Donald Trump Has Made America a Laughingstock on the World Stage

A joke circulates on social media. A man calls the White House. He says that he wants to be the President of the United States. The operator says: “Are you an idiot?” The man replies: “Is that a requirement of the job?”

The journalist Michael Wolff’s blockbuster Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (published on January 5) is filled with material about President Donald Trump’s character flaws. He is shown to be in equal parts intellectually shallow and arrogant, able to care little for data and yet seized onto any “fact” that he sees as important for his current obsession. Whimsy, it seems, is the main motivation for Trump’s policies. He does not choose John Bolton for his Cabinet because he does not like his mustache. He was bored of the conversation about health care reform and tried repeatedly to shift the conversation to golf. The book conveys the opinions of Trump’s close advisers, many of whom have choice pejoratives to define him. Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster calls him a “dope,” while Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called him an “idiot.”

A frisson of delight has gone through the U.S. press corps, which enjoys a good scandal. The media, in a peculiar way, are a perfect mirror of Trump’s vanity and myopia. Trump is said to hate reading policy documents. He is pickled in his campaign rhetoric, unwilling to find a pathway from his speeches to policy. The media are much like this. They neglect detailed assessments of policy issues for scandal and celebrity. Trump is their perfect candidate. He gives them sound bites and glamour. They mock him, but what they mock him for are their own failings.

This is a presidency that is seized by the way the press depicts the president. Trump is tied up in knots with his frustration with the media. He announced a “fake news” awards show, which he had to postpone later. He dismisses as “fake” any media coverage that belittles or challenges him. He spends a great deal of each day watching the television news and responding to it on Twitter. This is what bothers him—the coverage rather than anything else. But this is not something new. U.S. presidents have for long been occupied with poll figures and news coverage, with spin more important than fact. Trump is merely the most extreme version of democracy being reduced to image rather than substance.

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