For the last five years, Donald Trump has squatted inside our brains, lying and bullying and whining his way through the news cycle (and sleep cycle) before the whole orange-hued nightmare begins all over again. Every time we think he’s touching bottom, he crashes through the floor—then tries to pull the rest of us down with him.
Absent a Joe Biden landslide, no one can be sure if the election returns will bring us Groundhog Day on acid—how will Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, go?—or relief at last, as the whole preposterous charade comes heaving to a close.
Until then, we’re left to contend with our national amnesia, which robs us of our ability to remember yesterday’s outrage, much less one from 2017.
Sometimes it feels like Trump’s gob-smacking shamelessness has been recorded in disappearing ink. It was a mere 10 months ago that he became only the third U.S. president ever impeached. It was only one month ago that he became the first president ever to refuse to commit to accepting the election returns and to a peaceful transfer of power—the bedrock of American democracy. It was only two weeks ago that he incited white supremacist groups and peddled insane conspiracy theories about top Democrats being Satan-worshipping pedophiles who kill Navy Seals. And as recently as this weekend, Trump praised Texans who engaged in the deeply un-American act of blatant voter intimidation.
What to do today? Forget the hardcore Trumpsters and focus instead on “leaners” and independent voters you know personally in battleground states who might be reached with one last reminder of our national embarrassment—one last attempt by you to get them to do the right thing.
Let’s start with the fact that all of the outrages, remembered or not, revolve around a single theme. Trump wouldn’t know Louis XIV from Louis Vuitton, but the French monarch’s motto “‘L’état, c’est moi’” (“I am the state”) is the one we know he would continue to live by should he again defy a popular vote loss and win a second term.
His presidency is a twisted paraphrase of John F. Kennedy’s famous line from his inaugural address that goes something like this: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for me. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that I shall fan any flame, bear any grudge, ignore any hardship, betray any friend, coddle any foe, in order to assure the survival of me.”
Trump’s record—a sorry litany of assaults on democratic norms and basic civility—needs a final accounting. We need to make sure every voter understands the stakes for themselves—and for America. I’ve tried here to catalogue some of the worst abuses and have broken the indictment into four parts: Public Health Menace, Dangerous Autocrat, Racist Demagogue, and Incompetent Whiner.
Trump’s abysmal management of the pandemic that has now cost 230,000 American lives began well before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. As part of his constant effort to undue anything associated with President Obama, he closed the office at the National Security Council designed to confront pandemics, discarded the playbook for what to do in a global health crisis, and recalled American medical experts assigned to track viruses in China.
Given the chaos of the early weeks of the crisis, Trump could be excused for bungling the job of setting up the kind of testing and contact tracing that empowered allies like South Korea (52 million people, 472 deaths), Japan (127 million, 11,000) and Canada (38 million, 10,000) to contain the virus. But once the testing problems were identified in February, he repeatedly failed to develop a plan to fix them, arguing in public that skyrocketing infection rates made him look bad and should be downplayed.
As the pandemic surged in late March, Trump parceled out critical supplies to states based on whether governors said nice things about him—a form of civic malpractice. And when he urged rightwing protesters to ‘LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, he was inciting violence against elected officials. The FBI later foiled an elaborate plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, just one of many violent threats directed against those whom Trump attacks in tweets.
Trump famously suggested injecting disinfectant as a treatment for the coronavirus (No, he wasn’t joking). He continues to spurn expert advice, calling the esteemed epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci a “disaster” (while lying about Fauci’s support for his campaign in an ad) and relying instead on Peter Navarro, a protectionist economist, and Dr. Scott Atlas, a yes-man radiologist. As part of his appalling closing argument, Trump slimed brave and tireless emergency room doctors fighting COVID-19 as in it “for the money” and charged that Biden was listening too much to scientists. For months, he promoted the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment, spreading his anti-science views to fellow autocrats whose embrace of Trump’s “real-men-don’t-wear masks” bravado cost thousands of lives abroad, too.
Needing a scapegoat, as usual, Trump shifted blame to China (“the Wuhan virus”), though he had earlier praised the response of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The ban on travel from China that he brags about was ineffective, with 50,000 travelers still coming in; his boast that “millions would have died without it” is just another lie.
In public, he compared COVID-19 to the common flu while in private he told Bob Woodward that it was far more deadly. The incessant happy talk—“church pews filled by Easter”— helped spread the virus. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “We have it so under control.” By summer and fall, the fatalism became dangerous folly: “It is what it is”; “It affects virtually nobody”; “We’re rounding the corner.” Even with the pandemic raging, he continues to tell his base the whole thing is no big deal. “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” Trump said in Omaha on Oct. 27. “I had it. Here I am, right?” Of course Trump received experimental treatment that cost over $100,000 and is unavailable to average Americans.
There is blood on the hands of the president. Scoffing at proven mitigation strategies like masks and local shutdowns as signs of weakness cost tens of thousands of American lives. When 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain died of COVID-19 after attending a Trump rally—or when a Rose Garden event celebrating Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett (including an indoor reception with no masks) turned into a superspreader event—even a minimally responsible president would have at least instructed his supporters to wear masks and socially distance at rallies. Instead, Trump doubled down, exposing his own people to harm, all so he could shout “Lock him up” about Biden in his tiresome lounge act.
The result was no less vile for being predictable: According to a Stanford study, Trump rallies between June and September led to an estimated 30,000 additional infections and 700 deaths; the numbers are likely higher now. By some estimates, mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives in the months ahead. There’s still time for him to use the high-powered salesmanship that peddled everything from steaks to a border wall on behalf of masks, but don’t hold your breath. Last week, he made fun of Fox host Laura Ingraham for wearing one.
The first job of the president is to protect the American people. By that standard, as The New England Journal of Medicine put it when it broke tradition and endorsed Biden, “the magnitude of [Trump’s] failure is astonishing.”
“When somebody is the president of the United States,” Trump said, “the authority is total.”
As you read this, Trump is trying to steal the election with a pincer effect: Louis DeJoy, the Trump flunky who runs the USPS, removed mail sorters over the summer to slow mail delivery, while GOP judges use Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's opinion to justify disallowing absentee ballots that arrive after Nov. 3. And it may work for the Banana Republicans.
Trump is panting for a second term so he can join the elite posse of world-class thugs who amass billions and get to push people around. His promise to fire his secretary of defense, CIA director, and FBI director and replace them with toadies after the election is right out of the authoritarian playbook. He has cozied up to autocrats in Russia, North Korea (Trump said he and dictator Kim Jong-Un “fell in love”), Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, while berating staunch allies in Canada (calling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak,”), Mexico (whose president made it clear the country would never pay for Trump’s wall, which has only five miles of new fencing added since he took office), Germany, France, and Australia.
Trump has long viewed the Justice Department as his lawyers, not the people’s. He acknowledged to NBC’s Lester Holt in 2017 that he fired James Comey as director of the FBI because he was investigating the contacts between his 2016 campaign staffers and the Russians. The Mueller Report, in uncontested findings, documented 272 such contacts and, while unable to charge a criminal conspiracy, confirmed connections between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian government that fully justified an FBI probe that Trump, in his classic use of projection, calls “the greatest crime in American history.”
From the start, Trump used his constitutional powers corruptly. He pardoned Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio after he defied a court order, and dangled pardons for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his longtime friend, Roger Stone, in a transparent effort to assure they would not testify against him.
Trump was impeached for threatening to withhold U.S. military aid to shake down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—force him to do Trump a political favor by announcing that Biden, his likely opponent, was under investigation, a bogus charge Trump hoped would help him beat Biden in the 2020 election. During the Senate trial, Rep. Adam Schiff summed up why Trump will never change: "We must say enough—enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What's right matters even less, and decency matters not at all.”
Indeed, the corruption revealed in just the last month is stunning: $400 million in debt that the president is personally liable for; $8 million in government and campaign funds siphoned into Trump hotels; illegal use of the White House and other government property for campaign rallies.
There’s little question Trump violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by using his office to enrich himself and his family. One example: On the very day Xi Jinping visited the Trumps at Mar-a-Lago (which the State Department promoted on its website), his government granted trademarks to Ivanka Trump. (It later came out that her father had a bank account in China and paid taxes to the Chinese government). Trump’s tax returns, which showed him paying a mere $750 (and no, the “pre-payment of millions” isn’t true), may be the key to grasping his post-presidential problems. According to Michael Bromwich, a former inspector general at the Justice Department, Trump “faces federal and state prosecution for bank fraud, tax fraud, wire fraud, and mail fraud, as does his entire family.”
Behind the corruption lies a man with no moral or patriotic core. Without a hearing, the Pentagon cashiered Colonel Alexander Vindman for daring to testify before Congress when subpoenaed. This was consistent with Trump’s overall view of the military. While claiming credit for an expansion of veterans benefits that passed under Obama, he called those who gave their lives for their country in battle “suckers” and “losers.”
Trump doesn’t even bother to hide his assault on the sanctity of elections. Beyond encouraging Republican lawyers to file hundreds of lawsuits designed to suppress the vote, he has repeatedly told his supporters to vote twice. When called to account for encouraging an illegal act, Trump said he was just trying to test the system—which is like an arsonist claiming he just wanted to see if the fire department was doing its job.
Before he took office, Trump said a judge couldn’t rule fairly in a case involving the now-defunct Trump University (which paid defrauded students $25 million in a settlement) because he was “Mexican.” Since then, Trump has routinely maligned the judiciary when it stands up to him and said he wants his nominees for the bench to do his bidding. He called a judge who ruled against his travel ban a “so-called judge” and said that he expected Justice Barrett to rule in his favor in cases involving the 2020 election—a corrupt intent that even totalitarian despots of the past would have at least tried to hide.
Trump, who claims he has done “more for blacks than any president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln,” comes by his racism naturally. He and his father (who was arrested at a New York Ku Klux Klan rally in 1927) were sued by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s for refusing to rent apartments to Black people. When five Black teens were arrested in 1989 for raping a jogger in Central Park, Trump called for them to receive the death penalty. They turned out to be innocent. Starting in 2009, he rose to political prominence by spreading what he knew was a lie about Barack Obama’s birth certificate showing him to have been born in Kenya.
As president, Trump rescinded the DACA program. This has subjected millions of law-abiding, successful young people brought to the U.S. as infants to possible deportation to countries they have never visited and where they know no one. While Obama first built cages at the border, it was Trump who began rejecting asylum-seekers without a hearing and cruelly separating babies from their parents, a policy that effectively orphaned more than 500 innocent children.
After neo-Nazi white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted “Jews will not replace us,” he famously said the group included “some very fine people.” In the first debate with Biden, he said the Proud Boys—a violent white supremacist militia—should “stand by.”
As Biden said in the second debate, Trump’s racial dog whistles are more like bullhorns. The NAACP blamed “Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and racist policies” for the highest level of hate crimes in many years. Trump rudely demanded a Black reporter set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus and spread another birther lie that Kamala Harris “doesn’t meet the requirements” to run for vice president because her parents were born abroad. He called Rep. Maxine Waters a “low IQ individual,” derided non-white nations as “shit hole countries” and told four congresswomen of color—Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—to “go back” to the countries they came from, though all but Omar were born in the United States.
Trump tried to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement by saying its protesters chanted "Pigs in a blanket. Fry them like bacon" toward the police. In truth, a tiny fringe group unaffiliated with BLM used that chant in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2015 and there is no record of it being used since at protests.
Of course, white critics were hardly exempt from his hate-mongering, as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough found when Trump spread the lie that Scarborough had killed an aide in his congressional office.
Trump belittles women reporters and calls the press “the enemy of the people,” the exact words used by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to squelch free speech and dehumanize critics.
Trump claims he has accomplished more than any recent president, but his record of achievement is extremely thin—no major legislation beyond a tax cut tilted heavily toward the rich and a criminal justice reform bill, written by Democrats on Capitol Hill, that he deserves some credit for convincing reluctant Republicans to back.
He has spent four years promising an infrastructure plan to restore the manufacturing base and a health care bill to replace Obamacare and he has produced neither. Instead, his lawyers will in November ask the Supreme Court to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which would subject any American with a preexisting condition (including the after-effects of COVID-19) to the not-so-tender-mercies of the insurance companies. This would return America to a time when getting sick meant having to sell your house or declare personal bankruptcy.
Most of Trump’s ceaseless boasts about having revived the economy are false; monthly job growth during Obama’s second term exceeded that of Trump’s pre-COVID record. This year, his failure to control the virus explains why U.S. economic performance has been poor relative to our competitors. The House passed a new COVID relief package in July, but Trump has lacked the ability to shepherd a compromise through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump knows little about how to actually do his job and shows little interest in learning. By ignoring intelligence briefings, he is shirking his responsibility to protect national security. And many of his foreign policy decisions have given aid and comfort to our enemies. He lifted sanctions on the FSB, the Russian security service that poisons dissidents, and referred to NATO as “obsolete.” This and other insults led French President Emmanuel Macron to say that Europe could no longer depend on the United States to defend its NATO allies—thus undermining the Western alliance that has defied the historical odds and for 75 years helped prevent another world war.
In his first conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump was unfamiliar with the START nuclear arms control treaty they were scheduled to discuss. In the Oval Office, he revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. And at a summit in Helsinki, he accepted Putin’s word over that of every U.S. intelligence agency on whether the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. Later, he ignored rock-solid evidence that Russia is now interfering in the 2020 election and made light of such interference (“We do it, too”), seeming to welcome an attack by a hostile power on the heart of American democracy.
Trump’s overwhelming insecurity—he describes himself as “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius”—is its own national security threat, making him the pawn of strongmen like Putin who manipulate him at will.
Then there are the usual Trump stupidities we have come to expect. He weighed selling Puerto Rico, buying Greenland, blasting hurricanes with nuclear weapons and—when one began to affect red states—used a Sharpie to try to change its path.
After Trump called global warming “a hoax,” his administration deleted scientific data on climate change gathered by government agencies and was one of only five countries in the world to reject the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
Closer to home, he turned leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency over to a former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who loaded up the agency with other polluters and repealed several regulations that protected clean air and water, while rescinding the Clean Power Plan that curbs carbon emissions from power plants.
Surveys showed America’s global image under Trump sunk to new lows. When Nikki Haley resigned, the president tweeted: "Everyone wants Ivanka Trump to be the new United Nations Ambassador." In a second term, there would be no restraints on Trump to prevent it. Fifteen Cabinet members and more than 50 senior officials left the administration, many telling the press that the president was unfit for office. Some of their colleagues were part of the problem. All told, Trump acolytes have committed 54 known violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from taking part in partisan activities.
Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called him a “moron,” and his first secretary of defense, James Mattis, said after Trump had troops pepper-spray protesters on the streets of Washington (so that he could have a photo-op holding a Bible) that the president had “made a mockery of the Constitution.” One chief of staff, John Kelly, said he was “the most flawed person” he’d ever met, and another, Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted only 11 days, said his handling of COVID-19 showed “he has a screw loose.”
Scores of officials from prior Republican administrations—including large numbers from the intelligence, defense, and legal communities— joined Republicans for Biden. Many were upset that when John McCain died, Trump, who had criticized McCain in 2015 for being shot down during the Vietnam War, refused to issue a statement of condolence or attend his funeral, and the Navy ordered that “The USS John McCain needs to be out of sight” during Trump’s trip to Japan.
Trump tried to delay and impede the census, and to force it to not count non-citizens. Conflicts of interest among senior officials that would have dominated the headlines in prior administrations caused barely a ripple; nor did revelations that 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents took part in a secret Facebook group that included scathing denunciations of members of Congress—or that plain-clothed agents from the department of homeland security detained protesters in Portland.
To keep his base in a constant state of agitation, Trump chooses from a familiar selection of cheap whines. “Unfair,” “witch hunt,” and “disgusting” have all gotten workouts. The most potent and rancid may be “fake news”—his go-to complaint any time he doesn’t like a story. What began in 2016 as a way of identifying Russian disinformation has become—thanks to Trump—a universal cudgel for thin-skinned leaders to push back against critics, often in ways far more deadly than what we have seen (so far) in the U.S.
If Trump loses, his power will seep away. But the hate-mongering, self-pitying malignant narcissism will almost certainly remain—grist, no doubt, for a hate-mongering TV network he could broadcast from exile at Mar-a-Lago. With any luck, the ratings he obsesses over will be weak, as viewers join the 2020 electorate in changing the channel from Trump for good.
Jonathan Alter is the author of a newly published biography, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.