It is useful to go back to the period in 2016 when Trump was where his successor is now: the victor in the election but still not president. For it was in this interregnum that Trump took a single action that was scarcely noticed at the time but that, more than any other, defined his presidency.
That action had both the political destructiveness and the personal brutality that would become familiar as the primary weapons in Trump’s armoury. It consisted merely in ordering a load of ring-binders full of carefully compiled documents to be dumped.
It was the day after Trump’s victory party, held of course in the garish Trump Tower in Manhattan. Chris Christie, who was still governor of New Jersey, a successful Republican in a heavily Democratic state, was the man with the 30 bulging binders.
In them was the transition plan, the crucial details of how a Trump administration was going to work, including shortlists of pre-vetted candidates for all the top jobs in the administration, as well as timetables for action on key policies and the drafts of the necessary executive orders.
It had taken a team of 140 people assembled under Christie’s chairmanship nearly six months to create the plan.
When Christie arrived at Trump Tower, he was met by Trump’s then consigliere, Steve Bannon. Bannon told Christie that he was being fired with immediate effect “and we do not want you to be in the building anymore”. His painstaking work was literally trashed: “All thirty binders”, as Christie recalled in a self-pitying memoir, “were tossed in a Trump Tower dumpster, never to be seen again”.
With Trump, the personal and political could never be separated and both were equally at work here. The personal was silverback gorilla stuff, humiliating Christie was a sadistic pleasure and a declaration to established Republicans that Trump was the boss of them all now.
he political message was one that took longer to sink in. A transition plan implied some kind of basic institutional continuity, some respect for the norms of governance.
At the beginning, as at the end, the idea of an orderly transition of power was anathema to Trump.
Why? Because a timetable for action and a commitment to appoint, to the thousands of positions filled by the incoming president, people with expertise and experience, would constrain him. He was not going to be constrained.
It is not just that Trump really was not interested in governing. It is that he was deeply interested in misgovernment.
He left important leadership positions in government departments unfilled on a permanent basis, or filled them with scandalously unqualified cronies. He appointed people to head agencies to which they had been publicly hostile.
Beneath the psychodrama of Trump’s hourly outbursts, there was a duller but often more meaningful agenda: taking a blowtorch to regulation, especially, but by no means exclusively, in relation to the environment.
Trump’s aim, in the presidency as in his previous life, was always simple: to be able to do whatever the hell he wanted. That required the transformation of elective office into the relationship of a capricious ruler to his sycophantic courtiers.
In this nexus, the madder the better. Power is proven, not when the sycophants have to obey reasonable commands, but when they have to follow and justify the craziest orders.
There is no fun in getting your minions to agree that black is black. The sadist’s pleasure lies in getting them to attest that black is white. The “alternative facts” that Trump’s enabler Kellyanne Conway laid down at the very beginning of his administration are not just about permission to lie. They’re about the erotic gratification of making other people lie absurdly, foolishly, repeatedly.
Trump’s wild swings of position were all about this delight in the command performance of utter obedience.
To take just the most outlandish example, Kim Jong-un could be transformed from the Little Rocket Man on whom Trump would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to “Chairman Kim” with whom, in his own words, he “fell in love”.
The price of this form of power is the undermining of any form of democratic deliberation. Democracy is not just about voting – it is a system for the rational articulation of ideas about the public good. Trump set out to lay waste to that whole system, from the bottom up, poisoning the groundwaters of respect for evidence, argument and rationality that keeps it alive.
The power of his instinct was that he knew how to tap into a hatred of government that has been barely below the surface of American culture since before the foundation of the US.
That instinct proved sufficiently well attuned that he got nearly 75 million votes in November, even while his malign incompetence was killing his own people. He got those votes, moreover, having made it abundantly clear that he would never accept the result of the election unless he won. They were votes for open autocracy.
Trump has unfinished business. A republic he wants to destroy still stands. It is, for him, not goodbye but hasta la vista. Instead of waving him off, those who want to rebuild American democracy will have to put a stake through his heart.