The Madness of Donald Trump

The pressures of the presidency have pushed Trump to the edge, but is he crazy enough to be removed from office?

By Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone Magazine | October 5, 2017


Evening, August 22nd, 2017, a convention center in Phoenix. It’s Donald Trump’s true coming-out party as an insane person. It looks like the same old Trump up there on the stage: same boxy blue suit, same obligatory flag pin and tangerine combover, same too-long reddish power tie swinging below his belt line like a locker-room abomination. Earlier this year there were efforts to make Trump stop wearing his suit jackets open – designer Joseph Abboud said buttoning up was a “very visible way of showing he knows how serious the job is” – but Donald Trump doesn’t take advice, not even the gently benign kind.

Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone

That makeover was undone just as quickly as it was done, leaving the Donald with the same old tie-on-bulging-duodenum look from the campaign. He even sounds the same now, kicking off the event with a go-to favorite: “What a crowd!” he shouts. (A week from now, he will shout, “What a crowd, what a turnout!” from atop a truck in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the occasion of a deadly hurricane.) But the embattled president who takes the stage tonight is a different man from the barnstorming revolutionary who ripped through the American political process a year ago. That Donald Trump enjoyed himself, to an obscene degree. Watching Trump lean over a podium on the road to the presidency was like watching a stud boar hump a hole in the wall.

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He said monstrous things and lied with stunning disinhibition, and when the civilized world recoiled in horror, he seemed to take sadistic pleasure in every minute – win or lose, the run was pure glory for him, a Sherman’s March of taboo politics and testosterone fury that would leave a mark on America forever.

There was one more thing. Candidate Trump may have been crazy, but it was craziness that on some level was working. Even at his lowest and most irrational moments – like his lunatic assault on the family of fallen soldier Humayun Khan, in which he raved to the grieving Gold Star parents about how it was he, Trump, who had “made a lot of sacrifices” – you could argue, if you squinted really hard, that it was strategy, a kick to the base.

Or even if he wasn’t doing these things on purpose, he must have been able to feel their impact, as the revolutionary force of his campaign demolished the 160-year-old Republican Party and barreled toward the gates of Barack Obama’s White House.

Now, it’s different. Now, he just seems crazy. And it’s his own administration that is crumbling, not any system.

After a disastrous and terrifying August, which among other things saw him defend the “very fine people” among neo-Nazi protesters in a Charlottesville, Virginia, march, it’s Trump’s mental state – not his alleged Russia ties, nor his failure to staff the government or pass any major legislation – that has become the central problem of his presidency.

Is this man losing his mind? And if so, what can be done about it? We’ve had some real zeros in the White House before, but we’ve never had a chief executive who barked at the moon or saw ghosts – at least, not one who was so public about it.

In Phoenix, which is technically a campaign event, the idea seems to be to surround the chief with an enthusiastic audience to boost his spirits after the fiasco of Charlottesville. Put him on the stump in the heart of MAGA country, let him feel that boar-with-a-boner high again.

It doesn’t work. The crowd is big and boisterous enough, maybe 10,000 Sheriff Joe-lovin’, Mexico-hatin’ ‘Muricans, but Trump looks miserable. He’s not the insurgent rebel anymore but a Caesar surrounded by knives. He’s got a special prosecutor crawling up his backside, and there are numerous prominent politicians, including at least two in his own party, who are questioning his sanity in public amid growing whispers of constitutional mutiny. Moreover, after shrugging off a thousand other scandals, Trump seems paralyzed by the Nazi thing. He can’t let it go. Say one nice thing about Nazis, and it’s like people can’t get over it. Unfair!

He plunges into a 77-minute rant on this subject, listing each offending news outlet by name. In a nicely Freudian twist, he starts with The New York Times, which incidentally is the same paper that nearly a century ago identified “Fred Trump of 175-24 Devonshire Road” – the president’s late father – as a detainee from a 1927 Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens. Back then, “native-born American Protestants” were railing against “Roman Catholic police” – essentially the dirty-immigrant Irish, last century’s Mexicans. Not much changes in this country. Maybe the father of the 2072 Republican nominee is here tonight in a MAGA hat.

donald trump rolling stone cover madness of trump potus

Trump gestures to the crowd as he speaks to supporters at Phoenix Convention Center during Rally on August 22, 2017 | Photograph by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

That old family shame might be why the president, who’s always denied Fred Trump was a Klansman (“Never happened”), is having such a hard time with Charlottesville and race. He rails against the “Times, which is, like, so bad,” moves on to the “Washington Post, which I call a lobbying tool for Amazon” and winds up with “CNN, which is so bad and pathetic, and their ratings are going down.”

CNN’s ratings aren’t down. The network’s second-quarter prime-time viewers just cracked a 1 million average, its most-watched second quarter ever, largely due to the blimp wreck of the Trump presidency. It’s the one incontrovertible achievement of this administration. The network tweets as much shortly after Trump says the line. The Phoenix audience doesn’t care. “CNN sucks!” they chant. “CNN sucks!”

I was late to the event and actually standing outside the press pen, so when the crowd turns to scream and hiss at the media, I’m on the angry-zombie side of the line. A man taps my shoulder.

“Fuck those people!” he shouts.

I smile, zip up my jacket to hide my lanyard, then turn around to give him a thumbs up. The crowd escalates:

“Tell the truth! Tell the truth!”

Trump goes on, raging against “very dishonest media” and trying to rekindle the spirit of the campaign. He self-plagiarizes a little, reviving the “little Marco” dig for “little George” Stephanopoulos.

The audience seems into it for a while. But it goes on too long. During the campaign, Trump was expert at keeping a hall buzzed with resentment for an hour or so. But he hits weird notes now. He goes off on a tangent about his enemies, it’s not clear which ones. “They’re elite?” he says. “I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”

Polite applause.

“You know what?” he goes on. “I think we’re the elites. They’re not the elites.”

No one is counting fingers, but you can tell people are having trouble making the math work. We’re elite because you have a nice apartment? Campaign Trump bragged endlessly about his wealth – “I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney” was a classic line – but back then he was selling a vicarious fantasy. Trump’s Ferrari-underpants lifestyle was the silent-majority vision of how they would all live once the winning started. But candidate Trump was never dumb enough to try to tell debt-ridden, angry crowds they were already living the dream.

At one point, Trump ends up standing with a piece of paper in hand, haranguing all with transcripts of his own remarks on Charlottesville. To prove that he’s been misquoted or misunderstood, he goes through the whole story, from the beginning. It gets quiet in the hall.

It’s an agonizing parody of late-stage Lenny Bruce. The great Sixties comedian’s act degenerated into tendentious soliloquies about his legal situation (he had been charged with obscenity). Bruce too stood onstage in his last years for interminable periods, court papers in hand, quoting himself to audiences bored to insanity by the spectacle.

This is exactly Trump. Even his followers are starting to look sideways at one another. In a sight rarely seen last year, a trickle of supporters heads for the exits. Then Trump cracks.

“The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself, and the fake news,” he says, to tepid applause.

He stops and points in accusing fashion at the press riser.

“Oh, that’s so funny,” he says. “Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast.”

We reporters had seen this act before. On October 10th of last year, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, at one of the most massive rallies of the campaign, Trump accused CNN of shutting down the feed because he was criticizing their debate coverage. In that case, a camera light really did flicker, but CNN was actually turning the live feed on, not off. That was possibly an honest mistake. Possibly also it was Trump just pulling the media’s tail, tweaking us with a line of bull, as he had with countless other provocations. The general consensus of attendant journalists that night was that Trump was messing with us.

Phoenix is different. Trump seems to believe what he’s saying. He really thinks that not just CNN, but all of the networks are shutting down their feeds, overwhelmed by the power of his words. “Boy, those cameras are going off,” he says, coming back to the subject. “Oh, wow. Why don’t you just fold them up and take them home? Oh, those cameras are going off. Wow. That’s the one thing, they’re very nervous to have me on live television…”

The president of the United States is seeing things. He might as well be shooing imaginary ants off his suit. His followers still love him, but even they’re starting to notice. They come for the old standards, but this new Trump material gets mixed reviews.

Outside, a fan gives the speech a half-hearted thumbs up. “I liked ‘Lock her up,'” the man says with a shrug. “They did that for a little while.”

“[He’s saying] ‘I don’t promote racism, that’s just the media trying to fuck with me,'” says Rich Yukon, a biker from a Tempe-based club called the Metalheads. “But he gets a little out of hand here and there, he says some shit.”

After the event, Trump tweets, “Beautiful turnout of 15,000 in Phoenix tonight!” Later, he reportedly fires the organizer of that same “beautiful” event, longtime aide and RNC contractor George Gigicos, apparently for not delivering a terrifyingly massive enough crowd. Sources told Bloomberg that Trump saw open floor space in TV shots before he took the stage, and this put him in a “foul mood” from which he never recovered.

Trump has never had much use for facts, or decorum, or empathy, or sexual discretion, or any of the hundred other markers we normally look at to gauge mental wellness. But he’s never been like this. This guy is lost, and as he flails for a clue, he keeps struggling violently against the conventions of his own office. The presidency has become a straitjacket.

We deserve Trump, though. God, do we deserve him. We Americans have some good qualities, too, don’t get me wrong. But we’re also a bloodthirsty Mr. Hyde nation that subsists on massacres and slave labor and leaves victims half-alive and crawling over deserts and jungles, while we sit stuffing ourselves on couches and blathering about our “American exceptionalism.” We dumped 20 million gallons of toxic herbicide on Vietnam from the air, just to make the shooting easier without all those trees, an insane plan to win “hearts and minds” that has left about a million still disabled from defects and disease – including about 100,000 children, even decades later, little kids with misshapen heads, webbed hands and fused eyelids writhing on cots, our real American legacy, well out of view, of course.

Nowadays we use flying robots and missiles to kill so many civilians and women and children in places like Mosul and Raqqa and Damadola, Pakistan, in our countless ongoing undeclared wars that the incidents scarcely make the news anymore. Our next innovation is “automation,” AI-powered drones that can identify and shoot targets, so human beings don’t have to pull triggers and feel bad anymore. If you want to look in our rearview, it’s lynchings and race war and genocide all the way back, from Hispaniola to Jolo Island in the Philippines to Mendocino County, California, where we nearly wiped out the Yuki people once upon a time.

donald trump rolling stone cover madness of trump potus

Donald Trump and Melania standing on a fire truck to display a Texas flag after addressing First Responders and Corpus Christi, Texas area residents at a briefing on Hurricane Harvey storm relief and rescue efforts on August 29, 2017 – Photo by Shealah Craighead/The White House

This is who we’ve always been, a nation of madmen and sociopaths, for whom murder is a line item, kept hidden via a long list of semantic self-deceptions, from “manifest destiny” to “collateral damage.” We’re used to presidents being the soul of probity, kind Dads and struggling Atlases, humbled by the terrible responsibility, proof to ourselves of our goodness. Now, the mask of respectability is gone, and we feel sorry for ourselves, because the sickness is showing.

So much of the Trump phenomenon is about history. Fueling the divide between pro- and anti-Trump camps is exactly the fact that we’ve never had a real reckoning with either our terrible past or our similarly bloody present. The Trump movement culturally represents an absolute denial of our sins from slavery on – hence the intense reaction to the removal of Confederate statues, the bizarre paranoia about the Washington Monument being next, and so on. But #resistance is also a denial mechanism. It makes Trump the root of all evil, and is powered by an intense desire to not have to look at the ugliness, to go back to the way things were. We see this hideous clown in the White House and feel our dignity outraged, but when you really think about it, what should America’s president look like?

Trump is no malfunction. He’s a perfect representation of who, as a country, we are and always have been: an insane monster. Frankly, we’re lucky he’s not walking around using a child’s femur as a toothpick.

When it’s not trembling in terror, the rest of the world must be laughing its ass off. America, land of the mad pig president. Shove that up your exceptionalism.

A week in Trump time is like a century, and the week after the Phoenix fiasco felt like a thousand years. First, he slipped in a prime-time pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio – Trump’s Ghost of Christmas Future, an envelope-pushing birther and demented prairie fascist who looked destined to spend his eighties in jail. Then, Trump held a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. The diminutive Scandinavian stood trying not to reach for his cyanide pill as Trump proudly explained to the press that he’d timed the Arpaio pardon with coverage of Hurricane Harvey for maximum ratings impact. The poor Euro looked like a Belgian nun forced to bunk up with Honey Boo Boo.

Trump spent much of the week expressing morbid excitement about Harvey, as though the sheer size of the storm somehow reflected upon him personally. “HISTORIC rainfall,” he gushed. Then, he went to Texas and said a slew of inappropriate things, celebrating crowd turnout and continually popping wood over the killer storm’s “epic” dimensions – “nobody’s ever seen this much water,” he raved. He repeatedly forgot to express empathy for victims, but doled out a major attaboy to FEMA administrator Brock Long, who “really became famous on television the past few days.”

Then, Trump went somewhere, fell asleep, woke up and decided first thing to take a Twitter leak on nuclear belligerent Kim Jong-Un, who just days before had shot missiles over northern Japan. “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” Trump wrote. “Talking is not the answer!”

After enough weeks and months of behavior like this, it’s become axiomatic in many circles that Trump simply must go, for whatever reason. Our desperation as a nation to get back to “normal” – that is to say, back to being able to pretend we’re a civilized people with justified hegemonic authority – has hit such a fever pitch that there is now real energy behind a pair of long-shot efforts to remove our mad king from the throne ahead of schedule.

The problem is that Trump might just live in an awful sweet spot – a raving, dangerous embarrassment, about the worst imaginable, but safe under the law absent new information. Depending on whom you ask, we may have to break democratic rules to be rid of him – something we’ve never had a problem doing, of course, but this is no desert sideshow, this would be center stage with the whole world watching.

Impeachment, now favored by upwards of 43 percent of voters, is one track. Many thought Trump was impeachable from Day One thanks to ethical conflicts and other issues. But successful impeachment would not only require significant defections from a Republican-controlled Congress, but proof of high crimes and misdemeanors, so far elusive.

There’s a widespread misconception that impeachment is a purely political matter, that it can and should happen the instant a two-thirds majority of the Senate deems it necessary. Some of this has been fueled by social-media discussions quoting figures like Gerald Ford, who as a minority congressman once said, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be.”

But many legal experts disagree. “That was the worst thing that Ford could have said,” says Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University. While, superficially, impeachment is a political decision, to get all the way to the finish line the effort “has to meet the legal standard of high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Merely being an inappropriate, racist, unethical, sociopathic embarrassment, even on the Trump level, doesn’t necessarily rate as an impeachable offense. The president must be caught committing a crime, and it must be serious.

Impeachment is going to be tough political sledding in almost any case. Part of Trump’s purpose in going to Arizona was to start digging the grave of Republican senator and open Trump antagonist Jeff Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018. Flake is polling far behind a Trump-backed primary challenger, Dr. Kelli Ward, thrilling the mad regent. “WEAK on borders, crime, and a non-factor in the Senate,” Trump tweeted of Flake. “He’s toxic!”

In the wake of Charlottesville, Trump surrogates like longtime friend Roger Stone argued that the president shouldn’t back down at all to global outcries, but instead run back on offense by going after a “scalp” in his own party. By helping to blow up Flake, whose approval rating among voters in his own state, according to one poll, is down to 18 percent, Trump can demonstrate he still wields life-or-death power over most GOP elected officials. This will surely chill any effort to try to shorten Trump’s term.

Still, five different investigations into Trump’s relationship with Russia are currently underway, and there’s little question that the undisguisedly sweeping nature of the inquiry is freaking Trump out. It was not difficult to notice that a predawn FBI raid on the home of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort took place just before Trump’s disastrous response to the Charlottesville tragedy. If you think special counsel Robert Mueller is in Trump’s head, he probably is.

donald trump rolling stone cover madness of trump potus

Trump hands out emergency supplies to residents impacted by Huriricane Harvey while visiting the First Church of Pearland on September 2, 2017 in Pearland Texas. Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mueller, who is wielding the biggest pitchfork in this thing, is roaming promiscuously into all sorts of areas of inquiry, from Manafort’s finances to the dismissal of former FBI chief James Comey to God knows what else. Mueller is exactly the kind of person Trump doesn’t need sniffing