Forgive me for writing this, I know. But you would be wrong to think that a half-baked threat to the judiciary is related to a half-baked idea of how to bend those courts to policy preferences.
Nor should you think that saying “the judges don’t like us” is remotely as threatening to the functioning of democracy as noting the fact that the justices are white men, something Trump was also going to rail against last week.
With respect to the judicial challenge, Trump is in danger of succumbing to his own project of grandiosity and monumentalism. He’s going to make all those whiffs he’s used in the past into a whistle. As he gets in front of a microphone — usually a bully pulpit, but in this case it’s also a television audience — he’s going to ensure that every new opinion or decision he sues an administration for unleashes a barrage of new lawsuits and criticisms from a stream of supremely aggrieved losers.
The hyperbole can help keep the base aboard, but it has several downsides. In the end, it robs the presidency of some of its original purpose. It does so by treating decisions that are “mean” (examples: Mexicans are rapists) as ones that are “mean” but “good” (examples: Mexicans are rapists).
It turns down the temperature on everyday social drama, but the verbal flood waters suck up energy from other pursuits. It encourages a kind of denial that the presidency is not an enormous, powerful power. In fact, it distracts people from the real problem at the heart of our broken government, which is a dysfunctional presidency.
Then there’s Trump’s complaint about demographics. He can see that his slide toward oblivion is not going to turn around based on the number of states won by Hillary Clinton. But how can you make a heartfelt plea for sympathy for a racial minority facing heightened oppression if you are raining down abuse on anyone who you don’t personally believe has oppressed minorities in a way that is disproportionate? For his campaign to succeed, Trump needs to keep his supporters loyal and to keep people in swing states, such as Florida, casting their ballots for him, even if they cannot stand him.
Trump will spend the rest of his life talking about voter fraud. If he loses, then he and his supporters will get ammunition to endlessly harp on the “rigged” system. This will be his “power trip” — he will point out that he beat the “rigged” system. He’ll spend his career lecturing the justices that he has taken from them a poisoned instrument and that they must be certain that he uses it for good.
This is not all bad for Trump. He is an imbecile. Which is good when you are trying to close your next door real estate deal. When he sends his operatives out to make absurd policy proposals, he’s acting like a toddler, only with brute authority. As such, he is not inviting equal use to the system.
And finally, this drama can be expressed in terms of much larger payoffs. Trump has proved that he can even think up a good audacious lie. His performance in Las Vegas gave the impression that he knows how to speak without inhibition.
He has now moved beyond mildly cutting up this White House to outright humiliation. His tormentors, and it is mostly that: his tormentors, will push him to a point where it’s never possible to pretend he is clever and good and a businessman — where he actually becomes worse than the worst Republican politician of the last five or six years.
Once Trump loses, he will talk about how the country has been turned upside down, or every day says he’s winning, or mock the pundits as all hat and no cattle. Some will have to swallow their anger. Some may not. You can be told not to tell.
But telling yourself that Trump has finally fallen is almost as bad. It is, after all, the temptation of the powerful to think of themselves not as the disrupters they really are, but as the liberators. For a long time, I’ve been asking myself what that vision would look like, from the perspective of a leader. How could it be, I’ve wondered, if I were at the apex of my power? I have finally given up trying to turn the phrase “first among equals” into something more than a planks of rhetoric. A more interesting question might be how the lever-puller of levers would see himself if he were really a heavyweight champion.
There is something horrific to those who follow Trump in the public realm. I wonder what it must be like for people