The Trump We Did Not Want to See 1

Much of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an American horror and science fiction writer who worked during the first decades of the 20th century, is defined by individual encounters with the incomprehensible, with sights, sounds and ideas that undermine and disturb reality as his characters understand it. Faced with things too monstrous to be real, but which exist nonetheless, Lovecraftian protagonists either reject their senses or descend into madness, unable to live with what they’ve learned.

It feels, at times, that when it comes to Donald Trump, our political class is this Lovecraftian protagonist, struggling to understand an incomprehensibly abnormal president. The reality of Donald Trump — an amoral narcissist with no capacity for reflection or personal growth — is evident from his decades in public life. But rather than face this, too many people have rejected the facts in front of them, choosing an illusion instead of the disturbing truth.

The past week has been a prime example of this phenomenon. On Thursday night, the United States killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran leader of the Islamic Republic’s Quds Force and one of the most powerful military leaders in the region. The strike was sudden and unexpected. The White House notified Congress only after the fact, with a brief, classified document.

The assassination of Suleimani was tantamount to a declaration of war and has escalated tensions between the United States and Iran. Tehran has already promised “harsh revenge” against the United States, while Trump said he would “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran made good on its threat, vowing an attack on “52 Iranian sites” including locations “important to Iran & the Iranian culture.”

This standoff, which in its latest incarnation saw Iranian missiles sailing toward bases in Iraq on Tuesday night, is so consequential that it’s been hard not to impute some logic to the president’s actions, even as many observers acknowledge the lies and dysfunction surrounding the attack. It’s only natural. As humans, we want to impose order on what we see. As Americans, we want to believe our leaders understand the gravity of war. Traditional news outlets published detailed descriptions of the president’s decision-making process. Sympathetic observers, like Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon, hailed the strike as a “stunning blow to international terrorism and a reassertion of American might.” Cable news analysts spoke as if this was part of a considered plan for challenging the Iranian government.

But we’ve learned since that the strike on Suleimani was almost certainly another impulsive action from an impatient president. Pentagon officials have said they were stunned by the decision. According to reporting in The Times, they gave Trump the option of an attack with the expectation that he would reject it for being too extreme. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been pushing for an attack on Iran for some time, but the past few days of confusion — of mixed-messages and shifting rationales — are evidence that this strike was made with little thought to the consequences, justified after the fact with claims of imminent danger.

This is reckless but it isn’t shocking. Trump is not a steady hand. He’s never been one. Three years in office have neither changed his character nor enhanced his capabilities. He is as ignorant and incurious as a president as he was as a candidate (and as a would-be mogul before that). His main goal is self-preservation, and he’ll sacrifice anything to achieve it. His current assault on the authority of Congress — his refusal to have the White House or members of his administration release documents or obey subpoenas — is an attempt to escape responsibility for his own unethical (and potentially illegal) actions. He is self-involved, unethical and unstable — a dangerous combination to have for the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military forces, under pressure from impeachment and a re-election campaign.

I think most observers know this. But the implications are terrifying. They suggest a much more dangerous world than the one we already believe we live in, where in a fit of pique, a single action taken by a single man could have catastrophic consequences for millions of people. This isn’t a new observation. When he was still a rival — and not one of Trump’s most reliable allies — Senator Marco Rubio of Florida warned Republicans that they shouldn’t give “the nuclear codes of the United States” to an “erratic individual.” Hillary Clinton said Trump was “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility” and that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Fear of what Trump would do with the power of the presidency was so acute that his defenders actually urged critics to ignore his actual words in favor of symbolic understanding, to take him “seriously” but not “literally.” You can even understand the constant drive to normalize Trump as an attempt to turn away from the reality of what he is for fear of what it means.

Somehow, we’re still doing it. Everything we know about Trump says he doesn’t make considered choices. Pence and Pompeo may have campaigned for an attack on Iran, but there’s no evidence that Trump — the actual president — has planned for the consequences, or has a rationale for the strike other than his usual brand of bellicose nationalism. When Iran retaliated Tuesday night, the president did not speak, although of course he tweeted. No one knows what the administration will do next.

In his careless thrashing, the president may have started a war with no plan to end it and no regard for the lives that will be lost. The situation is precarious. It’s scary to think about. But we cannot look away.

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