For the past week or so, we’ve noticed a crescendo of commentary about whether Donald Trump is actually losing it. Rick Wilson offered up one example in the New York Daily News: “Red warning lights are flashing across Washington as even the now-typical levels of uncertainty and political chaos reach epic proportions.” My Washington Post colleague Megan McArdle offered up another one: “This is not normal. And I don’t mean that as in, ‘Trump is violating the shibboleths of the Washington establishment.’ I mean that as in, ‘This is not normal for a functioning adult.’”
This theme of the week is surprising, given the political roller-coaster ride Trump has forced us all to partake in. The president canceled a trip to Denmark in a fit of pique over not being able to buy Greenland. Consider the first few paragraphs of The Post’s story on this decision:
“President Trump on Tuesday abruptly called off a trip to Denmark, announcing in a tweet that he was postponing the visit because the country’s leader was not interested in selling him Greenland.
“The move comes two days after Trump told reporters that owning Greenland, a self-governing country that is part of the kingdom of Denmark, “would be nice” for the United States from a strategic perspective.”
Try to imagine any other president or putative president who could generate that opening in a straight news story.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows explores the past few weeks of Trump’s behavior — and finds it more than a little disturbing:
“These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would ‘buy Greenland.’ Trump’s self-description as ‘the Chosen One,’ and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the ‘second coming of God’ and the ‘King of Israel.’ His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.”
Fallows concludes that in most other professions, Trump would already have been suspended from his job.
Indeed, there has been so much commentary about Trump’s worsening state that folks such as CNN’s Brian Stelter simply take it as a given and fret about why the media is not covering it properly.
And all of the above took place before Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Margaret Talev broke the story about Trump wanting to nuke hurricanes.
The social scientist in me who has been observing Trump like this for his entire administration has a slightly contrarian note to make: This month provides little evidence that Trump is getting worse.
I ground this assertion on two empirical claims. The first is that Trump has had many months like this during his presidency. There have been multiple stretches in which a concatenation of blunders, bombshells and buffoonery have sent Trump careening from one toddler-like state to another. Consider:
Trump having a bad month is nothing new. Nor are the claims of cognitive decline, which have been around as long as his presidency. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough suggested back in November 2017 that the president is suffering from dementia. Omarosa Manigault Newman claimed the White House staff has kept Trump’s deteriorating mental status a secret: “They continue to deceive this nation by how mentally declined he is. How difficult it is for him to process complex information. How he is not engaged in some of the most important decisions that impact our country.”
Here’s the big secret: Trump has not declined as president because that would imply there was a better time when this president possessed more of his wits. As long as he has been the commander in chief, he has displayed temper tantrums, poor impulse control, a short attention span and massive knowledge deficits. This month ain’t new; it’s just a particularly concentrated form of this behavior on public display.
That is not to say that nothing is new in the Trump White House. The New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman got at this with a recent story:
“Some former Trump administration officials in recent days said they were increasingly worried about the president’s behavior, suggesting it stems from rising pressure on Mr. Trump as the economy seems more worrisome and next year’s election approaches.
“After casting off advisers who displeased him at a record rate in his first two and a half years in office, Mr. Trump now has fewer aides around him willing or able to challenge him, much less restrain his more impulsive instincts.”
Trump is who he always is. What is different is what is happening around him. The economic and political environment is worsening for him, and he has no idea how to cope with it. Furthermore, Trump’s burn rate on staff has been so high that he is scraping the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. His current dregs are so sycophantic they release statements no self-respecting communications professional would ever say.
There are excellent reasons to be worried about Trump’s behavior through 2020. The cognitive decline of the president is not one of those reasons. Rather, it is that the benign environment and support structures that restrained Trump’s worst impulses are gone.