On his first foreign trip, President Trump was a caricature of himself and his country: the Ugly American on steroids.
This disaster has been a long time coming. In “Andrew’s Brain,” his 2014 novel, the late E.L. Doctorow’s (1931-2015) wrote an eerily prophetic passage. The main character is a neuroscientist who, after many mishaps, has ended up as a grade-school teacher in Washington, D.C. One day his old college roommate at Yale, whom he has almost forgotten about, shows up in his classroom. He is George W. Bush.
Soon a limousine shows up to pick up Andrew and whisk him off to the White House. Bush offers him a job as the head of a non-existent White House brain-science office. The idea is to keep Andrew away from the media during Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign to prevent him from spilling the beans about what Bush did in college. It included, with brainy Andrew’s help, cheating on exams.
One day Andrew no longer can stand hanging out with Bush and his two key aides — the ones who really run the country while Bush pretends to, Chaingang and Rumbum, or Cheney and Rumsfeld. To show that he can no longer stand them and to be kicked out of Bush’s White House to escape from the trio, Andrew does a handstand in the Oval Office. Soon he is being led away by Marine guards, to be eventually taken to a clandestine prison, interrogated, and detained indefinitely on the false charge of threatening the president’s life.
But, before he is dragged away, Andrew tells Bush: “You are only the worst so far, there is far worse to come. Perhaps not tomorrow. Perhaps not next year, but you have shown us the path into the Dark Wood…” Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, a president that makes Bush seem almost rational, intelligent, and gracious, we are there, the Dark Wood.
I wish Doctorow had not been so prescient. But since he was, at least he should have been here to witness it. Or maybe not. Doctorow, like most people, probably would have preferred not to live to see his nightmares come true.
Doctorow’s dystopian vision of the future, based on the outrages and absurdities of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime, shows that the Republican party has been headed toward this insanity for a long time. Now, with the Donald, the GOP has arrived there.
Indeed, the roots of Trump’s twisted presidency go even deeper. Nixon’s dirty tricks, racial and ethnic prejudices, and overall meanness were early, ominous signs. Reagan’s “morning in America” was a harbinger for “make America great again,” and his demonization of “welfare queens” provided the ideological groundwork for a social policy of punishing the poor, playing lip service to the middle class while undercutting the foundations for its existence, widely-shared prosperity, all to give huge tax benefits to those at the top.
Trump is not a deviation in the Republican long march to the right; he is the sum and the embodiment of the evil perpetrated by the GOP’s race toward the moral black hole of absolute social injustice.
The Ugly American is the personification of all the things people in the rest of the world dislike about the United States and about Americans. On spring break abroad last week, Trump was the Ugly American on performance-enhancing drugs.
He did not reassure this country’s best allies that he would uphold the key to the NATO alliance — which has served American and Western European interests for almost seven decades — Article 5, which commits all members to come to the defense of any other member that is attacked.
This omission implies at least two important things about Trump. The concepts of solidarity and gratitude are foreign to Donald Trump. Article 5 has been invoked a single time, after 9-11, when the NATO partners unanimously decided to fight for and with a wounded America. This is Trump’s reward.
Second, Trump is unbelievably reckless. The ambiguity he created by failing to provide a ringing endorsement for Article 5 is downright dangerous. It amounts to an invitation for nations to engage in adventurism and test the United States. Article 5 kept peace for a long time in Europe, previously a region of nearly constant war; Trump’s attitude makes conflicts more likely, conflicts that could spin out of control and end it all in a nuclear holocaust.
Earlier, Trump had been in his element, being feted by the leaders of the medieval tyranny of Saudi Arabia.
He was a bit more awkward but still basically comfortable with Israel’s authoritarian Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a bromance between bullies.
With the Pope, Trump was way out his league. Francis alternatively pressured Trump to stick with the Paris climate accord and indirectly teased the president about his weight by asking the First Lady what he fed him. Francis toyed with Trump.
Among the leaders of the European democracies, Trump was back to his real Mr. Hyde self. To their face, he attacked the Europeans as a group for not spending enough on the military. At one point, he singled out Germany as evil. He arrogantly pushed aside and nearly trampled the president of Montenegro, the smallest country in NATO, all so that he, Donald Trump, could be front and center in the photographs.
He left the lofty leaders of Europe, especially the conservative German leader Angela Merkel, aghast, agog, and indignant.
Indignant but not humiliated or without response, France’s young Emmanuel Macron took things in his own hands—literally. When Trump offered a limp hand, a signal of his reluctance to shake hands with the leader who recently trounced Trump’s favorite, fascist candidate, Macron took it and proceeded to mash it in his own so hard and so long Trump’s knuckles turned white. (See photo at top.)
After Trump left Europe, Merkel said in a speech that Europe could no longer rely on the United States and must strike out on its own. In Europe, Trump made a muck, then wallowed in it. Back in the states he found himself deeper under water than when he left, with his own son-in-law now in the eye of the Russia storm.
Trump’s disasters so far have been of his own making. They set the stage for his final undoing. But they won’t make it happen by themselves. Now the actors—the people, the honest public servants, the Democrats, the few Republicans with a conscience and a sense of history—must step upon the stage and ensure that Trump’s ghastly regime ends early in a massive, legal, and peaceful repudiation.