Even by the Olympian standards of Washington, D.C., Donald Trump is an exceptionally dishonest man. Among other things, we now know that well into his forties, he masqueraded as his own publicist in order to brag about himself over the phone to reporters. But it’s what he has said without cover of an alias that’s most concerning, for at times his statements have transcended dishonesty to demonstrate a wholesale detachment from reality.
Trump was a birther, for example, and that is only the first of several distinctions disqualifying him from any office of trust. We know, and always knew, that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, because two newspapers there reported it at the time. Besides, it always looked more likely than not that his mother’s citizenship rendered the question of his birthplace moot.
So why would Trump go on record as a birther? And why would he have said that the investigators he sent to Hawaii “can’t believe what they’re finding,” when they couldn’t have been finding anything? The claims brought him no money, and no attention that any serious person would want. Why would a sane person, even if — especially if — he were an egotist, want his name to be associated with dirt and stupidity? If the motive was racism, why not just suggestively question the Americanness of Obama’s upbringing or “heritage”? Why pursue the hopeless topic of citizenship? To gain the support of large numbers of the simple-minded, in a bid to jump-start a broader coalition? One wouldn’t expect things to work that way, and in fact they didn’t: Trump began his run last year polling at one to two percent.
No, it appears the answer is a simpler one: Trump latched onto birtherism because he’s a guy who never met a crackpot theory he doesn’t like. In other words, he’s a little nuts. This is a man who believes that autism is caused by vaccines, who waved a National Enquirer article linking Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination, who found instantly credible rumors that Antonin Scalia was assassinated. When I have the misfortune of finding myself next to such a person on a bus or elevator, I assume, in all seriousness, that he needs mental health care. Doubly so if he shows signs of megalomania and encourages those around him to commit acts of violence.
Trump’s craziest and most frightening fantasy involves the killing of the non-combatant wives of terrorists. The idea is to transform the U.S. military into an instrument of state-sponsored terror, heedless of legal or military objections. This is madness of a more dangerous kind, and one that should not be forgotten by the press as we pass into the summer and fall. Even if Trump has backed away from this position recently, he maintained it for four months, and that is not something a sane person would do; even his supporters didn’t like it.
Holding fast to journalistic norms in this most abnormal season, the press continues to ask banal questions about whether Donald Trump can pivot toward more presidential behavior as November nears. In his case, of course, this is exactly the wrong question, for we would expect a marginal lunatic to be able to feign normalcy when needed. The point is that it doesn’t work the other way: No entirely sane candidate would feign the bursts of insanity we’ve heard from Mr. Trump.
Trump’s damn-the-Geneva-Conventions approach has an obvious antecedent in the Bush-Cheney regime, and the popular appeal, or at least grudging acceptance, of such approaches reminds us how far down the 9/11 attacks, combined with demographic shifts and a tough economic climate, have knocked the American people, in particular the GOP electorate. Mad regimes require the support of mad crowds, and we’ve had bumper crops of those lately.
Large numbers of these voters simply want to be saved. They want a messiah: a two-fisted extra-legal superhero, unbounded by Congress or international agreements, to work some magic and make them safe. They want a king. They want one so badly they’re ready to put someone in the White House who consults primarily with himself on foreign policy “because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
Hillary Clinton is a calculatingly dishonest adult. Donald Trump is a wildly dishonest sub-adolescent who behaves as though he’s deranged. It’s an unprecedentedly dreary choice we’ve given ourselves this November, but an important one nevertheless.