The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote: “A man’s character is his fate.” This truth neatly captures Donald Trump’s rise — and inevitable fall — as a presidential contender.
The Trump persona is not that of a seasoned political leader, but an entertainer, a combustible mix of P.T. Barnum updated by Kim Kardashian. His seeming supernova exemplifies how social media and reality TV have debased our sense of who to admire, and for what. And his reflex to demean anyone who displeases him — including women — combines the pollution of our civic dialogue with our appetite for seeing others humiliated as entertainment.
Trump offers no real program — he offers himself. While many politicians may be narcissists, Trump alone treats narcissism as a contest he must win. To him, his dominance of the airwaves must seem absurdly easy, confirming his rightful place as the center of public attention. The seriousness of his current enterprise — becoming the most powerful man in a troubled world — does not move him to undertake the difficult task of truly understanding that world. In Trump’s inner world, the world will come to him.
So in place of substance, he skillfully channels the primal scream of those gripped by media — fueled outrage that contempt for our government and those who lead it is program enough. Thus, his pronouncements on policy are self-preening blather. His immigration plan is incoherent, unachievable, inhumane, budget-busting, and borderline racist. His foreign policy, when he deigns to have one, consists of chest-thumping. His economic program is a muddled melange of populism, protectionism, and tax proposals that don’t add up. As a political thinker, he is Herman Cain on steroids. In this intellectual Sahara, the media greet any sprout of sanity — his denunciation of the Iraq war, repealing tax breaks for hedge fund managers — as a sign of growth. And the 24-hour cacophony of Trump as a political colossus by commentators with their jaws agape obscures the fact that, as a candidate, he has not been with us for two years, but two months, with 14 months to go until November 2016.
For Trump, those months will come to feel like a merciless persecution. For the flip side of his self-involvement is that he is a thin-skinned bully, and such people do not endure attacks with grace. Forty years of self-celebration have scattered nuggets of video which his opponents will convert to bullets. They will be fired at his heart by the Republican establishment and donor classes, their own hearts filled with a particularly ruthless loathing — not simply because they fear that Trump will lose to the hated Hillary Clinton, but because his intimations of tariffs and tax hikes is, to them, an economic sacrilege that threatens their own place in the firmament. As the primary field narrows, one or two well-financed opponents will — as Mitt Romney did to his rivals in 2012 — carpet bomb Trump with viciously crafted negative ads from state to state, a drumbeat of humiliation that will make Megyn Kelly’s recitation of sexism look like a Caribbean cruise. Slowly, inevitably, Trump will crack, flooding the maws of an avid media with a tsunami of whining, petty feuds, and overblown grievances.
His audience will be watching, and not kindly — some out of sheer fascination with his self-destruction, more because most Americans are, at bottom, sensible. They want an optimistic leader who imbues them with hope, not a self-obsessed whiner whose endless psychodrama is, in the end, exhausting. Not only will they not want Donald Trump in the White House; they won’t want him in their living rooms. And one by one they will switch the channel, until Trump is left alone on a soundstage, and the lens into which he stares becomes an empty mirror.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 novels.