The gift of a brilliant actor, great con man, or devious traitor is to be able to hold the facade of normalcy, courage, integrity, or our other higher virtues up to the world and convince it for a time to see the face they want it to see. For the actor, it’s to inhabit the character on stage or screen until the curtain call comes or the credits roll. For the con man, it’s to take that last dollar from the victim of a long con. For the traitor, it’s to pass that last tranche of intelligence on to his handlers from a foreign government.
No matter how skilled their performances, the essential nature of a man’s character is always there, waiting to be revealed in times of stress or challenge. People living a lie are always, as Aristotle reminds us, “... at war with and in opposition to themselves.” In the end, there’s always a tell and always a glimpse behind the mask, and stress is what reveals it.
No institution in the world stresses a man like the American presidency. That glorious burden and singular honor tests, ages, and wears on every person who carries it. The incumbent’s true character, good and bad, is revealed to the world.
Before this week, the essential character of Donald Trump wasn’t a secret—he was always a flamboyant liar, a raging narcissist, and a man driven by impulse and expedience—but to the victims of the biggest political con in American history those were part of his roguish charm. He was always an actor, playing the successful dealmaker and negotiator.
Trump voters are world-champion rationalizers. They knew he was a bastard, but he was their bastard. They knew he was a lying, amoral, narcissistic snake, but by God, he was their snake. American conservatives who knew better sold their virtue, ideology, and principles once Trump won the White House, nodded sagely and intoned, “But Gorsuch.” The last two weeks have been a delicious comeuppance for all of them, as Trump has burned them to the ground by forging a new alliance with the Democratic leadership of Congress and leaving his Republican frenemies in the dirt.
Trump’s fans love his attacks on the GOP. Regardless of the eventual consequences for the party, they defend Trump’s erratic behavior and Russia ties. The Charlottesville disaster was a heavy burden. The blame game from Trump’s failure to sell Congress on an Obamacare repeal raised the tensions. The attacks on GOP senators set teeth on edge. The first flirtation with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over the debt ceiling was like a slap.
Then Trump’s full-fledged triple backflip on DACA and the wall struck like a political earthquake. The sense of shock and betrayal in his base is magnificent. They foolishly believed Trump would never betray them on immigration, despite his lifetime of serial lying and deception.
The clickservative media and Trumpsplainers on the right have demanded since the election that we listen to the Trump voters, and that we understand their economic anxiety and the sense that Washington betrayed them over the decades. These may all be true and explicable motivations for their choice of Trump, but those normalizing Trump tend to elide and dismiss the centrality of anti-immigration hysteria and racial animus in Trump’s campaign.
Was every Trump voter motivated by a xenophobic fury at brown people coming here to live a better life? Of course not, but all voters motivated by a xenophobic fury at brown people coming to live here were Trump voters, and he shamelessly, consistently, and viciously played that card.
There’s a popular argument among Trump apologists that the wall, deportations, and DACA weren’t linchpins of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. This is cheap and sloppy historical revisionism. He opened his campaign with an attack on Mexicans. At Trump rallies, “build the wall” was the tentpole of his speeches and central to the crowd’s Pavlovian call-and-response. His attacks on Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and the rest of the 2016 primary field were predicated in large measure on their alleged weaknesses on immigration. Anti-immigrant rhetoric was the hot wire connecting more traditional working-class Republican and Reagan Democrat voters who remain firmly convinced that Mexicans took their jerbs after the passage of NAFTA. It was also a talisman among the alt-righters, who believe that allowing immigration (legal and otherwise) “browns” their desired lily-white America.
The glorious, Fatal Attraction-level bonkers fury of Ann Coulter and the rest of Trump’s true believer cohort over his DACA flip produced an ocean of furious MAGA tears, incoherent rage, and promises to walk away from Trump if he didn’t get back on his wall-building, kid-deporting rhetoric of 2016. The Breitbart comments section, always a perfect focus group of what the Trump base believes on any given day, turned ugly, and for once it wasn’t directed against the Republican Party, but against Trump himself. At best, Trumpsplainers evoked the hoary Trump-fan trope of “You don’t understand Trump’s 87-dimensional quantum chess game, man.”
The Republican leadership learned last week when he rolled them on the debt ceiling that Trump is an honorless man. This week, Trump’s most passionate supporters saw him throw away their signature issue for a pat on the head from two of the most liberal Democrats in the political universe. Schumer and Pelosi got more than they would have in the hated Gang of Eight agreement with a little well-timed flattery. Trump’s fans get red hats, attacks on the media, and open borders, amnesty, and Dreamers.
As members of the reviled Never Trump movement, it’s not just an end-zone celebration play to say we warned you. We warned you over and over that Trump’s brand isn’t success; it’s betrayal. We warned you that he believes in nothing, and so he will break any promise, shaft any ally, and abandon any position. Hate us all you want, but if you think this is the last time he’ll shank his faithful, you might want to review the last 40 years of his personal and business behavior.
Actors act. Con men con. Traitors betray. It’s what they do. This week was just the latest example from the Conman-in-Chief.