Faced with the possibility of impeachment, President Donald Trump has declared Congress’s inquiry to be a political “lynching” and his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, has called Ambassador William Taylor, who provided damning testimony under a House subpoena, a “radical” bureaucrat.
These are words of desperation. They are also the sound of reality crushing the edifice of fantasy and lies that surrounds Donald Trump.
Over the decades, Trump constructed and then inhabited a public persona that is powerful but unnatural. As a businessman and TV personality, Trump was, perhaps, the greatest illusionist of our time. He has repeated, ad nauseum, his unverified claims of wealth, sexual magnetism, and brilliance — a “very stable genius” — in an effort to produce the image of a great man.
Trump burnished the image with egocentric declarations and then, at some point, adopted the larger-than-life persona as a permanent avatar. With legions of believers affirming the truth of his greatness, he rose to the presidency on the power of false advertising. This power, wielded at campaign performances and in alarming tweets, turned many Republicans into devotees who stood in Trump’s shadow hoping to avoid his wrath.
But the theatrical dynamic of the Trump presidency was threatened every time real life collided with Trump’s cartoon. His failures have often come at moments when he should be guided by a moral compass. But no one who is so devoted to a false persona could possess this kind of ethical reflex.
Public rage at the President’s actions started to grow louder — from outcries of concern when the future of Dreamers hung in the balance to condemnation of the White House policy of separating children from asylum-seeking parents. Trump’s true character and his political weakness grew ever clearer.
And now, following a whistleblower’s complaint filed in August and subsequent testimony from government officials, we have evidence to show that Trump requested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival, while withholding aid to that embattled nation.
With this revelation, the already cracked facade of the Trump avatar began to crumble. He was not the great man he claimed to be — he was a man who played dirty to get his way. Congress quickly organized to investigate. Witnesses trooped to Capitol Hill and almost every day brought a blow that broke another piece of the Trump myth.
On Tuesday, Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, spent almost 10 hours with members of the House who are investigating the Ukraine scandal. According to Taylor’s testimony, the President had withheld foreign aid to Ukraine in an effort to get Zelensky to publicly open investigations that would help Trump’s 2020 reelection. Trump likely presumed that Ukraine would give in to secure the funds it needed to defend itself in an ongoing war with Russian-backed forces in the east.
The Russian connection echoes a long-running theme of the Trump presidency, which has cast doubt on his ability to lead the nation — from Trump’s criticism of the NATO alliance to his request for Russia to be admitted to the G7 economic summit countries, to his withdrawal of American troops from Syria. Indeed, last week Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi noted that “all roads lead” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After Pelosi walked out of the meeting where she raised Putin’s specter, Trump tweeted a photo accompanied by the phrase, “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown,” a clear effort to invalidate her criticism and maintain any iotas that remain of his grand persona.
Then, on Monday, Trump seemed to yet again try and regain his power by implying the Ukraine scandal couldn’t be significant because it revolved around a “perfect” letter he wrote to Zelensky. It’s the sort of distortion of the facts one would expect from a man whose comforting false reality is falling apart. As analysts have pointed out, Trump’s contact with Zelensky involved not a letter, but a telephone call which was far from perfect. Indeed it was only “perfect” if one was looking for an example of a president abusing his office.
As much as Trump and his apologists repeat the phrase “no quid pro quo” to persuade us that he wasn’t demanding that a foreign country do his political dirty work, it’s hard to read the situation any other way. Similarly, no number of twisted words will make Trump into a man worthy of the office he holds.
When we hear the gears of the Trump machine grind and see the decorative pieces of chrome loosen and fall, we are witnessing the results of a confrontation between reality and fantasy. This observation doesn’t diminish the power of Trump’s marketing method. It does, however, suggest its limits.
As President, Trump now finds himself atop a vast bureaucracy filled with professionals who owe their allegiance to the Constitution, not the man in the Oval Office, and didn’t enter service with dreams of wealth and fame. The commander in chief cannot control them with inducements or threats.
Although no one can be certain of what the future holds, it’s more than reasonable to expect defections from the Trump camp as his supporters realize there’s not much muscle and bone beneath the President’s fearsome exterior. More rage will emanate from Trump as he struggles to maintain his former image against the reality being revealed by Congress. The man has become his myth and we should expect him to fight as if his very life depends on it.