It’s not unusual for a sitting president to inflate his own importance. Large egos come with the job, and the trappings of the office would feed anyone’s hubris. Lyndon Johnson, walking toward what he thought was his helicopter after visiting troops in California, was told by an officer that it wasn’t his aircraft. “Son, they are all my helicopters,” the commander in chief replied. George W. Bush proclaimed imperiously during his second term, “I’m the decider.” Presidents can’t even enter a room in public without someone playing a song, as President Bill Clinton once noted.
But in comparison with past presidents, Trump’s sense of self is of a different order, his methods more audacious and his megalomania more blatant. He has tried to hijack the patriotic feeling that’s supposed to be the nation’s inheritance. In one telling moment earlier this year, at a conference of conservative activists, Trump came onstage and wrapped his arms around the American flag, fusing himself to the Stars and Stripes. “What he’s done is conflated himself with America,” Seth Norrholm, a neuroscientist who studies stress, anxiety, and trauma, and who has written about Trump’s mental state, told me. “He’s physically hugged the flag, but he’s also done that in his mind. If you attack him, you’re attacking America. You’re unpatriotic. ‘It’s very bad for our country!’”
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That phrase is the core of Trump’s defense to any attacks on his conduct. Last year, Trump decried Mueller’s investigation as “an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.” In an appearance in Florida earlier this month, Trump said that CNN, whose pundits dissect his misstatements and stumbles, is “a terrible thing for our country.” So is the House impeachment inquiry into his efforts to pressure Ukraine, as he told reporters at the White House recently. Yet if Congress turns up evidence that a president has violated his oath of office, impeachment is a purgative that’s arguably good for the country, as the Constitution’s framers envisaged.
It’s possible, of course, that Trump’s rhetoric is just that—rhetoric. But what’s clear is that he’s been laying the groundwork for his base to be angry whenever it is that he leaves office. By signaling to his core supporters that his ouster would be a grievous injustice they shouldn’t tolerate, Trump is upending the basic premise that the president is a temporary custodian of the office and subject to laws and oversight. In a recent tweet, he quoted one of his prominent evangelical backers in saying his removal through impeachment would create an irreconcilable split reminiscent of the Civil War. He’s said that two years of his presidency were “stolen” from him by Mueller’s Russia investigation. His ex-lawyer and onetime confidant, Michael Cohen, warned at a congressional hearing in February that he worried that if Trump were to lose the 2020 election, he wouldn’t permit a “peaceful transition of power.”
Trump often taunts the press about just how long he plans to stay in office, suggesting he might linger beyond the two-term constitutional limit. Appearing at an energy conference in Pittsburgh last week, when the crowd chanted, “Four more years,” Trump egged them on: “Why don’t you drive them crazy? Go, ‘16 more years.’” Presumably, that was a joke, though he didn’t say.