Analysis

When Trump’s Bedlam Ends in Tears, He’ll Blame Obama or the FBI or Whatever

Against the unhinged backdrop of the president’s conspiracy theories, the return of his odious immigration ban can seem completely sane.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with James Comey, director of the FBI, at a reception at the White House in Washington, January 22, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem suffered heavy damage in the battles between Christian Crusaders and Muslim Turks, who finally conquered the city in 1244. In order to try and have it fixed, English King Henry III allowed the Italian Bishop of Bethlehem, Goffredo de Prefetti, to set up a Priory of Bethlehem in London that would collect alms for renovations. While they were soliciting funds, the monks at the priory took in the homeless, the infirm and the slightly insane. Eventually, the link with the Holy Land’s Bethlehem was severed, and the priory, now known as Bethlem, turned into Europe’s first lunatic asylum. In popular usage, the word Bethlem morphed into bedlam, which was first used as a generic name for lunatic asylums and then evolved into an adjective denoting chaos, confusion and pandemonium. These days, Washington D.C. often seems like the capital of bedlam.

Don’t let read-outs of supposedly somber conversations between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu fool you. The scene in Washington sometimes seems as if it was taken from one of Shakespeare’s royal tragedies: The White House is occupied by an arrogant and paranoid president, lacking in experience and common sense, who can’t accept failure or absorb criticism or admit a mistake. Dark rumors swirl around him, but instead of dealing with them calmly, he clutches at straws and spreads baseless conspiracy theories that involve his predecessor, whom he resents. Although he provides no evidence, he demands they be investigated. When his own investigators and intelligence chiefs deny his allegations, he says they’re lying. When his attorney general seems to falter, he is caught on camera exploding with rage at his most trusted advisers. His opponents are incensed, his supporters are quivering and his spokespeople are doing everything they can to mop up the rubbish he leaves behind. Many of his supporters cheer him, like a gladiator in the ring, but most Americans, and most of the world, are looking on with increasing astonishment and apprehension.

Against this unhinged backdrop, the rollout of a new and improved version of the executive order banning entry to Muslims from six countries - after Iraq was removed - is seen almost as a healthy demonstration of moderation and clear thinking. Here, what do you know, the administration made changes, took into account the objections voiced by the judges who canned the previous ban, and even sent three well-respected cabinet ministers to persuade the public that the new ban is fair and balanced.

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It only provides further proof, if any was needed, for the Law of Relativity: A few weeks ago, the first version of the same presidential order was described as racist, anti-Constitutional and a danger to American democracy. Thousands of people took to the streets and to the airports to protest, lawyers enlisted in the cause 24/7 and civil rights groups vowed to fight to the bitter end. The new version presented by the attorney general and the secretaries of state and Homeland Security will still spark protests and opposition, but compared to its predecessor, these will register as hardly a yawn. Who has the strength now to explain once again that it’s still a blanket ban on the entry of holders of one religion only, from six countries from which not even one terrorist has ever come to attack the U.S. Or that the main purpose of this whole endeavor, despite the earnest presentations of the esteemed cabinet secretaries, is to save Trump’s lost honor and keep at least a sliver of his abominable campaign pledge to ban all Muslims.

If you want to view Trump as a Machiavellian genius, this case provides empirical evidence. The same can be said for the long line of regulations that have been changed or canceled that remove government supervision of the environment and public health, release industrialists, bankers and investors from the shackles of federal and local oversight and generally do the most harm to the average working families who view Trump as their hero. It won’t end well, but you can rest assured that Trump will blame Obama, the media, the FBI or all of the above.

One should also point out that the key to the successful reintroduction of the new ban on immigration, just like the ability to carry out fundamental changes in government oversight, is contingent on Trump’s absence from the scene. That’s the only way the administration could paint the revised presidential order as a calculated piece of policy, because with Trump in the front it probably would have been seen as more of an insane same. But as he proved on Saturday with his barrage of tweets portraying Obama as the Darth Vader of the so-called Deep State, a man with an inflated ego and a lust for publicity like Trump can’t stay behind the scenes for very long, even when it’s for his own good. He also can’t escape the dark cloud of suspicion that continues to hang over his campaign’s links with Russia, and if he could, Trump has certainly made that much more difficult now.

News junkies are having a ball, of course. The sheer quantity of storms and scandals that have swept Washington in the 45 days since Trump was inaugurated could suffice for an entire term of slightly less tempestuous president. The problem is that contrary to what Trump may imagine, running the world isn’t child's play or a reality show. Not only is the bedlam engulfing the White House, sparking concern around the world, if it doesn’t end soon, it will start spreading, and may already be doing so. When the entertainment ends, everyone will be asked to pay the price, and it won’t be cheap.