough attention is given to their thoughts. It’s also about a fairly widespread cognitive dissonance that is causing fairly widespread disquiet.

Suppose you are an able and accomplished person in business—a midlevel person, or a small-business owner, or the head of a company. You’ve navigated your way through life with judgment and effort. You’ve learned lessons.

If you are that person, when you look at the policy impact of President Trump’s first year, you see some good and heartening things.

He has established in his government a deregulatory spirit that is fair and helpful. Regulation, you know, is good—we’re all human; business leaders will make decisions that are good for the company or shareholders or themselves, but not necessarily good for the town, state, country. So regulation has an important role: It helps you be a good citizen and gives cover to you when you are one. But excessive regulation, especially when it springs from ideological animus or practical ignorance, kills progress, growth, jobs, good ideas and products.

Mr. Trump has put a sober conservative on the Supreme Court, and many conservative judges on the lower courts. This provides greater balance in the judiciary. In a split country, split courts—balance—is probably the best we can do.

The economy is improving. And Mr. Trump helped pass a tax bill that was better—maybe a little, maybe a lot, but certainly better—than what it replaced.

Not bad for a first year in office!

So you, moderate, centrist professional, should feel high enthusiasm for Donald Trump. And yet you don’t, not really. What you feel is disquiet, and you know what it’s about: the worrying nature of Mr. Trump himself. You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability. You used to think he’s surrounded by solid sophisticates, but they’re leaving. He’s unserious—

Vladimir Putin

says his missiles can get around any U.S. defense, and Mr. Trump is tweeting about

Alec Baldwin.

He careens around—he has big congressional meetings that are like talk shows where he’s the host, and he says things that are both soft and tough and you think Hmmm, maybe that’s a way through, but the next day it turns out it was only talk. This has been done on the Dreamers, on guns and we’ll see about tariffs. He loves chaos—he brags about this—but it isn’t strategic chaos in pursuit of ends, it’s purposeless disorder for the fun of it. We are not talking about being colorfully, craftily unpredictable, as political masters like


and Reagan sometimes were, but something more unfortunate, an unhinged or not-fully-hinged quality that feels like screwball tragedy.

He’s on the phone with his friends: He doesn’t like the chief of staff; he may be out. He doesn’t like his national security adviser; he doesn’t like his attorney general; they may be out too. His confidante

Hope Hicks

is gone; so is

Dina Powell

; now

Gary Cohn

is gone. His staff never knows what’s he’s going to do on any given day. And each day the


leaks offer more evidence that whatever questionable or illegal activity took place during the campaign, Mr. Trump surrounded himself with a true Team of Screwballs.

Here is what you try to wrap your head around if you are a centrist or moderate who’s trying to be fair. You think: On some level this is working. And on some level he is crazy .

He’s crazy . . . and it’s kind of working. You struggle to reconcile these thoughts. You try to balance them.

Then you realize everything you’ve learned from life as a leader in whatever sphere—business, local public service—tells you this: Crazy doesn’t last. Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that, when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes.

And so your disquiet. Sooner or later something bad will happen—an international crisis, or damaging findings from the special counsel. If the president is the way he is on a good day, what will he be like on a bad day?

It all feels so dangerous.

A president who has relative prosperity and relative peace should be at 60% approval. This is why he is about 20 points lower.

Observations and criticisms like this make Mr. Trump’s supporters angry and defensive. So he’s not smooth, they say—“We never thought he was!” So he doesn’t have the right tone, he doesn’t always use the right words—“You’re like old-time snobs looking down on him because he uses the wrong fork.”

But it’s a little more essential than that.

Centrists and moderates are seeing what Trump supporters cannot, will not see.

Expecting more from the president of the United States springs from respect for the country, its institutions, and the White House itself. It springs from standards, the falling of which concerns natural conservatives.

It isn’t snobbery. The people trying to wrap their heads around this presidency are patriots too. That’s one of the hellish things about this era.