Back in 1992, when Ross Perot was running for president, he used to famously say that America’s debt was like the crazy aunt we keep down in the basement: “All the neighbors know she’s there, but nobody wants to talk about her.”
A quarter century later, that proverbial crazy aunt resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and everyone in Washington is seemingly ignoring it.
Perhaps ignoring is the wrong word because everyone in Washington knows that Donald Trump is unfit to be president — they’re just not all that willing to come out and say it.
As Michael Wolff’s new tell-all book “Fire and Fury’’ shows, a healthy chunk of Trump’s own staff believe he’s not up to the job. A few Democrats are questioning Trump’s fitness — though most have been unwilling to voice these concerns publicly. Republicans are deathly afraid to openly question the president. Reporters speak in euphemisms about their personal concerns or declare they are not doctors, so it would be wrong for them to diagnose the president. But if you talk to these folks in private, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who don’t believe that Trump is not just unwell but unfit to carry out his responsibilities. This isn’t some minority view among anti-Trump partisans. I’d be willing to wager that it is a consensus opinion in official Washington.
I get the concerns about trying to play pop psychologist with Trump, but one doesn’t need to have a PhD to conclude that a man who calls himself a “very stable genius” and says his “mental stability” is one of his greatest assets is neither a genius nor stable.
Trump’s stunning incoherence, his childlike impulsiveness, his limitless need for validation, his lack of empathy, and his unceasing dishonesty since the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015 tell us what so many are afraid to say openly about the president’s mental acuity.
Indeed, the spectacle this weekend of Trump aide and the White House’s top apparatchik, Stephen Miller, being interviewed by Jake Tapper on CNN was a disquieting reminder of how damaged our president truly is.
Miller basically parroted the ramblings of America’s Tweeter-in-Chief. He complained about the Fake News media. He bashed Steve Bannon for his “grotesque comments” about the president. He actually called Trump a “political genius” and said that he’s tapped into something “magical” that’s happening in America.
But there’s no real mystery as to what was going on. Miller had been sent to CNN so that Trump could sit before his only true friend, television, and watch a besotted sycophant stroke his massive ego. That Miller was a willing participant in this act of personal humiliation is a disquieting insight into his own peculiar psychology, but that’s a discussion for another day. The real story is that White House aides have been reduced to court jesters whose number one task is to tell the Emperor his clothes are the finest in the land. And again, everyone knows it. Tapper even made reference to it.
This collective disinclination to address the elephant in the room of Trump’s presidency is, I’d speculate, driven in part by the fact that, for many observers, Trump has yet to do anything truly awful. Sure, his aggressive deportation of undocumented immigrants is breaking up families and spreading fear across the country. And his public statements and tweets about using the Department of Justice to prosecute his political enemies are systematically undermining the rule of law. There is also that growing body of evidence that Trump has actively tried to obstruct justice. But it’s not like he’s started a war or anything.
It is, however, highly problematic to wait for a man who for more than two years has acted erratically and refused to abide by long-standing political norms to do something really crazy before doing something about it. Are we going to wait until true disaster strikes — like a preemptive war with North Korea or removal of the special counsel, Robert Muller — before Congress and the White House staff choose to act?
To be honest, I’m skeptical even this would rouse Republicans to action, but for the rest of official Washington it’s time to stop dancing around the reality of this president and articulate what so many of us say in private — the president is not just unfit for office, his continued presence in the White House puts us all at risk.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.