Last week America was introduced to Anthony Senecal, that curious octogenarian who lives in Trump’s house in Florida and writes bilious Facebook posts about his view that the president should be lynched. Senecal is flesh and blood. “John Miller” and “John Barron,” who are not, are made of faith, trust, and pixie dust. Former associates of the Republican party’s presumptive nominee for president in 2016, the pair was presented to a bemused nation on Friday.
This most recent distraction — the revelation that Trump impersonated his own, imaginary publicists on the phone for several years in the 1980s and ’90s, confessed to it then, and denies it now — freshly illustrates his well-established flair for drama and deception. It also ratchets up a little the Fremdscham that he stirs in those who, as Rachel Lu put it the other day, “remain un-hypnotized” by his antics: They feel his embarrassment, and all the more so because he does not, or pretends he doesn’t. Instead of correcting course, he doubles down and rubs the public’s nose in it.
We should be talking instead about ISIS and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, his supporters say on Twitter and elsewhere, disingenuously. His campaign is nearly bereft of ideas and policy arguments except the flavor of the moment. He contradicts himself routinely, with insouciance. It matters to most voters and to many donors, though clearly not to his base. Has a presidential campaign ever been built on such a small ratio of substance to mood music? Obama 2008. There you go.
A vocal and passionate bloc of voters on the right want their own Obama, a president who for a change —change! — will cut out all that “principled conservative” jabber about “the Constitution” and exercise an imperial presidency in their interest, as they perceive it. They resent conservatives for standing between them and the Left. The new populists, or nationalists, demand to have at it: “Out of the way, you had your chance, our turn, we’ll show you how it’s done.” What they mean is that they aim to install a Clinton donor in the Oval Office, to keep Clinton herself out of it. Got that? Meet the new boss, same as the old one. Or worse than the old one? That’s a question for another post.
We the people are the boss, of course, and Mr. or Mme. President our public servant, at least on paper. That notion is now fairly quaint, a parchment piety. Too many Americans would rather have a king, like the Israelites who ended up with Saul. It turns out that the demand for an American monarch far exceeds the supply of willing candidates. Voters in the market for such a thing will take what’s on offer. That is how the Republican party has come to this, preparing to nominate for president a person whose primary qualification for the office is that he can rage with senior-style ferocity, like Lear on the heath.
To deflect attention from a swelling drumbeat of questions about what might be in his tax returns, Trump released to the Washington Post a tape of a phone interview that “John Miller” gave to a reporter for a celebrity-gossip magazine in 1991. So speculates the reporter, Sue Carswell, who says that she lost the tape long ago and that the only other person who would have had a copy is Trump. But if he was the one who released it, why did he appear caught off guard when asked about it on TV on Friday, and why did he hang up when asked about it again a few hours later, 44 minutes into an interview with the Post?
Whatever the bottom of that peculiar story is, it’s backward-looking and sad, a picture — it’s ironic — of what Americans who rally to Trump fear their country has become. Remember Shelley Levene, the paunchy, andropausal real-estate con man played by Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross? On the phone with potential marks who probably won’t buy the sketchy and possibly nonexistent real estate he’s so desperately pitching, he shouts directions to and answers questions from his nonexistent secretary. The guy is sunk.
Carswell suggests that we keep our eye on Trump’s failure to release his returns. Others, including Paul Krugman, suspect that the reason he’s stonewalling is that the returns show him to be poorer than he lets on. In his book TrumpNation (2005), Timothy L. O’Brien wrote that “three people with direct knowledge” of Trump’s finances estimated that his net worth was between $150 and $250 million. Trump sued O’Brien for defamation, insisting that he was a billionaire, and lost in court.
He resists the call to produce documentation that would show his wealth to be finite and perhaps smaller than he boasts, just as under false identities he used to shop breathless accounts of financial and sexual prowess to the celebrity press. The common thread is his betrayal of schoolboy insecurities that you would think he had the self-awareness not to advertise. He’s uninformed on civics, economics, and foreign policy — that is, he hasn’t done a whit of homework for this year-long job interview — because there’s not enough time at the end of a long day spent primping in front of mirrors.
The Republican party finds itself in a world of trouble. Not only does it not know what its presidential nominee stands for in terms that can be expressed in logical, linear fashion for the left-brain-dominant majority. It doesn’t even know who the man is outside the improbable, Gatsby-like character he has spent his life straining to portray. People have gotta know whether a person who wants to be their president is a crook. Clinton is — we’ve known it forever. She’s the queen of crookery. Is Trump’s fear that his returns would expose him as a piker by comparison? Or what?
John Fund proposes that delegates in Cleveland abstain from voting until Trump releases his tax returns. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post submits that “a longtime delegate guru” stressed to her that
the biggest thing — maybe the only thing — that matters now is the rules committee. . . . It could insist on financial disclosure by any and all candidates prior to the nomination. It could include a “conscience clause” making clear that bound delegates may vote their conscience based on new information revealed subsequent to their selection. The possibilities are infinite.
Trump’s evasiveness in this matter is emblematic of the blank check that is his larger campaign. The Republican party is asking us to sign it. It would not be prudent.