There isn’t another face of Donald Trump waiting in the wings, a sober and diligent version of him, chastened by the weight of the responsibility he now bears. Candidate Trump is President Trump, and there’s every indication that he’s going to run his administration in the same haphazard and careless manner with which he ran his campaign.
His campaign cycled through three different managers, and his presidential transition team has already burned through one chairman and purged all of his supporters. He tweets intemperate things that he or his staff immediately regrets and deletes. His advisers let their notes be photographed by members of the press because they are too stupid to use manila folders (the contents of said notes, about deporting Muslims and changing voting laws, are another column entirely). He talks to foreign leaders without any of the briefings and advance preparation that are intended to make sure the president doesn’t get pranked or punked.
Some of this stuff sounds like nitpicking, but unfortunately for President-elect Trump, he’s now in the nit extermination business. Much of the actual work of the presidency, of the work of government, lives in the details. It’s following protocol, managing bureaucracy, wrangling dots for every i and crosses for every t. It’s making hundreds of minute, important decisions that nobody will ever even know about if you do your job right. One of the things that makes Donald Trump so dangerous is that he’s come to believe his own lies about himself — he thinks he’s singularly qualified to be president when he’s singularly unqualified. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and when he accidentally discovers the truth, he doesn’t care.
Many of us have wondered how a man with a temperament like Donald Trump’s would adapt to a job like this, and it appears we have our answer: He’s not going to.
In fact, he seems to be running the presidency like it’s one of his reality shows. By all appearances, the president-elect is treating his new job as another arm of his brand, another business that he has licensed to bear his name and is poised to draw royalties from. Trump’s broad empire means that there are uncountable conflicts of interest: places where the Trump administration’s responsibilities conflict with the Trump Organization’s interests. To pick a random case out of many, Donald Trump is now essentially his own landlord.
Trump’s longtime answer to this knotty problem is that his children would run his company — an excellent solution if Trump intends to undergo a memory wipe to forget all of his business interests and resolves to break contact with his offspring. Maybe there’s no good workaround, aside from selling his business entirely, but Trump isn’t actually trying to work around it. Instead, he’s working it — actively creating new ways for the government and his business to mingle. His daughter, Ivanka, was present at the first meeting her father had with a foreign leader, and is evidently involved with the interview process of candidates for Cabinet slots. And the Trump administration has requested security clearances for Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner. Trump himself took a break from staffing his administration to consult with business partners from India.
The reason Trump is not trying to disentangle his private interests from his public responsibilities is obvious — he stands to gain vast sums of money from doing so. To take one minor example: Several diplomats see staying at the Trump hotel in D.C. as an inexpensive and easy way of currying favor with the future president. Far from discouraging this, the hotel held a special presentation for diplomats to sell them on staying there. The amount of money involved in this is relatively small, but it’s a good object lesson in how this will work: Foreign or domestic citizens, businesses, or countries route money to or do favors for one of Trump’s businesses, knowing that either Trump or someone who works for him is tacitly expecting it. And with his own children running the show, the process would be pretty smooth. And here’s the terrifying part: The president is exempt from every law that makes it illegal for public employees to use their office to enrich themselves, except one. And the case for that one constraining Trump is perilously thin.
So we have a president of the United States who is the head of a vast regulatory and surveillance apparatus, which he is responsible for staffing. What happens when being on good terms with Donald Trump, who sees being petty and vindictive as a personal philosophy, becomes not just a perk, but a prerequisite for doing business? There is a technical term for this: kleptocracy.
The only things really stopping Trump from turning the government into a mafia and using the country as a giant ATM are shame and custom. Trump, famously, is a man who is almost impossible to shame and who finds joy in overturning custom. And since it will probably prove difficult to hurt Trump legally for this kind of behavior, our best recourse is to hurt him politically. The problem with that is that it requires two other institutions to be in good condition and functioning properly.
The first is the mainstream media, whose decision to chase ratings by flooding the airwaves with sensationalist coverage of Donald Trump helped elevate him as a candidate. This irresponsible treatment combined with their inaccurate predictions about the outcome of the election has shredded their credibility. And their coverage of the transition period doesn’t inspire confidence that their consciences are troubled by the role that they’ve played in ushering Trump to power. Cable talking heads turned an incident in which an unpopular person was booed in New York into prime-time news when it should have been a footnote at best. Meanwhile, the media acted like Trump settling the lawsuit against Trump University was also a scandal, when settling any outstanding lawsuits before taking office is the prudent thing to do. (The real scandal is the scam he was accused of in the lawsuit itself, not the settlement.) Oh, and they gave neo-Nazis airtime for no reason other than that they said Donald Trump’s name.
The second institution that could hinder Trump is the Republican-controlled Congress, which could theoretically hold our new president to account for some misdeeds by oversight of federal agencies or threatening him with impeachment. Unfortunately, Congress is made up of politicians who couldn’t stop him in the primaries, and still can’t make up their minds about whether to help Trump or run away from him. These same politicians are busily and cheerily rubber-stamping the mix of unqualified loyalists and racists that make up Trump’s Cabinet picks.
These are people who are our last line of defense. So, yeah, we’re in trouble.