King Charles VI of France didn’t bathe for months and thought he was made of glass. Sultan Ibrahim I searched far and wide for the fattest women in the Ottoman Empire, then he appointed her Governor of Damascus. King Farouk of Egypt pick-pocketed Winston Churchill’s watch and shot all the lions in the Cairo Zoo because of a bad dream. Ivan the Terrible threw his government ministers to the dogs to be devoured.
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So of course Donald Trump is a model of sanity compared to some of these past loons, but that’s not the issue here. When leaders go off the rails, their aides and spokespeople have to come up with rational explanations for their behavior while all those who are dependent on their goodwill do their best to pretend that everything is hunky dory. This is the way it’s been over the past 24 hours as Trump’s people try to come up with justifications for Trump’s bizarre reaction to the recount in Wisconsin in which he claimed that he won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” By the same token, by the way, I won the Pulitzer Prize, if you deduct all the journalists who had no business contending in the first place.
On the assumption that Trump’s overheated reaction didn’t stem from real concerns that a recount would change the result, it’s hard to understand why he would try to delegitimize elections that he had won. Trump’s helpers told Politico that he is trying to hold Democrats feet to the fire and perhaps to warn them that both sides can play at this game of recounting. Another source opined that Trump was “piqued” by the Green Party’s demand for a recount, now joined by the Democrats, and that in his tweet his was venting his anger.
But that’s precisely what seemed to shock America, at least the part of it that is active on Twitter, after Trump initially tweeted his unfounded claim: That Trump is the same excitable shooter from the hip that he was on the campaign trail and that even as President he will find it impossible to restrain himself when confronted by a challenge or an insult. The recount in Wisconsin, which could be followed by similar efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, caused Trump to blow his top and to immediately disseminate another delusional conspiracy theory thriving in the netherworld of far-right media. Now go and figure what it means for America’s foreign policy and national security if the U.S. President can’t separate the wheat from the chaff, can’t refrain from reacting to each and every provocation, can’t force himself to count to ten before responding. And how hostile nations will be able to take advantage of his weakness to their advantage.
It’s no less worrisome that Trump will tweet out some half-baked conspiracy theory without batting an eyelid, as if he’s still trying to bait Marco Rubio into making a mistake in the primaries or shock Hillary Clinton into overreacting. Even scarier is the possibility that Trump really believes in these paranoid reports of overarching conspiracies, despite the fact that they’ve been debunked by most experts: one expert told Politico that the chance of a non-citizen voting is the same as being bitten by a shark who is being hit by lightning. And then you need to consider the disturbing assertion made by his adviser Kellyanne Conway on CNN on Sunday, by which Trump doesn’t really need frequent intelligence briefings by the CIA and other administration bodies because he gathers information from many other sources. Which probably include Fox News and reality shows.
This latest incident comes in the wake of other strange reports, weird goings-on and embarrassing incidents that have surfaced in recent days, which seem to hamper efforts to lend a semblance of normalcy to Trump’s transition. Not only is Trump ignoring widespread reports of the massive conflict of interest between his Presidency and his global business holdings, not only are some of his cabinet and White House appointments raising concerns, to say the least, but some of his behavior and that of his aides truly borders on the bizarre. According to the New York Post, Trump questioned his guests at Thanksgiving dinner at his Mar a Lago retreat in Florida - who included boxing impresario Don King and hunky model Fabio - whether they prefer Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani as Secretary of State. Then Conway took to the airwaves to trash Romney, saying that she and Trump have been swamped by protests against his appointment and questioning whether the 2012 GOP contender can truly be loyal to the President, given his harsh insults during the campaign. To this moment it’s not clear whether Conway was trying to pressure Trump through the media - a truly extraordinary step by a campaign manager - or serving as Trump’s frontwoman to nudge Romney into withdrawing his candidacy.
Republican lawmakers and other senior GOP figures are keeping mum, as expected. Having rallied behind Trump just before the elections and celebrated his victory with him, they are loath to be seen as sabotaging his transition or giving the Democrats ammunition to use against him. Some of them may still be angling for jobs in Trump’s administration or they might simply be afraid of his vengeance, which, as this and many other incidents have proven, can be swift and harsh.
Ironically, Trump’s main man over the past few days has been President Obama, who Trump tried to delegitimize with his support for the Birther theory. Obama has been urging Democrats to give Trump a chance and has been talking to the President-elect frequently. Conway said the two talked for 45 minutes on Sunday and that Trump very much enjoys speaking to his soon-to-be predecessor.
On Monday, Trump tried to limit his claims of voter fraud to California, Virginia and New Hampshire, though it wasn’t clear whether he was doubling down on his claim of “millions” who voted illegally or trying to come down from the tall tree he had climbed. The question of course is how he will react when he faces serious challenges, either from the Democratic opposition in Congress or from countries such as China, Russia or Iran, who will quickly try to test his mettle. Judging by his rash and over the top reaction to what is supposed to be an essentially painless recount in Wisconsin, the alleged old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” is apparently about to come true, but big time.