Trump the Genius, Trump the Incompetent, Trump the Bogeyman

A character study of the 45th president

An illustration of Donald Trump
Getty / The Atlantic

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.

Trump also has, as authoritarians often do, a feral sense for weakness. Hence his usually spot-on dismissive nicknames for his opponents in 2016. More important, he could sense the weaknesses in his audience. In 1932, a novel appeared in German with the title Little Man, What Now? The novel (and its author, Hans Fallada) was by no means pro-Hitler, but it captured the milieu that made many ripe for seduction by a variety of extremist parties, including the Nazis. That is why Trump’s real slogan was not “Make America great again,” a phrase devoid of content, but rather the lasting words of his inaugural address: “American carnage.” He detected, and none better, fear of a collapse—of order, of morals, of traditional hierarchy, of the economy—and played to it.

And, finally, he was smart enough to give people what they wanted: a flourishing economy fed by deregulation and massive stimulus, a promise of controlling immigration, and a foreign policy that retreated from war and slapped around deadbeat, free-riding allies. What was not to like?

But these strokes of genius could work only in an environment where his party of choice (he was never really a Republican) would cave to him completely. Stuart Stevens, in It Was All A Lie, reflects on the ways in which the GOP began sliding down a rathole of race-baiting and antidemocratic behavior long ago—and how he, as a political operative, went along with it. Other thoughtful Republicans (or former Republicans) are mulling over their own complicity in a party that was compromising its values for power. But equally, or more so, there has not been a full reckoning on the left.

Particularly given the impending release of what is sure to be a gracefully written and elegiac memoir by Barack Obama, one could easily elide the mistakes made not only by that administration but by the elites who were so enthusiastic about it. Those mistakes gave Trump his opening—in particular, the lack of empathy, let alone sympathy, for Americans who were whipsawed by changing social norms, who felt their faith to be under attack, or who believed their livelihood endangered by the flight of manufacturing to China. A clash of cultures gave Trump his chance, and it is not clear that the culture warriors on one side have processed adequately why they lost so soundly in 2016, and only barely eked out a victory in 2020.

So yes, Trump is a genius. He is also a bozo. If he had the intelligence, cunning, and courage of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian ruler, American democracy would have trembled on the edge. He never figured out how government worked, so he never figured out how to really go after his enemies—for example, he did not understand that having a security clearance creates a vulnerability to financial exhaustion by lawyers’ fees for someone you wish to bludgeon with prosecution.

More deeply, because of his unwavering pugnacity, Trump is simply incapable of adopting a pose of generosity. It would have cost him nothing to ooze a bit of sympathy for those suffering from the coronavirus, or a hurricane, or police brutality. He might have talked, as Joe Biden has already done with sincerity, about being a president for all Americans, even those who opposed him. But these are all beyond his emotional range, which is spectacularly narrow. He can do hostility, victimhood, and swagger, and that’s about it. And that was simply too little to be able to sustain a reelection campaign.

Trump is, finally, a bogeyman—a fearful devil of our nightmares who will vanish before too long. He will step down and, despite the fears of many, likely recede into the background. He will no longer have the platform of the White House, and all the opportunities that it gave him to dominate the news cycle. He will be faced with a host of lawsuits, including some that have nothing to with his politics and everything to do with his grifting. He reportedly has hundreds of millions of dollars coming due on loans, while no foreign government hoping for favor with the Biden White House will continue to pour money into his overpriced hotels. He seems likely to declare war on Fox, the network that served as his presidential mouthpiece. Republican politicians who have groveled to him in recent years while privately loathing and despising him will be frantic to prevent him from taking the nomination they seek in 2024. They will do their best to undercut not only Trump, but also his equally militant and even more clueless sons. Lastly, he is old and getting older, and we have reason to think that he may not wear particularly well.

Trump will undoubtedly bleat from the sidelines, but the country will move on. What it cannot move on from, however, are the underlying syndromes that gave him his extraordinary success. The cultural condescension and economic hard-heartedness that mobilized his followers, the obliviousness to issues of character that enabled traditional conservatives and devout believers to throw in their lot with a despicable man, the hostility toward facts and evidence that led to an insane opposition to mask wearing during a pandemic, and the belief in winning at all costs including the undermining of democratic norms—these remain with us. And we still do not have more than a superficial understanding of them, of whence they came, how they flourished, and what we can do to remedy them.

The sorry tale of Trump, then, is almost behind us. The difficult tasks of understanding, reflection, and reconstruction are before us, and will last far longer than his appalling strut across the stage of American history.