When you follow Donald Trump’s every tweet, speech and campaign promise like I have been doing since I moved to The Independent’s New York bureau in January, you start to wonder whether you’re witnessing performance art rather than a presidency. “I promise not to do this to Greenland!” the president of the United States tweeted this week, with a Photoshopped picture of a gleaming high-rise Trump Tower dumped on top of a small village in the autonomous Danish region (he also retweeted a response from tabloid talk show host Gerald Rivera: “Haha”.)
“Thank you to Wayne Allyn Root for the very nice words. ‘President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world...and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he is the King of Israel. Like he is the second coming of God,” he added to his feed a little later on.
Then there came the rant, of course, which he delivered during a press conference in person. Danish prime minister Mette Friedricksen was “nasty”. If the US economy is headed for a recession, then “let’s have a recession!” A trade war with China? That “should have taken place years ago”. He is “the Chosen One”. So far, so normal.
Because his offer to buy Greenland and a handful of instances of messianic language have made the headlines in quick succession, many are now positing that Trump has finally lost it. He thinks he’s Jesus, he thinks he’s the second coming, he thinks he’s the king of Israel, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter rolled into one. People have begun openly wondering whether he suffers from dementia or is experiencing a psychotic break (an insult, frankly, to those who do have those conditions). Others theorise that perhaps he is, in his own words, a “low-IQ individual” who doesn’t understand that the presidency isn’t a game. Or he’s an evil genius, intent on turning America into an authoritarian state with the help of his new best friend Kim Jong-un.
These are all compelling narratives, and I have no doubt many people believe them. But the truth is that Donald Trump is a privileged, entitled man of average intelligence who knows how to push people’s buttons. Remember when he happily tweeted out a Time magazine cover mock-up that showed “Trump 2020” extending right up to “Trump 2100” and eventually “Trump 4Eva”, not long after saying that he might punish Democrats for bad behaviour by extending the terms of his presidency (something he hinted at again today)? There was a predictable outcry about the leader of the free world not understanding how democracy works. But let’s be honest: we know Trump understands how democracy works. He knows the US system and voters are easily manipulated. He can stay in power within the confines of that existing system, and he knows it. He just has to keep doing what his base loves best: “trolling liberals”.
When Chris Cuomo was recently caught on camera shouting at a detractor who approached him in public and called him “Fredo”, the president retweeted a fan who shared a Godfather meme with the comment “OK Fredo”. One follower responded with a meme of the president looking at his watch, with the words: “Well look what time it is! Time to piss off the liberals… with a tweet!” This narrative about jumpy, easily offended, snowflake “libtards” is one right-wing Americans love. It allows them to be the freedom-lovers, the people who see it and tell it like it is, the intelligent solution to difficult problems. It allows them to be the real Americans. On the other side are silly, flaky, asleep-on-the-job left-wingers who can’t be trusted not to run off after every distraction the president throws at them. While Trump chucks out another tweet to distract them, he gets all the real stuff done in office that Democrats would be too afraid to enact: that’s what he desperately wants his base to believe.
It should be obvious, but the reason Trump supporters love him is not because he respects decorum and the seriousness of his position. He is not a behind-closed-doors president; he is a tweeting-from-bed president, and people who live in states hundreds of miles away from Washington DC and have never been politically engaged appreciated being given a glimpse into something they were never privy to before. Why shouldn’t the presidency be like reality TV, in a country where there are no restrictions on taking cameras into courtrooms and opining whether somebody is guilty or not before they’re convicted? Why should Donald Trump have to use the language everyone else has used, that sober, euphemistic language which is deliberately obfuscating and speaks only to a couple of higher-up officials and a handful of diplomats?
Yes, he behaves like he’s spoilt and childish. Yes, he takes things too far. Yes, he drops cultural references like “Chosen One” into conversation and thanks people for calling him a second coming of God on social media. But why has he upped the ante this week? He’s in 2020 campaigning mode these days, and he’s keen to differentiate himself from the competition. He knows that just whipping people into a racist frenzy at rallies isn’t going to work in isolation; he also needs to laugh with them, have inside jokes with them, be the nudge-nudge-wink-wink president whose rapport is directed not at Harvard-educated lawyers but at people who love The Apprentice and “not being PC”.
In other words, if you get up in arms about Donald Trump going off in the deep end today, you’re playing right into his hands. And he’s relying on you doing it.