It is impossible not to be fascinated by Donald Trump’s focus on himself. You can’t write anything new about his egotism, his bragging and re-bragging, his historical fantasies where he plays the star, because it’s all been done so often.
So let’s take that as a given. When Donald Trump talks or writes books or sends Tweets, he can’t stop talking about himself in ways unique to him. “I will be so good at the military your head will spin.”
Every president and presidential candidate is an egotist, believing that the whole country should vote for them to hold the highest office. No other person matches the power, the attention from the whole world, the gravity of the American President. The Presidents I have seen have all been judged by their character as much as by their political success. The character of our possible leader is one of our most important political questions.
American presidents have never become The Leader, Il Duce or Der Führer. The system of checks and balances is a big idea that high school kids must learn about American government. The founders knew no models to teach them about separation of powers or national democracy. They made them both up and they’re still working.
Perhaps not working so well now. Yet the political struggle between a Republican Congress and a Democratic President over the past 21 years has led neither to economic disaster nor military intervention nor coups d’état. The closest we have come to national breakdown were the two government shutdowns by the new Republican majority against President Clinton in the fall of 1995. It happened again against Barack Obama in 2013. Most Americans rejected these shutdowns and blamed the Republicans.
The Republican Congressional refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court is symptomatic of the current deadlock, but also of the importance of the Supreme Court as the appointed adjudicator for these fundamental disputes. The Supreme Court acts independently of the other two branches, and can stop them both in their tracks. No other country has lived for so long under such a system of separated and balanced powers.
We need to be sure that a President has the temperament, the character, and the spirit to be one leader among many, to seek consensus, to stay within the rules which make the President one of three co-equal powers.
Donald Trump has shown only disdain for our system. No candidate for President has ever personally insulted so many people in government as Trump. Trump’s insults show no respect for the other players in the political process, neither legislators nor judges.
Late-night comics are amused by Trump’s constant refrain that he is the best at everything. But that kind of fantastic self-esteem, superiority in every way, and contempt for what anyone else has to offer will not long abide sharing power, being thwarted, being criticized, being out-smarted by other political actors.
Trump scorns democracy as weakness. He mocks the inability of both Republicans and Democrats to break through their stalemate with some powerful stroke. They’re all stupid for not being able to do what he does all the time – lay down the law. Trump’s idea of leadership is strength. His epithets for other politicians are all about stupidity and weakness.
And who is Trump’s model leader? Vladimir Putin. In September, Trump told Bill O’Reilly, “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he's getting an A, and our President is not doing so well.” On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December, he was asked about the connections between Putin and the murder of journalists and political opponents. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country. . . . our country does plenty of killing, too.” In the March 3 Republican debate, he denied that he had expressed admiration for Putin at all: “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” A week later, in the next debate, he said, “I think Putin’s been a very strong leader for Russia, he’s been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”
What has Putin done as Russia’s leader? His troops invaded neighboring Ukraine and shot down a Malaysian passenger plane. The ruble has lost half its value against the dollar in the past two years. The national economy contracted by 4% in 2015, and it’s worse this year. The Russian stock market has lost two-thirds of its value since 2007.
The American government considers Russia to be “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state”, according to secret communications leaked by WikiLeaks. Russia’s entire track and field team has now been banned from the Rio Olympics because of their national policy of doping and deception.
Putin turned Russia’s young democracy into a one-party state with a puppet legislature and heavy censorship. Maybe what Trump especially likes is the cult of personality that Putin has created for himself.
Putin has been a disaster for Russia and a danger to the world. Trump thinks he’s great. He would be a disaster for our balanced democracy.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 21, 2016