interesting times

The Presidency of Donald Trump Never Gets Any Less Absurd

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

“Absurd,” it turns out, is a trigger word for Trump, as it well should be. When the prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, was asked to respond to the idea that Donald Trump wanted to “buy” Greenland, she found the mot juste. The proposal was “absurd.” Perhaps at one point at the beginning of the Cold War, some kind of strategic presence in Greenland would have been worth considering briefly. Now? Yes, absurd. The only thing more absurd is canceling a planned state visit to Denmark at the last moment in response to the prime minister pointing out the bleeding obvious, and adding the insult “nasty” to yet another independent woman for good measure. But this too is predictable: “We know that a humiliated narcissist must release his narcissistic rage somehow, best on those who caused his psychic injury.” Bad luck for Denmark.

President Donald Trump is absurd. His presidency is absurd. His party is absurd. We have known this ever since that absurd journey down an escalator, and the surrealism has only intensified since. Perhaps it takes a sane foreigner, not subject to years of almost hourly Trump abuse, to point out the obvious. We have no Executive branch in any meaningful or serious sense. We have a joke that’s wearing thinner by the day. There is no institution or company in America, small or large, that would allow Donald Trump to run or represent it for more than a few days — because most sane institutions see immediately that a rape-y racist with no knowledge base or capacity to learn is an embarrassment, and a huge liability. If appointed the head of, say, a local library on January 20, 2017, Trump would have been fired by January 21.

His economic policy is absurd. In a time of intense economic inequality, he has made the rich far richer, at the expense of the nation’s fiscal balance, during a long recovery. The deficit has exploded; tax cuts did not add any real growth; and an unpredictable trade war with everyone is weighing down the economy. His climate policy is absurd: denying that a crisis exists and encouraging more fossil fuel use. His immigration policy is absurd: the deployment of cruelty as a substitute for legislation even as illegal immigration surges past the peak of his predecessor. His foreign policy is absurd: enabling North Korea, trashing NATO, blowing up summits.

His physical appearance is absurd: the fake orange tan, with the white circles around the eyes, the massive, hair-sprayed and dyed pompadour. How many people in public life look anything like that? His endless lies and contradictions are absurd. And his psychological disorder — the narcissism that guards against any hint of his own absurdity — is getting obviously worse. And it was always going to get worse. Someone with malignant narcissism has a familiar path, as Elizabeth Mika presciently wrote the week after his inauguration:

It’s not only that he will never get better, but it is certain that he will get worse. There has never been a case of a malignant narcissist in power whose pathology improved, or even remained stable: They always deteriorate, and often rapidly, as they become drunk on (what they see as) now unlimited power and adulation.

In just a few minutes this week, standing next to a noisy helicopter, in what now passes as the only form of press conference that still exists in this White House, he said a series of things that were absurd. He touted a new medicine to cope with veterans’ suicides; he answered a question about loopholes in gun background checks by talking about loopholes in immigration law; he said without irony that in America, “we have great mental illness”; he said that American Jews who vote Democrat are “disloyal to Israel,” as if dual loyalty were an expectation and not an anti-Semitic slur; he said — while looking heavenward — that he is “the chosen one” to tackle trade with China; he said “I have many people from Denmark who live in the United States”; he claimed his predecessor changed the rules on family separation in immigration when his own administration did it; he said (for the umpteenth time) that his term of office might last another 14 years; he threatened to release ISIS fighters in Germany and France to punish those allies; and he said he is “very seriously” considering an executive order to change the Constitution.

If you can begin even to engage this bizarre, dangerous, deranged, and ignorant stream of consciousness, and try to discern some kind of logic or pattern, your brain will break. The only reasonable response to this president’s words is to burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all. Marx distinguished between farce and tragedy, but Trump conflates the two. He is a tragic farce, driven by and captive to a form of narcissism that is, quite simply, incompatible with any form of responsibility. He is delusional. And the only persuasive thread of his reelection pitch — that the economy is booming — is beginning to fray. And that could make his absurdity even worse: “We know that a humiliated narcissist must release his narcissistic rage somehow.”

After all, he invented a reality: that the economy was a disaster the day before he was elected and a miracle the day after, and will now have to confront that it was an invention. Every positive stat he has cited could well come back to discredit him; his own sad attempt to claim credit for everything could well morph into blame for everything; and what will he do then? He will lash out at the Fed; he will become more paranoid; the grandiosity that accompanies his mental condition will likely increase. He will rage and distract; he will smear and inflame; and his deterioration will become more than an absurdity. It will become, as it has already, a massive liability.

The world is laughing at us, as he once claimed (when it wasn’t). And the laughter is entirely justified. If only more Americans would break free of his spell and do the same. We are all Denmark now.

Coming to a Public School Near You?

For the longest time, whenever I’d raise the alarm about the impact of campus extremism, I’d be told I was hallucinating, that it was only a fringe issue, and that it had no salience beyond a few Ivy League bastions of lefty intent. Critical race, queer, and gender theory were just academic fads — without any real impact on the broader population. The fact that major corporations had adopted these theories as the basis for their employment practices, that the mainstream media presents this ideology as self-evident, and that an entire elite generation has been told that the United States was founded on and is defined by brutal racism, did not seem to count.

Now comes a proposed K-12 curriculum in California that would enforce these new orthodoxies on the high-school population. It would teach kids in an ethnic studies course how to “critique [sic] empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” The aim is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.” Children will learn to spell women as “womxn,” and be versed in what critical race theorists call “misgynoir.”

Now, one might expect New York Times reporters to believe that “racism and white supremacy [are] the foundation of all of the systems in the country,” but you can choose not to buy the Times. Public schools? Mandatory. This is where the real action is in “reframing” the entire idea of America.

And so kids in high school in the biggest state in the country would no longer be learning history, but “hxrstory.” They would be instructed in the reality of “cisheteropatriarchy.” They would be told that there is no debate about race or gender or sexuality, just a choice between siding with oppression or liberation. They would be instructed that capitalism is a function of racism. Since California has mandated that, as of 2024, all kids will have to endure a semester of these “ethnic studies” to graduate, the possibility of mass indoctrination is real.

The good news is that the response to this monstrosity of grievance studies has been overwhelmingly negative. Even the Los Angeles Times found it to be agitprop masquerading as scholarship. The classic hard-left view of Israel and full-on endorsement of BDS enraged some Jewish opponents. Other minorities complained. The governor has opined that it needs major revision. But the closed circle that wrote the report — the 20-member Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Advisory Group — was simply reflecting what is now the received wisdom in American higher education. Hence the need to include a study of “borders, borderlands, mixtures, hybridities, nepantlas, double consciousness and reconfigured articulations, even within and beyond the various names and categories associated with our identities.” What?

Perhaps I will be proven wrong and when this kind of ideological discourse gets exposed more fully, opposition will grow, and it will become more marginalized. This California example gives me some hope for more strenuous resistance. Studies of the ethnic histories and cultures that make up America — including those lumped together as “white” — are not unworthy parts of a curriculum. It’s just that it is close to impossible to discuss them today without importing an ideology that is as totalist as it is intolerant of dissent.

Late-Summer Noise Pollution

In the last column of the summer, allow me to vent a pet peeve: people who think other people should be forced to listen to their music.

I have to say I find this rather common activity to be beyond my understanding. You go to a beach — a place designed to get away from everything. There are lots of people there. So you bring along a boom box and broadcast it as loudly as possible. Others do the same. The result is the opposite of getting away from anything. It’s a cacophony of boom-boom-boom, mixed with others’ discordant tastes, a maddening, deafening drumbeat of urbanity. Or you’re walking down a sidewalk or biking through a neighborhood and rather than listening to your favorite tunes on AirPods or earplugs, you carry a compact speaker, and blast it so that everyone within your immediate vicinity is forced into the party.

Okay, so I’m becoming a major curmudgeon — but honestly, why? The other day, I was on a beach, a 40-minute walk through marshland from the nearest road, to the very end of a sandbar as beautiful and as peaceful as heaven if heaven had greenflies. As I lay out under the sun, a steady drumbeat reached me. I looked around expecting to spot a boom box and asking politely if they could turn it down, or simply getting up and moving further away from the noise. No boom box to be found. Eventually I could see in the distance that a group of party gays had brought a DJ, a turntable, and had hoisted up a speaker about eight feet into the air and were turning the entire beach into their dance club. On beaches, sound carries. I could hear it a hundred yards away.

I know that most modern people are terrified of silence. But we now have technology where you can always have noise pumped into your head all the time if you want, via things called headphones, and the sound is clearer, less interrupted, and much more enveloping. I use these all the time. It’s amazing how you can have a concert-level sound in your ears — and leave everyone else in peace. So why the broadcasting?

Here’s my best bet. Part is probably just exhibitionism: showing the world how cool you are. Part may be a genuine desire to improve the days of everyone you meet, near or far, by introducing them to your superior or just different tastes, whether they like it or not. Part may be connected with the collapse of real-world community in the online age, so that you literally lose the capacity to interact with others in real life, and so can’t fully understand why others might feel assaulted by your noise. Part may also simply be the lure of having a soundtrack on for your life, while still being able to hear other sounds.

But part is also just solipsistic assholery.

See you the Friday after Labor Day.

Andrew Sullivan: President Trump Never Gets Any Less Absurd