Politics

After Years of Taking Up Too Much Space, Trump Is Finally Small

As the president’s lies and bullying get bolder and bolder, we can finally see him for what he is: boring.

President Donald Trump speaks to the press.
President Donald Trump speaks to the press from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

The holidays can be tricky when one has begun to reflexively assume the posture of being pinned under the breakfront as the crazy racist grandpa shrieks year round. For many of us, the echo of Donald Trump’s voice, his tweets, his boasts and threats, are what wake us up at 4 a.m. and what makes us afraid to contemplate summer plans or even buy green bananas. But after two deeply destabilizing and in fact traumatic years of soaking in the president’s ugliness and invective, of absorbing the sound and sight of the sneering and the scowling and the fury, there is much to be thankful for this year. Because this year, by dint of miracle or magic or human endeavor, Donald Trump has been reduced to his actual size. He isn’t everything anymore. He is barely anything at all. He becomes smaller every single day, and for that, we have America to thank.

It is no secret that Trump himself is sliding further and further off the rails. The tweets are cruder and materially less coherent, and the public performances are more frightening still. The White House staff is in turmoil, and the president seems to have aligned himself with the Saudi murderers of a Washington Post reporter. None of this offers holiday solace, save for the fact that, as support for the president peels off among members of the military, conservative lawyers, and women, he finds himself ever more shrilly attacking them all. And as the president finds himself shunned and largely ignored internationally, he is left more and more alone to watch television, tweet hectically, and attempt to rewrite his own story to his satisfaction. At least we can, as Matt Yglesias smartly observes, be grateful that he can’t manage to be effective and pissed off at the same time.

We can be thankful for other things this past autumn: a press corps that has remained vigilant and unbowed by presidential threats and abuse, and that has increasingly adjusted to the lies and the distortions that embody this presidency. We can be thankful for a judicial branch that quietly delivers setback after setback to the president’s cruelest imperatives. And we can be thankful for the tireless work of Robert Mueller (bows head), a man who is nothing less than a bionic truth-seeking robot in an age of alternative facts.

Mostly, though, it is worth recognizing that Trump has managed to shrink slowly down to a small manageable size simply by being ever more himself. Be it his military action against the caravan that wasn’t, his wall that wasn’t, his raking that wasn’t, or his inflated election claims that weren’t, the deflections and distractions seem to come faster and faster. But the fall of 2018 saw truth able to get its boots on before a falsehood could travel very far—maybe because the lies are more transparent now, or maybe because we are finally getting better at this. The final factor in Trump’s diminution had to be the appalling (!) White House (!) statement defending the Saudi Arabian royal family from his own CIA’s finding that they had been complicit in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

That document has been widely read and deconstructed for its lies, exaggerations, and untruths, but it should also be briefly celebrated as the perfect distillate of Trump’s moral reasoning: By the president’s own ethical lights, no criminal who might make us wealthy can ever be condemned.

This is, of course, terrifying and nihilistic and dangerous as a defining statement of what “America First” is supposed to mean. But it also ties together everything that has been wrong with Trumpism from the moment he first announced his candidacy: Everything is transactional, nothing is intrinsically of value, and everything is worth doing only so long as it benefits you. This is hardly a novel philosophy: It’s how Mitch McConnell sleeps at night and how Sarah Huckabee Sanders lives by day. But Trump has taken the philosophy and made it more apparent in how recklessly open he is about it. Go ahead, amend your financial disclosure forms again, send government emails from your private accounts again—everything’s just a big colorful game of plutocrat Twister anyhow.

We’ve known this is Trump’s mode of being forever, but coupled with the news that the president genuinely believed that his own Justice Department could be commandeered to prosecute James Comey and Hillary Clinton places it all in a different sort of light. Because it illuminates how abjectly and severely limited this man is, in his understanding of government, and governance, and law. And it’s a gift to those who stood by him for the judges, or stood by him for the tax cuts, or stood by him for national security, because now they must ask themselves if it was all worth it. The folks who wondered in 2016 whether blowing everything up might be fruitful and thought to themselves, “Well, heck, let’s try it,” are finally starting to get a taste of what drifting ash and falling steel beams really look like. And it looks small.

If the November midterms stood for anything, it was that in most jurisdictions that allow for meaningful voting and proportional representation, the whiz-bang showmanship of the past two years has become stale and dull. A clutch of exciting young candidates ran for office without even explicitly engaging with Trump or Trumpism. Powered by energy from below, they largely ignored the wallpaper of noise and sound that is the president. The narcissism and self-love of the ’90s TV hustler has finally just become tiresome.

As a final Thanksgiving miracle, Chief Justice John Roberts—who didn’t weigh in publicly when Donald Trump attacked a federal judge for being a biased Mexican, or a Seattle judge for being liberal, or three federal appeals court judges for halting his travel ban—spoke out Wednesday to rebuke Trump for berating an “Obama Judge” and the entire 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which had enjoined his new asylum rules). Day after day, we can see that the entire legal apparatus of the United States is growing tired of being treated like Trump’s landscaping staff. More and more, the entire country is showing that it is tired and bored of being treated like gaffers and lighting technicians in the Trump show.

It’s all so childish as to sound almost funny, but it’s worth remembering back to August 2017, after Nazis and white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, when the feeling on the streets was of pure uncertainty. On the sidewalks for a time, it was impossible to make eye contact. What was top of mind for most of us there was “who in this crowd wants to hurt me; who wants to run my family out of town?” It was the mindless fear of unknown others that caused more pain even than Nazi chants. But this Thanksgiving weekend, the sense beginning to emerge is of the systems of democratic governance repairing themselves—of good people standing up, of women surging forward, of teenagers answering the call, of law and truth reinstating themselves. The feeling is that some kind of fever has maybe broken. That which seemed monstrous and larger than life is mostly shadows and vapors now.

It’s going to be a long-ass haul to restore what’s been dismantled over the past two years. Fear and contempt are contagious and so, apparently, are ugliness and violence. But in so many ways resilience and dignity and pride are pushing through the noise. It’s hard to see it sometimes, but it’s surely rattling under the surface of things. Things will turn around the way you eat an elephant—bite by bite. But recognizing that the elephant was never all that enormous in the first instance makes it easier to do the work.