The vain hope of Donald Trump “becoming presidential” is by now not only a punch line, but a stale one. Yet Trump still awakes each day as commander in chief. This week has shown the dramatic problems caused by Trump’s confusion of his public roles as president of the United States and as a candidate and the leader of the Republican Party.
Trump’s response to an attempt to bomb a series of Democratic politicians and Trump critics shows the confusion plainly. Since Tuesday evening, when the first suspicious package was discovered at the home of the liberal donor George Soros, Trump has vacillated between relatively staid comments and outrageous provocations. The head-spinning reversals are reminiscent of the mixture of condemnation and commiseration he offered white supremacists after a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
“In these times, we have to unify,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon. “We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”
Yet the very same evening, the president blamed critical press coverage for creating an atmosphere that led to the attacks. He was just warming up. Thursday morning, he tweeted, “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!” By Friday morning, he was evidently espousing the view, wafting from fetid far-right fever swamps, that the attacks were a false-flag operation designed to hurt the Republican Party.
Not long after that tweet, news emerged that the FBI had arrested a suspect in the bombing attacks. (It is unclear whether Trump had been informed of the arrest of the suspect, Cesar Sayoc, at the time he was throwing around this unsubstantiated and inflammatory claim.) Trump, at a preplanned appearance, returned to his somber tone.
“These terrorizing acts are despicable and have no place in our country,” he said. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America. Cannot let it happen. And I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it.”
A few minutes later, he was making “Lock him up” jokes.
Part of the problem is that, as I have written, Trump still does not grasp the weight that his statements carry now that he is president. When he was a private businessman, a TV personality, and a Howard Stern guest, he could spitball, hypothesize, or simply BS without serious repercussions. When the president of the United States makes comments, however, warships turn, markets reverse, allies reassess, and, as The Washington Post reported this week, legions of government workers scramble to make bogus assertions reality. Trump clearly enjoys the power of the presidency, but he remains insensitive to its responsibility. The dangers are on display every time Trump embraces a conspiracy theory, as he does regularly. His false-flag innuendo was as inevitable as it was irresponsible.
But there is a more elaborate confusion at play. Every American president has to wrestle with the dual burden of being the leader of the nation as well as the leader of his political party. Inevitably, there are places where he errs. Every president is criticized for using Air Force One and official time to campaign for candidates of his own party. Eight years ago, it was a multiday scandal when Barack Obama carelessly referred to political “enemies”; now that’s just Tuesday morning. Trump has repeatedly stunned Washington by injecting naked politics into occasions and tasks that were once meant to be beyond the grubby reach of partisanship.
An attempted multiperson assassination seems like an obvious place to err on the side of avoiding partisanship. But there is a make-or-break election approaching for Trump, and he could not resist the impulse to turn the bomb threats into an advantage for the Republican Party.
In a one-party state, there’s no such problem of separation. The leader of the party and the leader of the nation are one and the same—and the interest of the party and the interest of the nation are, at least in theory, also the same.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Trump sometimes yearns for a one-party state. It’s a thread that runs through his opposition to critical press coverage and threats to throttle the media, his celebration of violence against the press, his incitements to violence against protesters, and his threats to prosecute and imprison political rivals like Hillary Clinton.
The result is that Trump is unable to extricate a criticism of him from a criticism of federal-government policy, and vice versa. When, for example, Puerto Ricans complained that aid was not reaching the island’s residents fast enough following Hurricane Maria, Trump took that as a personal affront and launched a long-running feud with the mayor of San Juan. For Trump, l’etat, c’est lui.
This produces a strange transference that makes Trump the ultimate victim of everything. The bombs are an attack on him because he is the government; they are also an attack on him because he is the head of the Republican Party, which he fears might be hurt by the fact of political violence aimed at Democrats.
“Who gets attacked more than me?” Trump griped on Friday—in a week in which his political rivals received bombs in the mail.
If this problem feels acute and hazardous now, it’s probably only beginning. Should Democrats capture control of the House, Trump will be even more agitated by the opposition. And regardless, the end of the midterms will mark the unofficial start of the 2020 presidential campaign. Although Trump launched his reelection bid the day he was inaugurated, his campaign will enter higher gear; meanwhile, prospective Democratic and maybe Republican rivals will begin attacking him even more fiercely. Trump can’t separate his partisan and presidential roles now, and it will only become more challenging on November 7.