It’s a truly disconcerting time in this once great nation, a week in which it’s hard to know what to be more dismayed about, President Trump’s prejudice or his inability to accept reality.
The first, of course, is Trump being Trump, which is to say, a bigot. And not a quiet bigot, but one who regularly uses bigotry and fearmongering to galvanize his base. And who, by retweeting anti-Muslim propaganda from a far-right British hate group, has once again embarrassed the United States on the international stage.
It’s impossible to say you’re shocked. Not at this point. Bias and bigotry are part and parcel of Trump and his movement. Having a president who is rebuked by world leaders and celebrated by racists has become the new normal.
What’s truly astounding, however, are reports in both The New York Times and The Washington Post that Trump is privately telling people he believes the “Access Hollywood” tape on which he bragged about grabbing women’s genitals may be a fake. According to the Times, shortly before his inauguration, Trump told one senator that “we don’t think that was my voice,” and has since stunned aides by repeatedly suggesting the voice on the tape wasn’t his. Privately, he’s also still questioning the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
Now, politicians naturally want to minimize their bad moments, and Trump’s crude remarks about groping women and his racially tinged “investigation” of Obama’s birth certificate were two colossal embarrassments.
But how on God’s green earth can any rational person suggest that wasn’t Trump on the “Access Hollywood” tape? Billy Bush has expressed remorse for enabling and laughing at Trump’s boorish remarks; does Trump think Bush has been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter? And how can any clear-eyed person remotely grounded in reality think that Obama’s long-form birth certificate isn’t real?
These are the kind of things that you might hear from cross-eyed conspiracy theorists like Joe Arpaio or Jerome Corsi or the kooks at InfoWars. But the fact that Trump is saying these kinds of things in private conversations suggests it’s not a political pose, but something he actually gives credence to. That speaks of a man unable to accept realities uncongenial to his view of himself, one who can will himself to believe whatever is necessary to maintain his self-image.
It doesn’t matter much if Trump really believes his silly Wednesday boast that “there has never been a 10-month president that has accomplished what we have accomplished.” But what if his doubts about the intelligence community’s judgment that Russia favored his candidacy and thus conducted a secret campaign — replete with the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s e-mail — to boost his prospects aren’t merely political deflection? What if Trump’s ego simply won’t let him accept that reality? Can he really evaluate Vladimir Putin’s other machinations with the clarity required in foreign policy?
Similarly, what if he can’t move beyond the insults directed his way from North Korea and evaluate US options there in a sober, clear-headed way?
In an ideal world, congressional leaders would do more to try to constrain the president. But House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell are supine. And with a couple of honorable exceptions, few Republican senators have any stomach for that task either.
Turning Congress over to the Democrats in the 2018 midterms would help reimpose real-world constraints. Still, any change of congressional control is at least a year away. And after a long and difficult 11 months with an erratic, unstable president, things are taking a turn for the worse.