One of Donald J. Trump’s first acts after his inaugural was to hang a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, claiming kinship with another ruffian who shook things up and pissed off the elites. Trump’s more eggheaded partisans have embraced the comparison, which probably has our seventh president haggardly whirling in his grave. But what if they’ve got the wrong Jackson? As far as we can tell, Trump’s true Jacksonian predecessor isn’t Andy at all. It’s Michael.
In case you weren’t around in the 1980s, selling 29 million copies of Thriller wasn’t enough validation for the decade’s biggest superstar. He had to declare himself the King of Pop, even trying to force magazines featuring him to use the title or else. He built himself a theme park to live in—the aptly named Neverland—where unwelcome truths couldn’t intrude. He had no intimate or reliable friends, only enablers and sycophants, and never dealt with anyone who questioned his fairy-tale world. Yet millions of fans were so invested in his persona that they simply refused to absorb whatever ugly news contradicted it, turning his disconnect from reality into theirs.
Alternative facts? “Wacko Jacko” practically invented the concept. But it was rough on Americans to accept that this beloved performer might be not merely eccentric, but gaga. Cuckoo, non compos mentis, a few crucial potato chips short of a bag. As we eventually learned, he might even be capable of doing terrible harm to vulnerable people and too egocentric to see anything wrong with behaving that way. The only silver lining was that it wasn’t as if Michael had access to nuclear weaponry.
When Trump does try to educate himself, he’s like Michael Jackson suddenly hunting for his other glove.
Flash forward to 2017. Even when Watergate was eating away at Richard Nixon’s brains like a rabid rat or Ronald Reagan was demonstrating early-stage Alzheimer’s symptoms, questioning POTUS’s mental stability in public used to be taboo. (In both those cases, White House insiders only spilled the beans that there was reason for concern after their bosses left office.) Trump hasn’t even been president a month, and two U.S. Senators, albeit both members of the opposition, have already broken that rule.
So has that suave gadfly Andrew Sullivan, who took to the pages of New York magazine to announce that “the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health… is staring us brutally in the face.” The thing about Sullivan is that he’s always been smart about how to make provocative opinions sound like conventional wisdom—and, on the flip side, to make conventional wisdom sound provocative, leaving you in doubt which is which. Then again, he doesn’t have the glum responsibilities of an elected U.S. government official. Bernie Sanders and Al Franken both do.
Only a month ago, for instance, Sanders was saying he could see his way clear to working with Trump on issues like infrastructure spending. Even though that concession no doubt dismayed Bernie-istas, he saw it as doing his job. But now that he’s called Trump “delusional” and “a pathological liar,” there isn’t much chance of reaching an accommodation. Presumably, Sanders knows that too. Appearing on Real Time With Bill Maher, Franken upped the ante by claiming his Senate colleagues on the GOP’s side of the aisle privately share the same concerns. “Some will say that he’s not right mentally. And some are harsher.” Franken quickly qualified that by noting that some Republican senators don’t talk to him at all, but he didn’t take it back.
Besides being well above our pay grade, whether or not Trump actually is crazy is almost beside the point, however. What’s undeniable is that he constantly says things you’d have to be crazy to believe, like the poppycock he can’t stop spouting about millions of mythical illegal voters denying him the popular majority that he sometimes seems to think he won anyway. As we all know, he never backs down from these claims, no matter how easily refuted they are. From obsessively sulking about SNL to berating Nordstrom for ditching daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, he’s also got priorities and grievances that seem utterly batshit in a president. At least, in one who understands the job’s nature, which he apparently doesn’t and also refuses to be tutored in.
When he does try to educate himself, he’s like Michael Jackson suddenly hunting for his other glove. This is a POTUS who, at 3 a.m. one night, phoned his national security adviser, the now departed Michael Flynn, to ask if a strong dollar or a weak one was better for the U.S. economy. Lots of us might flunk that pop quiz, granted, but Trump is a supposedly savvy business mogul with a portfolio of international financial shenanigans that go back years, making his ignorance unnerving.
On top of that, what made him think his NSC honcho was the go-to guy on basic economics? What on earth put that bee in his bonnet at three o'clock in the morning? There were Nixon stories like this, but only toward the end. And unlike Trump, Nixon was a boozer.
Even before Flynn’s exit in well-deserved disgrace on Monday after fibbing about his contacts with Russia during the transition, it was already clear that this administration is a national-security disaster. The candidate who kept harping about Hillary Clinton’s private email server is now tweeting his presidential perceptions via an elderly Android that the experts say any bright teenager could hack. Half of the CIA must have come close to heart attacks when they saw Facebook pics of Trump scanning classified info about North Korea’s missile launch in public at Mar-a-Lago during his dinner with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Trump’s base may relish his disregard for protocol, but this kind of slovenliness could actually put the country in danger someday. Maybe it already has, at least so far as Trump’s still mystifying soft spot for Russia is concerned.
Nor is that all. "Clearly, we have a President who does not understand what our Constitution is about, what democracy is about,” Sanders recently said. Unfortunately for us, his top advisers—white-nationalist apocalypse fan Steve Bannon and kinky neo-Fascist cultist Stephen Miller—apparently do understand both well enough to have decided they don’t like either. Miller’s astounding declaration that the president’s powers “will not be questioned” amounted to a warning that unbridled, authoritarian executive power is what this White House dreams of and may even get, since the judiciary has already been set up to take the blame for the next terrorist attack and the Republican majority on Capitol Hill makes the average jellyfish look valiant. Blundering ineptitude combined with fantasies of a Reichstag fire is an awfully toxic mix, and we’re screwed no matter which one gets the upper hand.
Worse yet, so long as he gets to go on thinking he’s the King of Politics, Trump probably won’t care either way. Unless, of course, popular opinion turns on him and tells him it’s time to beat it, beat it, beat it.