It is a problem for President Donald Trump that it’s often impossible to tell what the hell he’s talking about. This is not one of those signature Trump defects that can readily be spun into a secret strength or as a subtle bit of advanced dealcraft that only experts and initiates can appreciate. His mind is a television that changes channels every three seconds and where every channel has an infomercial on it; it cycles day and night without ever quite cohering into a signal. There is plenty of noise, though, and because Trump so utterly lacks discernment he is constantly interrupting himself with some new bit or blurt. As a result, his average sentence is a parade of wild upstage moves in which whatever thought he’s had most recently is forever blundering into and past the one he had just begun to express—imagine one of those halftime shows at a NBA game in which people throw down wild dunks after leaping off trampolines except there’s a new guy jumping on the trampoline every second and there are frequent midair collisions. Trump also only knows about a hundred words, about a third of which refer to volume or size.
Trump cannot ever keep his story straight because he never fully knew what it was in the first place. He knows it is about him, and the things that keep happening to him, but beyond that he never knows, and will never know; he is conspiring and scheming constantly, but so ineffectually and in such a state of flummoxed confusion and utterly abject ignorance that the endgame is never anything but unclear. Trump is always trying to get over, to win and keep winning, but also he doesn’t know what the rules are, or what the game even is, and also someone—it’s not important who, it would be unfair to point fingers—has eaten the racecar, the thimble, all of the little plastic hotels, and a third of the cards in Community Chest. It can be difficult to prove that any of Trump’s many howlingly overt acts of malfeasance are intentional because everything he does—from the first grasping moments to his last seething ones, all through his endless expanses of executive time—feels like and fundamentally is an accident.
When the White House released a redacted summary of a phone call that Trump had with Ukraine’s newly elected prime minister—this, oddly, was part of a confusing attempt to short-circuit a scandal that began with the White House’s attempt to bury a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s attempt to cultivate foreign parties’ help in his 2020 campaign—the world got to see the master in action. The dialogue made clear what Trump was trying to do, which was leverage the possibility of aid money to get Ukraine to investigate a company that had put Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board, thereby creating the sort of opaque and open-ended scandal that Trump used to great effect against Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was the transparency of this maneuver—which, in classic Trumpian fashion, amounted to making a common bit of implicit political scummery extremely explicit, and then using it to the pettiest of personal ends—as much as the substance of it that seems finally to have inspired Democrats to come around on a shamefully belated impeachment inquiry.
Other parts of the transcript were harder to understand, for familiar Trumpy reasons. For instance, there is this:
Ukraine’s president had been briefed well enough to respond to this in the correct way—Sure, definitely, and sir you’re right Robert Mueller was very low-energy, sir—but it is initially unclear what any of this even means, or why Trump would be bringing it to Ukraine’s new president. CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity outfit that was involved with investigating Russia’s 2016 hacking of the DNC, told Vice that they had no idea what it was about. No one really seems to know where Trump got the idea that CrowdStrike is owned by a Ukrainian, or that some wealthy Ukrainian has “the server.” It is immediately clear that Trump himself doesn’t quite know what he’s talking about, either. It is never a good sign when he says “they say,” because it is his shorthand for “something I erroneously recall having seen on television at some point.”
But in this case he seems to believe that a secret server had been physically remanded to One Of Ukraine’s Wealthy People, probably by Deep State actors or some such, it’s hard to say, there are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. He’s asked various questions about this for some time. It never really goes anywhere, because there’s nowhere for it to go.
Trump’s ignorance isn’t a defense, but it is again a decent explanation. Because he is constitutionally incapable of being less ignorant—because his mind is gone and because he won’t read or listen and can’t effectively digest even the smoothest juche gruel that his television gives him—he winds up thinking things that literally no one else thinks. And because Trump is constitutionally incapable of changing his mind, on any topic, he gets stuck on stuff like this and then repeats it and repeats it and repeats it; the job of the cable channel he likes is to tell him he’s right, so quite literally hears this stuff more and more. He doesn’t express himself well enough to convince anyone else of whatever it is that he believes—it’s seldom clear what he’s even trying to argue beyond that everyone is being mean to him for no reason and actually someone else did what he did—but he’s already convinced himself of it, which means that he will never be unconvinced.
The more worrying part of all this is that there is fundamentally nothing to know about most of what he talks about. Every rank thought-chunk that clears his blowhole is either some legacy beef or bigotry or something Trump learns from his television shows, which feed him attenuated suspicions, a list of ominous what-abouts that hint at some sort of outcome but stop well short of it, and a bunch of leading questions that, by design, cannot be answered. All of this is supposed to shore up a worldview and generate specific political outcomes, but mostly it aims to create a mood—a coiled and claustrophobic sense of being under siege, by someone—more than it does to answer any of the questions it hints at. It doesn’t really add up to anything, but also it can’t; the game is to accumulate.
When Trump is stressed, the deficits inherent in all this are especially plain. What would Trump do, if handed this purloined DNC server? What would he even hope to find in it? Even the element of the story that involves Joe Biden and his son, which involves real and knowable facts, has been so degraded by its immersion in the garbage-whirlpool of conservative media and so muddled by Trump’s limp n’ lazy brain that the man who first reported it can barely recognize it. Nothing adds up to anything and all the fragments, which look like they should connect, don’t. Trump transparently doesn’t know where it ends. He’s the story’s hero, but mostly he’s just a customer.
Listen to Trump tell the story of how he wound up where he’s found himself and it is immediately clear that he is overwhelmed by it and utterly lost in it. Trump is sure that he’s being conspired against by powerful forces, and remembers some names and faces, but that’s about as far as it goes. His TV hasn’t told him the rest yet. Here is what he told the media after it became clear that the summary his White House released hadn’t helped him, and might not help him avoid an impeachment hearing:
“And then you’ve got the text message, ‘Well, if she doesn’t win, we’ve got the insurance policy,’” Trump says, heatedly but confusedly. “That’s sort of what has been taking place over the last number of years, the insurance policy. You know, there are a lot of dishonest people, and we’re the ones that played it straight. And the millions of people out there that are looking at what’s going on, those people understand it. They see it, and they think it’s disgusting. And our people are being hurt, and our country’s being hurt, when a Nancy Pelosi allows her position to be taken over by radical far left socialists, or worse—that’s pretty bad. That’s pretty bad. Especially when the Senators, and all of these other people, have actually done what they’re accusing me of doing, which I didn’t do.”
Even if you understand the various soggy memes, characters, and canon of the Fox News Cinematic Universe, this is very hard to follow. If you don’t, it is the purest gibberish. It is clear that Trump feels that he’s being done wrong, but even he can’t seem to figure out why; he fumes and threatens and digresses from his digressions, but he doesn’t know how to stop anything happening around and to him, let alone fix it. The people tasked with speaking for him can’t do much better, because there is no coherent story to tell. Rudy Giuliani, the increasingly deranged reactionary icon whom some insider types blame for winding Trump up on this matter and who was supposed to make this investigation-of-whatever happen, makes a perfect advocate for Trump in this case not just because the two share the same strengths—getting divorced and getting white people in Staten Island excited, not necessarily in that order—but because both seem somehow to have synchronized their respective mental decay.
Donald Trump is one of the worst people his generation produced, a vain and vicious and relentlessly exploitive nullity. But there is something pitiable in watching him try to defend himself with the weapons he’s been given by the culture that created him. He opens his mouth to answer for what he’s done and finds that these silly, sordid questions are all he has.