I was fired from 13 jobs in a little over a decade — so many times that I wrote a book about it. I’ve been fired from an internet start-up, a 24-hour adult bookstore, a national nonprofit, a mall video arcade and a telemarketing firm, among many others. All those jobs had one thing in common: I hated them. And yet, even though I was young, mobile and college-educated, I never just quit and found a better job. No, at each one I dug in, scowled through every day and exuded toxicity like a South American tree frog until everyone’s morale was as low as mine. I wanted out, and they wanted me out, but the only thing I wanted more than my freedom was to not give them what they wanted.
If you’re lucky or, at least, a healthy, well-adjusted adult, you’ve never been in this situation. But it’s one I know intimately, and I see the same psychology playing out every day in the White House.
We didn’t need insider exposés about “executive time” spent shouting at the TV to know that Trump hates being president. It’s there in every seething tweet, every prickly exchange with reporters, every shrug of a coronavirus briefing. He despises everything about Washington — the modesty, the expertise, the functionaries around him who have the temerity to do their jobs and expect him to do his. At night, he must dream of telling them (us) to take this job and shove it, so he can return to his natural calling of selling subpar steaks and repeatedly filing for bankruptcy.
He wants out, but we all know he’d never step down. I get it. I do! It’s the reverse of the Groucho Marx saying about how he’d never want to be in a club who’d have him as a member: I’d never voluntarily leave an office where I wasn’t wanted. They had to drag me out each time, the HR lady snatching the key card out of my hand, then signaling for security to escort me to the elevator. Why did I resist leaving so many places I hated, and why does he? It’s a matter of spite: At some point, making your enemies unhappy becomes more important than making yourself happy. And if that was true for me, it has to be true for Trump, too: Spite animates his personality as much as his politics.
After one firing, the security guard at the elevator told me, “Don’t come back here.” I thought he was crazy, but later I understood that he’d recognized something I hadn’t yet: the way you can glean a narcotic satisfaction from a toxic workplace. I’d look at my obsequious cubicle neighbors, fake-laughing at the boss’s jokes, working unpaid overtime in pursuit of raises that would never come, and my own petty disgruntlement seemed, in contrast, downright heroic. No doubt Trump has tapped into similar compensations. He looks at Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and he thinks, now there’s a guy even more despicable than me. He can honestly say he’s less unhinged than Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who said the coronavirus came from a Chinese “super-laboratory,” and slightly craftier than Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who is alleged to have engaged in insider trading right before the pandemic hit. He may hate D.C., but it’s the only place where he can feel like a winner.
He won’t get any of that once he leaves office. The false sense of superiority doesn’t survive outside the bubble. As soon as you hit the sidewalk after being fired, you go from the antihero of your own prestige miniseries, Sisyphus pushing a boulder of balled-up expense reports up a hill, to a jobless nobody. If and when Trump loses in November, he’ll just be a guy who doesn’t know how to tie a tie — or close an umbrella. In other words, an average loser.
And yet, the heart wants what it wants. Even as I spitefully hung on, I desperately wanted them to make me leave. I swaggered in late and left early, rolled my eyes in meetings, messed up on purpose, and, in a lot of cases, simply refused to do my job. Sound familiar? Trump’s not just bad at the job — his incompetence seems intentional, a plea for release, like a kid doing the dishes badly so he’ll never be asked to do them again. Someone who wants to keep their job doesn’t brag, on live TV, that he’s taking a drug that his own Food and Drug Administration has warned can cause “life-threatening heart problems.” Again, I’ve been there. At one job, at a Netflix-type start-up, I was given three months to research and make selections for a million-dollar purchase of movie licenses. I waited until the day they were due, spent 10 minutes picking random titles, and then went out for a burrito. Surely, I thought, this would be the final straw. They couldn’t possibly keep me on after a performance this poor.
But so many Fridays rolled around without the fateful summons (“Can you step into my office?”), and I left for the weekend nearly in tears. You mean I have to come back on Monday?
Eventually, I always got the firing (and the unemployment checks) that I wanted. But Trump’s situation is a little stickier; his nightmare (and ours) continues. It will probably even get worse. Impeachment failed, so the election is his next off-ramp. He knows now that he has to fail harder, go further. He will come in even later, sigh even louder, pore over the employee handbook (in his case, the Constitution), looking for rules to break. If you were to point out that his actions have consequences for others, that he’s making everyone else miserable, he’d shrug and say, perhaps rightly, that if you put a reality-TV huckster in the White House, you deserve everything you get. I used the same logic; if you only skimmed my padded and exaggerated résumé, if you didn’t even bother to check my (fake) references, you sort of brought this all on yourself. And if you’re too cowardly to fire me, aren’t you endorsing all this in a roundabout way?
Now we just have to wait, like my former cubicle neighbors, for the self-destruction to enter its final phase. Take heart from this: No matter how horrifying a second Trump term sounds to you, it probably sounds even worse to Trump. And there’s still the outside chance that he could find the guts to seize his destiny and just quit. Donny, if you’re reading this, trust me: It feels wonderful when you finally escape. Resign, go home, block all your former co-workers on social media, and have a good cry. Someone else will take care of the whole coronavirus thing. It’s not like you were really trying, anyway.