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The Gospel According to Mad King Donald

Thursday's outbursts didn't teach us much about Donald Trump. But they taught us a lot about the Republican party.
February 7, 2020
The Gospel According to Mad King Donald
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Presidential contrition? That would be a no.

Maine Senator Susan Collins now admits that she may have been wrong when she suggested that Donald Trump had learned his lesson from impeachment and that he would be “much more cautious in the future.”

“Well,” she admitted on Fox News, “I may not be correct on that. It’s more aspirational on my part.”

Aspirational. So the excuse for her vote to acquit Trump was not legal or prudential or even reasonable. It, too, was aspirational. It was—to quote the president of the United States—“bullshit.”

What America saw on Thursday was Trump in full. There was no expression of regret, no grace notes, no appeals to the better angels of our nature. Instead we got a raw, bitter, unhinged rant of crazy. Two of them, in fact. And it was all perfectly on brand.

Trump is a man unconstrained by the demands of decency or conscience, logic or consistency, and he clearly revels in the license these freedoms afford him. However feckless some of his former aides may have been, it is clear that Trump now occupies a world in which no one tells him no, or cautions him against improprieties, or urges graciousness, or pleads with him to be presidential, or responsible, or even coherent.

So somehow it was fitting that his day began with National Prayer breakfast, at which Trump openly mocked the practice of prayer.

“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump said, apparently referring to Mitt Romney. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.” Nancy Pelosi sat only a few feet away. Later in the day he said of the Catholic Pelosi, “I doubt she prays at all.”

Trump spoke after the keynote remarks from one the nation’s most prominent conservatives, Arthur Brooks, who implored the group to set aside their political hatreds and “love your enemies.” The New York Times’s Peter Baker captured the scene:

“How many of you love somebody with whom you disagree politically?” Hands around the room shot up. “I’m going to round that off to 100 percent,” [Brooks] said. But what he did not seem to notice was that Mr. Trump was among those who did not raise his hand….

Without mentioning Mr. Trump specifically, Mr. Brooks added: “Ask God to take political contempt from your heart. And sometimes when it’s too hard, ask God to help you fake it.”

Mr. Trump made no effort to fake it. While the rest of the room gave Mr. Brooks a standing ovation, he clapped politely but remained seated until finally rising at the end. “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you,” Mr. Trump said when he took the microphone. “I don’t know if Arthur is going to like what I’m going to say.”

Trump was not about to turn the other cheek, or to “forgive those who trespass against us.” In the Gospel According to Donald, forgiveness is for suckers, losers, and cucks. “As you may know by now,” First Lady Melania Trump once explained, “when you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder.”

If Trump prays at all, they are not prayers of forgiveness or humility. Recall that back in 2015, he admitted that he had never asked God for forgiveness: “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so. I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

How someone like this identifies as Christian, or is asked to address a prayer breakfast, is one of the deepest mysteries of American ecumenism.

But not quite so deep as why American Christians revel in Donald Trump as their champion and exemplar.

It was in the same spirit that Trump later in the day marked his impeachment acquittal not with a press conference, or a speech, but rather with a celebratory Festival of Grievances in the East Room of the White House. It began, of course, with a word salad of invective.

Trump described his enemies as evil, corrupt, leakers, liars, lowlifes, sleazebags, and dirty cops. “Adam Schiff is a vicious, horrible person,” Trump told his eager minions. “Nancy Pelosi is a horrible person.”

It was a pure Trumpian stream of consciousness: self pity, bitterness, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, sniffs, anger, mockery, self pity, James Comey, sniffs, the dossier, Hillary, Obama, conspiracy theories, Russia, self pity, Mitt Romney, payback, Hunter Biden, sniffs, insults, Robert Mueller, the FBI, bullshit, self pity… 

Through it all ran the theme of Trump as Victim. No one had ever been treated as badly as he had been. He didn’t know “if other presidents would have been able to take it.” A million tender snowflakes melted.

As the networks covered all of it live (because they apparently have learned nothing or cannot help themselves), Trump capped off the event with praise for his unctuous courtiers—in alphabetical order. As a reward for his slavish hackery, Devin Nunes got a standing ovation.

Trump’s assembled GOP followers loved it all. Trump’s casual cruelty and off-the-cuff vindictiveness is no longer a bug; it is the product differentiator, the special sauce, the killer app of Trumpism. It is precisely what his admirers cling to most fervently. Many of them no longer even try to pretend that they are loyal to his policies, rather than his person.

Perhaps this is what was more revealing than Trump’s own bizarre performance. The worst part of Thursday’s festivities, remarked CNN’s Chris Cillizza “had nothing to do with Trump. Instead, it was the audience who egged him on, laughed at his jokes and applauded his appalling lack of human decency.”

And from the handful of Republican senators who had admitted that Trump had engaged in serious, if not impeachable, misconduct—only to have him stand in front of the world and dispute their mealy-mouthed contentions, we heard . . . nothing. Not one of them pushed back on his comments.

Men like Donald Trump always believe, at a molecular, evolutionary level, that silence equals consent.

And in this instance, he’s not wrong.

In my very first article for The Bulwark, I wrote about what Mitt Romney had exposed in late-stage Trumpism. Despite the overwhelming support of evangelicals, the real roots of Trumpism are not found in Christianity, but in something darker.

Peter Wehner had described the intellectual patrimony of the Trumpian ethos several years earlier:

To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics, and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.”

In other words, it was all about winning, power, and the cries of one’s enemies. Wehner recognized the intellectual antecedents of the strutting bully-boys of Trumpism, even if they were oblivious of the source. Nietzsche would have fit seamlessly into the pages of American Greatness,  or the Fox News primetime lineup, or Trump’s Festival of Winning. As Wehner wrote:

Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “Übermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump.

This is what Romney continues to expose: an upside down moral universe that has captured an entire political party.

By now, we know who Trump is, because he has told us so many times.

On Thursday we saw—to a degree which is now utterly indisputable—what the GOP has become.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.