Watching Sam Nunberg’s spectacular public splashdown on Monday was awkward for virtually everyone, but it was particularly painful for anyone who suspected that deriving secret joy from witnessing a public mental health crisis is neither journalistically, nor morally defensible. By Tuesday night, it was boring old news, as all things seem to be these days, but the questions raised by the uneasy spectacle shouldn’t fade so quickly. As CNN’s Brian Stelter mused in his evening newsletter, “If your source seems drunk or drugged or just plain out of his mind, what is your responsibility?” “This is one of the reasons America hates the media,” Axios’ Jim VandeHei added: “Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an ass of himself—live.”
It seems plain that something was profoundly awry with the former Trump campaign adviser (CNN’s Erin Burnett told him Monday night she could smell alcohol on his breath), and friends confessed that they were worried for him. By Tuesday, Nunberg was cooperating with the Robert Mueller investigation and Fox Business Network correspondent Charles Gasparino tweeted that Nunberg was “fully cooperating now with Mueller’s team and he’s intending to go get treatment following his grand jury appearance on Friday.” The case, it seemed, had been closed. But we should not move on so swiftly. Indeed, the only thing more worrisome than increasingly routine public episodes of lawless public fury is our expanding capacity to normalize them.
Nunberg is not the first, or the second, or even the third person in Trump’s orbit to perform a spectacular meltdown in the public eye. And while he may have shattered a record in doing 12 media hits in one short evening, he is in good company when it comes to tantrums and spectacle. Last July, Trump’s personal attorney on the Russia probe, Marc Kasowitz, went after an anonymous correspondent in a late-night rant that included profanity-laden threats of violence. Kasowitz apologized and stepped back his representation. And who can forget the shortest-lived White House communications director ever, Anthony Scaramucci, whose tenure concluded after he went nuts on the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza for refusing to name a source. Then there’s former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, accused by Michelle Fields—a former Breitbart reporter—of allegedly yanking at her arm during a campaign press conference. Charges were eventually dropped. He’s since been accused of assaulting someone else at a holiday party.
And these are just the examples that were directed at the public and the press. None of it even begins to capture the scope of the private acts of assault and violence delivered by the White House’s alpha men, ranging from the allegations of abuse by recently departed Staff Secretary Rob Porter, allegations of domestic violence against former Trump campaign chair and adviser Steve Bannon, and similar allegations against Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first nominee for secretary of labor. And then of course, there is Trump himself, who personally embodies both the public meltdown and the tantrum-as-art form of governance.
That the country is in the hands of a band of people among whom many, at best, lack the capacity to regulate their emotions and, at worst, routinely abuse women and the press is well-known and well-documented. But this isn’t just about the recurring patterns of male rage and violence that surrounds Donald Trump and his advisers. The deeper concern here is how their behavior slowly changes us, as viewers and bystanders, and how these extraordinary circumstances are starting to become the status quo. Dismissing Sam Nunberg as “crazy” and his Monday rant as a “media meltdown” experienced by someone in need of treatment obscures the ways in which this conduct, far from an anomaly, is almost a job requirement for Trump and the Trump-adjacent. Losing one’s mind on national television, calling a woman—in this case press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—a “fat slob,” bragging that you are personally above the rule of law, is not normal. But it’s increasingly normal for the men surrounding Donald Trump. And it’s behavior that runs deep in the bloodstream of the president himself.
One of the defining sociological concerns of the present age is whether it is appropriate to discuss and diagnose Donald Trump’s daily flirtations with violence, aggression, fabrication, and dehumanization of others as a mental health problem. This would be an extremely boring and even fantastical conversation, as there is no serious question that Trump is a man with severe impulse control problems and a propensity to lash out violently against perceived enemies, and also perceived friends. But he is the president, and so the conversation has taken on a new, worrisome weight. But what’s possibly more worrisome, provided he doesn’t nuke us all, is what he normalizes and condones all around him every day.
Trump surrounds himself, and frequently defends and sides with, people who have similar proclivities. And Nunberg, who was fired from the Trump campaign in August 2015 after a series of racist posts were found in his Facebook archives, is very much the kind of rage-against-propriety man Donald Trump likes best: the kind who loses his temper, berates journalists (always journalists), belittles women, and then laughs it all off as a joke or master plan. This isn’t a diagnosable sickness or awkward meltdown. It’s the playbook.
A closer look at Nunberg’s extraordinary performance from Monday suggests that what he was acting out, with almost eerie accuracy, was the rant of the beleaguered newly dismissed contestant on a reality show. The tropes are by now predictable—“they don’t know me”/ “let them try I don’t care” / “I am the real victim here.” This is, perhaps, a social behavior and language that has already infected everything we say beyond repair. But the trope has also been elevated to a new level in recent months, as we’ve seen it performed not by reality TV contestants, but by the people who are supposed to be running the government. It is the ever more familiar howl of rage adopted by white men who are extremely angry that the law, the rules, and the women are out to get them. It’s a way of claiming to be the real sufferer, the genuinely wronged. And it is not coincidence that this language and conduct is cresting with the avalanche of #MeToo, because it’s a reflexive way of centering oneself in a moral universe full of suffering as the only true victim. It’s also the central narrative of the Trump presidency.
There is no disputing the fact that this presidency has opened the porthole between private expressions of rage and anger to acting them out in the public context. It is also true that the president himself uses public anger, tantrums and even his own incoherence to destabilize and confound discourse. That isn’t new either, and it isn’t even very interesting anymore. It’s also not new that the meltdowns and rage and drama that froths around Trump is nothing we’ve ever seen from the White House before. It’s discomfiting. But also numbing. By that measure, Nunberg was small potatoes and gone in a day.
We dismiss and ignore these ever more frequent public meltdowns of the people with whom this president has surrounded himself at our own peril. It’s not fun or shocking to watch Carter Page, or Corey Lewandowski, or Steve Bannon, or Sam Nunberg flip out at the media; it’s just the White House equivalent of a Real Housewife flipping over a table. It still feels vaguely opportunistic and titillating, as it should; human pain is still not funny. But these people aren’t performing explosive anger because they are unfit or unwell—or at least, it is not only because of that. They are enablers of the Trump apparatus precisely because they are creatures of barely contained, frightening, explosive anger. Let’s at least recognize this one sad truth: These episodes of temper and fury are neither tragic outliers nor tactical political wizardry.
The house of Trump is built on male fury, and even if we grow numb to the explosions, the fuses are going to keep blowing.