James Robert Clapper was a lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force. He served in senior positions in the Pentagon and was Director of National Intelligence during most of Barack Obama’s term in office. After hearing Donald Trump’s speech in Phoenix on Tuesday night, Clapper looked perturbed. He told CNN that the speech was “downright scary and disturbing”. He said Trump could pose a threat to national security. He envisaged a scenario in which an out-of-control Trump blows his top at Kim Jong-Un and fires off nuclear missiles at North Korea.
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For Trump fans, like the thousands who packed Phoenix’s Convention Center on Tuesday night, Clapper’s distinguished service for his country was instantly expunged and he automatically turned into a traitorous liberal whiner out to destroy their hero. Likud diehards react the exact same way whenever a senior Israeli army officer or defense official dares question the infinite wisdom of their chosen one, Netanyahu. But for the rapidly growing majority of Americans who now reject Trump, Clapper’s alarm will strike a chord. Anyone who watched Trump’s egocentric, belligerent, inciting, divisive, deceptive and generally unhinged appearance in Phoenix must have realized that it’s high to move from concern to anxiety and to start preparing for total panic.
It’s not that this speech was significantly different than previous stormy rallies that Trump held during his election campaign and since taking office. If it sparks unusual shock and anger it is because of context and the effects of accumulation. The speech capped one of the most difficult weeks in Trump’s presidency, which has seen very few easy ones, after his fatally flawed reaction to the violence in Charlottesville. Trump’s appearance will amplify doubts about his fitness to serve as president, which have been metastasizing inside the Republican establishment. Rather than trying to heal the wounds that he opened this week, Trump opted to pour salt on them.
Less than 24 hours after he read out a speech he obviously had not written about the future of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, which created the usual fleeting delusion that he’s turned a page and changed his tune, Trump made it abundantly clear that what was is identical to what will be. If his new Chief of Staff John Kelly is an honest man, he will look at himself in the mirror this morning and admit that his efforts to restrain Trump have failed and that his chances of success in the future are almost non-existent. Whether this obligates him to resign or to try to salvage what he can is a separate matter but it’s a dilemma that grows harder, for Kelly and others, day by day. Trump may not be a great fan of books, but he can read the writing on the wall. His speech channeled his pent up bitterness and frustration with his deteriorating position in the polls and the breakdown of his relations with the GOP leadership - crucially, as the New York Times reports, with Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell.
As a full-fledged narcissist, he accused the media of his own faults, and as a dedicated demagogue, he blamed it for much of America’s other troubles as well. Trump claimed the media had distorted his condemnation of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, but like a common con man he omitted his incriminating rebuke to violence “on both sides” from the text of his statement, which he read out to the crowd. He described the media as the embodiment of evil, the source of everything rotten and bad, an enemy of America and its people, the agent of its division and strife, an agent for foreign interests. Excuse the comparison which might disturb some readers, but if you replace the word “media” with the word “Jews,” Trump’s speech sounds like something Nazi rabble-rousers would say in Berlin in the 1930s.
Trump shamelessly presented himself as the most successful president ever, at this point in tenure. He threatened a U.S. government shutdown and intimated that the NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico was on life support. While he tried to cast himself as a healer and uniter, he all but pardoned controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted for disobeying a court order to stop discriminating against Hispanics, (and not for doing his job, as Trump claimed). The President continued to insult Republican lawmakers, even though he needs every last one of them. He berated both of Arizona’s Republican Senators, Jeff Flake and the ailing John McCain, without mentioning them by name, even though his aides asked him not to. Trump, who hates being told what to say or do, showed them who’s the boss.
He’s like the scorpion from the fable that excuses the fact that he has stung the frog that’s carrying him across the river, causing both of them to drown, by saying that it’s just his personality. He can’t really behave otherwise. If Trump’s shameful, incendiary, self-pitying diatribe in Phoenix will be recorded in history as a tipping point, it is because it will mark the moment when the reality that this is Trump and there will be no other was finally seared into the collective consciousness. The speech will galvanize opposition to Trump, convince Republicans to steer clear of him, bring talk of declaring him unfit and invoking the 25th amendment closer to the surface and increase the apprehension, in Washington and in other capitals around the world, about an America who is led by a man who struts his selfishness, his weakness, his fragile ego and his inability to control himself in front of the whole world.
Even if Trump won’t carry out Clapper’s nightmarish visions, he is bringing shame on the American presidency. His behavior weakens the U.S. in the eyes of most countries, with the glaring exception of some equally gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip regimes in the Middle East. Trump is shattering the admiration that most of the world has held for centuries for the resilience of American democracy and for the strength of its values. As if his victory in the November wasn’t embarrassing enough, Trump insists on humiliating America for everyone to see. He is inflaming his opponents, goading his supporters, fostering hatred between whites and minorities and vice versa. He is taking America to a dangerous place and could lead the world to a new, threatening and sinister era.
Perhaps he is aware of all this, consciously or subconsciously. Perhaps his latest provocations are more calculated than they seem. Perhaps Trump no longer wants to be president, as some American analysts opined after his speech. Perhaps he is actually sending out subliminal signals, a voiceless plea, for someone to step forward and relieve him of the harsh punishment that the gods have inflicted on him - and everyone else - for his hubris.