Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As America cried out in anguish over the death of George Floyd and the problem of abusive policing, the president retreated to the White House bunker on the advice of his security team. In his mind, he seems to think it’s the riots of the 1960s all over again, and his reaction appears both terrified and angry. “LAW & ORDER!” was the response he voiced via Twitter on Sunday and again in a public address on Monday.
No moment defines the Donald Trump era more precisely, for this is a man whose life has been spent inside a series of bunkers – intellectual, emotional, financial, and political – where he schemed to make us all accept his narcissistic fantasy. This dreamworld, where he would rule as the “I alone can fix it” president has become, not the 1950s idyll of his imagination, but a hellscape governed by a man frozen in his childhood and out of step with the times. The world is spiraling out of control and its most powerful man is abjectly unprepared and unqualified.
Understanding the malignant perspective Trump brings to this crisis, requires a brief tour of his formative years. Before now, the convulsive 1960s was America’s most trying period of unrest in modern times. For some, the trauma of the violent response to the civil rights struggle and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy led to a lifelong struggle to understand and address the pain of our fellow citizens who sought dignity and equality. Others became determined to restore what they imagined was a more orderly reality when rich and powerful white men ruled with unquestioned authority.
As a very wealthy young white man isolated in privilege, Trump didn’t seem to consider the suffering that caused the crises of his youth. Having concluded that those who ruled had responded too weakly when protests led to riots, he adopted a hardcore law and order mentality and began developing a physical and psychological reality where he could be isolated from dissent. By 1989, when he spoke out about the infamous assault on a jogger in Central Park he would decry “the complete breakdown” of society and yearn for the days “when I was young” and he saw cops rough-up two loudmouths who had harassed a waitress. He wanted a return of that sort of policing and called on New York State to adopt the death penalty after the arrests of the five young black and Latino men in the jogger case. Years later, those men were found to be innocent.
By 2016, he would ignore the overall declines in violent crime to paint a dire picture of American life and promise to be the “law and order president.” When asked about when America was great he recalled the time of his childhood, the 1940s and 1950s, when “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do.” He also remains nostalgic for the stereotypical 1950s housewife, speaking wistfully of women like actress Donna Reed, who always seemed to play the role of a gentle and accommodating woman.
Nothing symbolized Trump’s isolation from the rest of us better than the skyscraper he built on Fifth Avenue. Trump Tower was, in its time, the tallest concrete truss structure in the world. Its mass was most evident in the studio where he filmed his TV show The Apprentice where, behind the sets, the unfinished bunker-like walls blocked every sound and every ray of light from the world outside.
From his redoubt, the future president used his TV show and considerable storytelling talent to sell himself to America and the world. The Trump he offered was nothing greater than the blustering, I’m-never-wrong personality he displayed at all times. With nasty vendettas against public figures from actress Bette Midler to former President Barack Obama, Trump divided onlookers into supporters and opponents. His drive for the presidency ended with him in the Oval Office thanks to an Electoral College system that lets the loser of the national vote gain the presidency.
With no experience in government, the military, or genuine civic engagement, Trump brought his true self to the White House, where his team included many who seemed to share his back-to-the-50s mentality. At the Justice Department federal efforts to safeguard civil rights were curbed. The Department of Education rolled back protections for the rights of women and minorities. The Pentagon barred transgender recruits.
Those of us who knew Trump’s limitations feared the kind of crisis that arrived with the deadly coronavirus. There was an inevitability in the way that he first denied the problem and then banked on solutions that reeked of his pre-’60s childhood, when polio was defeated by a vaccine and new drugs arrived to vanquish infectious diseases. Watching him in action, it seemed as if he had never noticed that the world and its problems are complex and require respectful study and difficult, collaborative work. As instant solutions failed to materialize, he did what he has always done; blame others, claim victimhood, refuse accountability. Nothing Trump has ever said sounded more true to his character than his declaration about the nation’s Covid-19 testing delays: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
That the US is a country in crisis, without a leader, is now so obvious that as Time magazine reported last week, cracks are forming in his once-unbreakable base. The doubts the magazine documented before the country was convulsed by recent protests against police brutality reflected his failed response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which contributed to a death toll now exceeding 100,000.
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The virus continues to kill at a higher rate among minorities. The economic toll that includes 40 million unemployed, hit the poor and working class harder than others. Then George Floyd died on a Minneapolis street as a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd, arrested on suspicion that he passed a counterfeit $20 bill, cried out that he could not breathe. Bystanders begged for his life. All this was recorded and as the video circulated, the natural human response – outrage and anger – led to worldwide protests.
That the President has been deaf to the suffering, and incapable of responding like any previous president would, reminds us that his character, his view of humanity, and his life experience, made him wholly unqualified for the role he now occupies. He has lived much of his life in reaction to the trauma of the ’60s and denying that the country has become a more richly diverse place where no one is willing to accept second-class status. Obsessed with the past, he doomed us all to repeat it – and cannot lead us to a better outcome. For that we’ll have to depend on ourselves.