Donald Trump is upset. He’s not happy about America’s preoccupation with the “Russia narrative.” He’s angry that we’re bothered by the possible damning ties between his campaign and a hostile foreign power. He’s seething over the Senate Judiciary Committee’s insolent insistence on scrutinizing his people. “He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe,” Politico reports, in a piece that characterizes the president as “enraged” and “fuming.” He has sent furious tweets. “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” he ranted during Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday. “When will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
It is such an odd, ubiquitous detail—that Trump is “enraged.” He is apoplectic, incensed, irate, vexed, sore, peeved, tantrum-y, mad online, mad offline, mad in a boat, mad with a goat, mad in the rain, mad on a train. The president’s rage, his defining characteristic, is not of the contemporary political moment. It is something archaic, mythological, like the rage of Achilles. How can you be “enraged” about an investigation that has already found clear evidence of your team’s wrongdoing and yet that your allies have moved mountains to hinder? Why is it infuriating that the American people want to resolve the question of whether an authoritarian country meddled in their election? A man with nothing to hide would feel indignant, surely, but not this all-consuming rage; a man with secrets would presumably feel dread or guilt. But Trump’s wrath is not the response of a conventional politician. It is the lashing out of a mad king against the disobedience of his subjects.
On Tuesday, that rage resulted in the most famous Trumpian act: a firing. Citing a Justice Department memo that he commissioned, the president ejected James Comey from the driver’s seat of the FBI—the agency that has placed Trump’s campaign under a microscope. In Slate, Phillip Carter called the axing a “public execution” and argued that POTUS had declared “war on justice … there are no shoes left to drop.” Press secretary Sean Spicer, fumbling among the bushes on the darkened White House lawn, seemed about as prepared as one might expect (from a person hiding among bushes) to explain his boss’s decision and assuage the public’s concerns.
Trump’s circle thought Republicans and Democrats would all rejoice to see Comey go. The former FBI director was unpopular; Hillary Clinton’s supporters blamed him for handing Trump the presidency. With the ouster, the administration had anticipated a “win-win.”
It would be easy to blame such shortsightedness on stupidity or ignorance alone. But the motivations run far deeper than that. Trump wants the Russia story to go away. This is not simply a matter of political pragmatism. The allegations attack his legitimacy, striking at the tender root of his self-image. James Comey has the power to stop these blows; he hasn’t. Therefore, Trump is angry at Comey, and his fury, like a molten reactor core, powers every impulse radiating from the West Wing. According to the New York Times, Trump’s advisers must indulge a “ritualistic need to criticize the Russia investigation to assuage an anxious and angry president.” According to the Washington Post, Trump is “angry” at Comey’s lack of support, is “frustrated” at his testimony, has “fumed” at the lack of attention to leaks. There is only one thing to do.
Such a solution seems born of instinct—removing the guy who’s the biggest threat to your continued employment may not be a sage move in the long term, but it will definitely make you feel better for the next five to 10 minutes. (The TV, on the other hand, doesn’t care if you scream at it.) The president’s grievances result in an unpredictable mix of real assaults on the republic and inept tantrums. Is Trump evil, or is he a moron? Is he the guy cannily dismantling checks on his power, or is he the old coot shaking his fist at CNN?
It turns out this was always the wrong question to ask. We Trump-watchers have spent far too long trying to figure out whether he is a savant or a clown—whether he plays 11-dimensional chess in his leisure hours or drools onto his robe while turning the White House lights on and off. The truth is that the president has one eternally rageful mode, which sometimes blows up in his face and sometimes greases the cogs of the highest office in the land. Trump’s ire is a form of genius, and not just because it made him a wild card that status-quo-weary Americans thrilled to empower. During the campaign he deployed his permanent resentment as an effective showtime staple, railing against swamps and job-stealers. While his opponent ran on togetherness, he chanted “lock her up” and the rally-goers followed suit. He rolled the dice on repealing Obamacare (he hated Obama, his cool, constitutional opposite) and it sort of worked. But Trump’s Achilles-like choler is also an Achilles heel. His hasty executive orders, his quick-twitch violations of diplomatic norms, have already tarnished his young presidency. There were the impotent ravings about inauguration crowds and embarrassing (to some, effective to others) cries of “fake news.” On the campaign trail, much was made of the Republican mogul’s fluency in the language of anger, his surprising and intuitive connection to a similarly inflamed white working class. We were slower to realize that his fury was no posture—that there was no “real” Trump preparing to take his solemn seat on Jan. 20. For better or for worse, being mad was his way of being in the world.
So here we are. It beggars belief that the White House would sack Comey for any reason other than to thwart the Russia probe (or maybe to punish a parvenu given excessive credit for Trump’s victory). To pretend otherwise, as Michelle Goldberg observed, to think we would actually believe Trump fired Comey for being unfair to the woman he calls “Crooked Hillary,” is deeply stupid. The frantic violence of the president’s feelings—anything to sweep the Kremlin back under the rug—has produced what is surely one of the all-time great mindfucks in American history.
The problem with a doctrine of wrath—in the presidency as in other walks of life—is that the rationale so clear to the boiling brain can appear ridiculous to the outside observer. The administration’s babbling excuses have a knee-jerk quality; it’s as if the president so desired to disappear his Putin problem that he was willing to embrace whatever absurd explanation came to hand (and then became surprised—and angry all over again—when we didn’t fall for it). Don’t look at Russia! our commander in chief shouts in fury, and of course our gaze stays fixed on Moscow. Such transparent terror is contagious: Republican senators this week tried to make the Trump–Russia hearings about the travel ban, leaks, and Clinton’s emails—anything but Trump and Russia. After a certain point, this is no longer strategy. It is reflex. It is a child covering his eyes to make the loathsome object in front of him vanish. Trump may be a politician, but he is also a man consumed with desperate, narcissistic rage. Easing that pain will always be his primary goal.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.