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The president’s primary problem as a leader is not that he is impetuous, brash or naive. It’s not that he is inexperienced, crude, an outsider. It is that he is weak and sniveling. It is that he undermines himself almost daily by ignoring traditional norms and forms of American masculinity.
He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, on the body politic. He’s a drama queen. It was once said, sarcastically, of George H.W. Bush that he reminded everyone of her first husband. Trump must remind people of their first wife. Actually his wife, Melania, is tougher than he is with her stoicism and grace, her self-discipline and desire to show the world respect by presenting herself with dignity.
Half the president’s tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn. “It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president.” The brutes. Actually they’ve been laboring to be loyal to him since Inauguration Day. “The Republicans never discuss how good their health care bill is.” True, but neither does Mr. Trump, who seems unsure of its content. In just the past two weeks, of the press, he complained: “Every story/opinion, even if should be positive, is bad!” Journalists produce “highly slanted & even fraudulent reporting.” They are “DISTORTING DEMOCRACY.” They “fabricate the facts.”
It’s all whimpering accusation and finger-pointing: Nobody’s nice to me. Why don’t they appreciate me?
His public brutalizing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t strong, cool and deadly; it’s limp, lame and blubbery. “Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” he tweeted this week. Talk about projection.
He told the Journal’s Michael C. Bender he is disappointed in Mr. Sessions and doesn’t feel any particular loyalty toward him. “He was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ‘What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me. So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement.” Actually, Mr. Sessions supported him early and put his personal credibility on the line. In Politico, John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College writes: “Loyalty is about strength. It is about sticking with a person, a cause, an idea or a country even when it is costly, difficult or unpopular.” A strong man does that. A weak one would unleash his resentments and derive sadistic pleasure from their unleashing.
The way American men used to like seeing themselves, the template they most admired, was the strong silent type celebrated in classic mid-20th century films—Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. In time the style shifted, and we wound up with the nervous and chattery. More than a decade ago the producer and writer David Chase had his Tony Soprano mourn the disappearance of the old style: “What they didn’t know is once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings they wouldn’t be able to shut him up!” The new style was more like that of Woody Allen. His characters couldn’t stop talking about their emotions, their resentments and needs. They were self-justifying as they acted out their cowardice and anger.
But he was a comic. It was funny. He wasn’t putting it out as a new template for maleness. Donald Trump now is like an unfunny Woody Allen.
Who needs a template for how to be a man? A lot of boys and young men, who’ve grown up in a culture confused about what men are and do. Who teaches them the real dignity and meaning of being a man? Mostly good fathers and teachers. Luckily Mr. Trump this week addressed the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, where he represented to them masculinity and the moral life.
“Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts, right?” But he overcame his natural reticence. We should change how we refer to Washington, he said: “We ought to change it from the word ‘swamp’ to perhaps ‘cesspool’ or perhaps to the word ‘sewer.’ ” Washington is not nice to him and is full of bad people. “As the Scout Law says, ‘A Scout is trustworthy, loyal—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.” He then told them the apparently tragic story of a man who was once successful. “And in the end he failed, and he failed badly.”
Why should he inspire them, show personal height, weight and dignity, support our frail institutions? He has needs and wants—he is angry!—which supersede pesky, long-term objectives. Why put the amorphous hopes of the audience ahead of his own, more urgent needs?
His inability—not his refusal, but his inability—to embrace the public and rhetorical role of the presidency consistently and constructively is weak.
“It’s so easy to act presidential but that’s not gonna get it done,” Mr. Trump said the other night at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio. That is the opposite of the truth. The truth, six months in, is that he is not presidential and is not getting it done. His mad, blubbery petulance isn’t working for him but against him. If he were presidential he’d be getting it done—building momentum, gaining support. He’d be over 50%, not under 40%. He’d have health care, and more.
We close with the observation that it’s all nonstop drama and queen-for-a-day inside this hothouse of a White House. Staffers speak in their common yet somehow colorful language of their wants, their complaints. The new communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, who in his debut came across as affable and in control of himself, went on CNN Thursday to show he’ll fit right in. He’s surrounded by “nefarious, backstabbing” leakers. “The fish stinks from the head down. But I can tell you two fish that don’t stink, and that’s me and the president.” He’s strong and well connected: “I’ve got buddies of mine in the FBI”; “ Sean Hannity is one of my closest friends.” He is constantly with the president, at dinner, on the phone, in the sauna snapping towels. I made that up. “The president and I would like to tell everybody we have a very, very good idea of who the leakers are.” Chief of Staff Reince Priebus better watch it. There are people in the White House who “think it is their job to save America from this president, okay?” So they leak. But we know who they are.
He seemed to think this diarrheic diatribe was professional, the kind of thing the big boys do with their media bros. But he came across as just another drama queen for this warring, riven, incontinent White House. As Scaramucci spoke, the historian Joshua Zeitz observed wonderingly, on Twitter: “It’s Team of Rivals but for morons.”
It is. And it stinks from the top.
Meanwhile the whole world is watching, a world that contains predators. How could they not be seeing this weakness, confusion and chaos and thinking it’s a good time to cause some trouble?