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The great crackup: Trump is coming even more undone

2019-08-24

Falling apart... (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Our great American companies are hereby ordered...”

The subtle meter in Americans’ brains that tracks the degree to which the universe seems off its axis has been in a state of constant flux since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, but this week the needle slammed hard into the peg on the right side of the gauge. Red warning lights are flashing across Washington as even the now-typical levels of uncertainty and political chaos reach epic proportions.

It’s almost as if we need a recalibration of the insanity of the Trump era, a new set of definitions about what comprises normal presidential behavior.

Because what’s happening now left normal five towns back, stopped for smokes and brown liquor, and tossed the GPS out the window. This week wasn’t normal, and no amount of whistling past the graveyard will make it any different.

Donald Trump’s affect, speech patterns and overall delivery this week have been alternately horrifying and hilarious. A combination of waking hallucinations, verbal tics, lies surpassing even his usual fabulist standard, aphasias and lunatic blurtings, each public utterance was a moment where the eye of his aides either popped or rolled, depending on their level of cynicism.

His, um, creative pronunciations of common words, mayfly attention to the most ephemeral ideas and high-tempo tweeting left people wondering if a heapin’ helpin’ of large-animal tranquilizer might be in order with the next round of KFC.

This week wasn’t just the usual Trump performance art; it was a new, strange and somewhat frightening level of antic. Even his allies whispered to reporters that perhaps the stress brought on by the prospect of an economic downturn was getting to him. With no adult supervision in the White House left — and no, Ivanka doesn’t count — this is a man on the edge, and there is absolutely nothing and no one to stop him.

When I pressed a senior congressional Republican this week on Trump’s behavior, asking him to tell me anyone who could influence the man, he whispered, “Hannity?”

It was a question, not an answer, and because the answer is absolutely terrifying, no elected Republican wants to admit the truth. What we’re seeing is the real Trump, the unfiltered maniac, not the man who is occasionally chained to a teleprompter and forced to read Kellyanne Conway’s work product aloud.

His sweaty, heavy-breathing press sprays on the White House lawn left reporters in a state of stunned silence, the spittle-flecked rantings of a man determined to machine-gun out a hundred ideas in the time a rational person would discuss two.

We started off with Jewish disloyalty — which, of course, functional agnostic Donald Trump knows only because he “wants them counting his money” — and jumped to the grand plan to conquer Greenland and seize America North from the hands of the perfidious Danes.

The Greenland story would be an SNL skit if it wasn’t so utterly real. Denmark, a close ally for decades, was having none of Trump’s crazy on this one, which of course, set off another round of presidential rage. Calling millions of Jews disloyal to their county because of their political preference sounds...familiar, and not in a good way.

His manic anger at Jews, Denmark, the media (naturally) and the Federal Reserve was a bizarre prelude to the G7 conference this weekend, but remarkably, those didn’t even represent the top of the spectrum of nuttiness.

Speaking of the G-7, Trump has of course divided the allies again, freshly demanding his bestie Vladimir Putin’s Russia be re-admitted to the world body after it was expelled for the illegal invasion of Crimea.

He did it because, of course he did.

Here’s a pointer I can tell you from 30 years now in politics: When an elected official declares himself to be “The Chosen One” or agrees that he’s the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God," it’s not time for a re-election campaign; it’s time for an extended, quiet stay with the nice men in white coats.

If you wanted an example of pure, uncut fiscal insanity, take a quick look at the U.S. budget deficit and our skyrocketing national debt.

Trump, the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” is eager for Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell to unleash another tidal wave of “free” money into the economy by loosening the reins of the money supply. Trump desires this not because he gives a damn about the economy or the American people, but because he certainly gives a damn about his re-election chances.

The weird week ended on the most bizarre note of all. In a moment when Trump’s absurd and failed trade war with China collided with his absurd and failed war with Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, Trump issued two tweets that left Washington and the world scratching their collective heads.

Trump asked in a tweet whether the bigger enemy of America was Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi or Powell. Of the Fed. He really did.

Spoiler alert, Mr. President: If the person in question is ordering the savage beatings and arrests of peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong and holding a million Uighurs in concentration camps, the bigger enemy is always that guy.

Not satisfied in clowning himself with that one, Trump then lowered the bar again and proceeded to jump under it when he said “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China...”

Really, comrade? Is that part of the Five-Year Plan? How's the beet harvest looking this year? Will the Stakhanovite efforts of the peoples’ vanguard at Comrade Newton Leroy Gingrich Heavy Machinery Plant 14 in the Wisconsin Oblast meet the tractor quota?

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I was told reliably that picking winners and losers in the economy and the president trying to decide what companies should and shouldn’t produce was very, very wrong.

A Republican or two may — just may — have said that about Barack Obama. Now? Trump’s tweet was greeted with a silent grimace from the dying band of free-market conservatives but a loud shout from the Trumpentariat.

What used to be the party of free markets and free trade now gives raucous cheers for Chairman Trump’s trade wars and for state control of capitalist enterprises. Sure, Richard Nixon flirted with wage and price controls. He never blurted out orders on where American companies could build their factories.

Although he’s eager to frame the coming recession as either fake news or the fault of the hated liberal media, the growing risk of an economic slowdown seems to be bothering Trump enormously.

He can’t face that his own behavior is a meaningful contributor to the next slump. At no point have we had a president who combines both the blazing ignorance of fundamental economic principles — not just conservative economic principles but any economic principles — with an inclination toward authoritarianism and statism and a dash of madness.

Nothing about the week we just lived through is comforting. Nothing about it can be excused or ignored. Donald Trump is not a well man. Here in the dog days of August, Washington should be its usual sleepy self, the political class having wisely fled the humidity and misery of D.C. Instead, Trump’s performance left people both inside and out of the political class wondering about the president’s sanity and fitness for office.

Most states have some form of involuntary commitment law for people who are a danger to themselves and others. In my home state of Florida, it’s called the Baker Act, and I’ve seen it applied to run of the mill folks up to state legislators. It only takes a competent family member and one other adult to get the ball rolling on Baker Acting someone. So I’m thinking about Trump’s next visit to Mar-A-Lago.

Melania, call me.

Wilson is a Republican political consultant.