It may seem counterintuitive to say so, but Donald Trump is a complicated figure. To be sure, the basic word cloud is clear—narcissistic, deceitful, vindictive, and so on—but there are multiple sides to the personality that has sucked so many people into a vortex of adoration or loathing. Now that his term in office is coming to an end with a combination of farce, folly, and menace, it is worth assessing him as cold-bloodedly as we may.
He is, to begin with, a genius. A very narrow kind of genius, admittedly, but a genius nonetheless. One element of his brilliance is a gift for echoing the anger and resentments of overlooked Americans. One can only be awed by the way in which a germaphobe born into wealth, who in his private life repeatedly fleeced working- and middle-class people and seems to have despised the devout who prayed enthusiastically for him, was able to represent himself so successfully as their avatar and champion.
It’s not just that Trump learned how to use television cameras to his advantage while doing The Apprentice. He also learned (or maybe intuited) the diction, grimaces, japes, chippy belligerence, and malicious wit that millions of Americans have yearned to display on a public stage but could not. He flipped the middle finger at cultural elites, overly sensitive liberals, woke activists, patronizing professors, and condescending atheists, and people loved it, wishing only that they could do the same. He knew how to dabble in race-baiting without quite ever going full George Wallace. He had the great skill of propounding absurd or evil things and adding “It’s what I’ve heard” or “People are saying,” so that there was always enough room for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to sigh wearily rather than face up to what his words meant.