There is not a lot to add to the collected writings of the brilliant folks who watched Donald Trump’s Rose Garden ramblings on Friday. As Charles Pierce, Dana Milbank Tina Nguyen, Jack Holmes, Bill Maher, and Caitlin MacNeal all expressed, we reach a point when collusion with the fiction that this was a real commander-in-chief giving a serious political speech about a genuine emergency itself becomes improper. This was, even as the standard Trumpian shitshow goes, an extraordinary jaunt into rambling, fact-free, fact-adjacent, fact-inventing mayhem.
We can certainly have a sober conversation about whether this newly-declared emergency at the Southern border matters, or doesn’t matter, or matters a whole lot. But if we could be perfectly honest, a bunch of brilliant scholars standing around discussing the legal implications of what happened Friday at the White House has pretty much the same feeling as a bunch of adults standing around discussing nuclear fission as a small child rolls around in the ball pit at Ikea, except the small child is in charge of the nuclear fission. At some point, it becomes embarrassing to continue to pretend that the leader of the free world exulting in the prospect of executing drug dealers, and asserting that he has secret stats from which he is forming border policy, is making any sense. In fact, the person I pitied most at the end of the 50-minute spacewalk was newly-minted Attorney General William Barr who was forced to sit through it with that face most of us reserve for when our kids split the seams on their tiny leotards during a ballet recital.
It’s honestly gotten to a point where it isn’t even funny to watch Saturday Night Live parody him; it’s just frightening. I have watched and then read the speech seven times, trying to understand it. The only thing the spectacle of an unscripted Donald Trump ranking his cable news faves in lieu of discussing real policy did was afford us was a window into the Trumpian world order. A careful review of his remarks illuminates nothing but his hierarchy of moral priorities, a kind of food pyramid of what matters most to this man, a hierarchy of ego-fuel demonstrating just how much of each kind Donald Trump must consume in any 50-minute period. In my re-readings, I have tried to dissect the text of Trump’s remarks Friday into something resembling a moral world order. Here’s my best shot.
Clearly at the top of that pyramid of priorities lies “me” and “mine” and “I.” The centrality of all things Donald Trump for Donald Trump, never in doubt, was in full flower Friday: He has sorted out all the things with China, and Britain, and North Korea, and everyone respects him now. He controls the financial markets. When it came to Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, he is to thank for the negotiation: “I said, ‘What a deal.’ It took me like a week.” Also, “when I took over, we had one man that put on more debt than every other president combined,” which he could fix, except that, “first I have to straighten out the military.”
This top category includes the fact that “if you look at Idlib Province in Syria, I stopped the slaughter of perhaps 3 million people. Nobody talks about that.” Also, “Nobody’s done the job that we’ve ever done. I mean, nobody’s done the job that we’ve done on the border. And in a way, what I did by creating such a great economy—and if the opposing party got in, this economy would be down the tubes.” OK!
The president isn’t completely trapped in Piaget’s Stage Two of moral development, he does occasionally think about other people. The next stage of his hierarchy of values is the people who like him. They aren’t quite as important as he is, but they do count. In Friday’s speech that class of people included the “tremendous crowd in El Paso” and Sean Hannity, who “has been a terrific, terrific supporter of what I do.” Also “Rush Limbaugh, I think he’s a great guy. Here’s a guy who could speak for three hours without a phone call… and he’s got an audience that’s fantastic.” This list also includes “Laura’s been great, Laura Ingraham. Tucker Carlson’s been great. I actually have a couple of people on CNN that have been very good. I have someone—MSNBC the other day, they did a great report of me. I was like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’”
This category surely includes Prime Minister Abe of Japan, who “gave me the most beautiful copy of a letter that he sent to the people who give out a thing called the Nobel Prize. He said, ‘I have nominated you, or, respectfully, on behalf of Japan, I am asking them to give you the Nobel Peace Prize.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’” And this category also includes the “many other people [who] feel that way too,” the people who bitterly resent President Obama’s Nobel prize, and don’t understand why Donald Trump doesn’t get one, too.
The third level of the Trump ego-food pyramid features people who don’t necessarily love Donald Trump, but they do, largely thanks to the toughness and excellence of Donald Trump, respect Donald Trump. In that category we can find China and President Xi, (who “haven’t respected us for a long time” but do now) and North Korea and Chairman Kim (same). As Trump put it: “it was a very tough dialogue at the beginning. Fire and fury. Total annihilation.
‘My button is bigger than yours’ and ‘My button works.’ Remember that? You don’t remember that. And people said, ‘Trump is crazy.’ And you know what it ended up being? A very good relationship. I like him a lot and he likes me a lot.” Again, this is the guy with the nuclear codes.
The fourth level is the Real Country. These are people who Trump does not know personally—for who among us can know the entire country personally—but who either love Donald Trump (category one) or love the people who love Donald Trump (category two). In this instance, it’s clear that “the real country—our real country, the people that really love our country,” support his border plans. This love is also borne out by Polls. “I just had, as you know, Rasmussen, 52 percent in the polls. It’s my highest poll number and people get what we’re doing.” (Most Americans oppose the construction of a border wall.) But that, my friends, is the Real Country.
The fifth level of the hierarchy consists of people who probably love Donald Trump but just haven’t shown it yet. That would be the U.S. Supreme Court.
The next level is people who have disappointed the president. He needs them, they still have certain transactional value, but whoa, did they fail him. This includes, “the people that should have stepped up did not step up” to get him the Wall earlier. And while he won’t actually say Paul Ryan, he does blame “certain people—a particular one—for not having pushed this faster.” It also includes Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, another one who had to sit with the ballet recital face on, as the president said that “the numbers that I have from Homeland Security are a disaster.” And it includes a newly downgraded Ann Coulter. “I don’t know her. I hardly know her. I haven’t spoken to her in way over a year.” Coulter was once in Category 2 because she predicted Trump’s election, but she has been moved down chiefly because, as of now, “she’s off the reservation.”
At bottom, at level seven, are the people who do not like Donald Trump or respect Donald Trump or even love the people who love the people who like Donald Trump. But it’s OK though, because there are very few of them and all of them are liars and con artists. In this category, you find the human traffickers, who “go through areas where you have no wall. Everybody knows that. Nancy knows it. Chuck knows it. They all know it. It’s all a big lie. It’s a big con game.” So drug traffickers, and Nancy, and Chuck. Check. And drug dealers and murderers, and also the whole 9th Circuit. This category also includes chain migration and the lottery and, also Jim Acosta, because “you’re CNN, you’re fake news, you have an agenda.” This category further includes all journalists who don’t talk exclusively about themes from levels one and two.
That’s it. The whole taxonomy, right there. Good luck keeping yourself out of level 6, New Mr. Attorney General, nobody else in the Cabinet has managed it. It’s a sprawling pyramid of self-love—and that’s all it is, every day. But for sure, let’s all go back to pretending that this president is a person who puts America first.