Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Donald Trump’s ever-shifting reality

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff illustration

EXHAUSTED, AMERICANS STRUGGLE to follow the words and actions of history’s most mercurial president as he veers from one headline to the next — especially since he fired the advisers who, by his own account, had thwarted his true self. Beneath his self-absorption, President Trump suggests, lurks a savvy dealmaker who takes a wrecking ball to presidential decorum for good reason — not merely to please himself, but to achieve results.

In his own telling, Trump has instincts so superior that they defy conventional comprehension. So we should quail at the assessment recently tendered to conservative columnist Erick Erickson by an anonymous Republican congressman who, though he defends Trump on Fox News, blurted out his truth in the sanctuary of a grocery store:

“It’s like Forrest Gump won the presidency, but an evil, really [expletive] stupid Forrest Gump. He can’t help himself. He’s just a [expletive] idiot who thinks he’s winning when people are bitching about him. He really does see the world as ratings and attention.


“I say a lot of [expletive] on TV defending him. . . . But honestly, I wish the mother [expletive] would just go away. . . . He wakes up in the morning, [expletive] all over us, [expletive] all over his staff, then hits golf balls. [Expletive] him. Of course, I can’t say that in public or I’d get run out of town.”

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In this all-too-expert, if profane, opinion, our president is not the intuitive “genius” he proclaims himself to be, but a vile and abusive version of a fictitious simpleton who kept wandering into American history by accident. Except that this real-world ignoramus wields unmatched power to transform history for the worst. That he is supplanting sober advisers — Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and H.R. McMaster — with sycophants and enablers should terrify us all.

For a time, the now-departed ameliorated his worst instincts, protecting special counsel Robert Mueller and preserving the Iran nuclear deal. No more. Trump careens unconstrained from one self-created flashpoint to the next with no sense of consequence or objective grasp of external reality — compelling attention out of sheer fright at what he may do next.

The most appalling thing about his unpredictability is its infinity. The sole organizing principle for his behaviors is the volatile chemistry between external events and his internal needs of the moment. The one predictable impetus for some of his gravest policy decisions is not a considered sense of where they lead, but his obsession with eradicating every trace of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

This is the presidency as psychodrama.


Consider this. Amid two potential nuclear crises, Iran and North Korea, he tweeted to mock an artist’s sketch of a man allegedly dispatched on his behalf to terrorize a porn star whom he denied paying off — before admitting it. The anti-gravitational vacuity of Trump’s inner landscape takes one’s breath away.

America’s reality becomes a reality show pitched to his base. Instead of strategy or even humanity, Trump gives us made-for-TV strikes on Syria featuring “nice, new and ‘smart’ ” missiles, a display of Fourth of July pyrotechnics that changed nothing for suffering Syrians on the ground.

Thus a terrible thought arises — can this man, empowered to destroy large swaths of the planet, comprehend the reality of nuclear war? When he threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, did he ponder what that meant? Did he imagine South Koreans perishing under a hail of North Korean missiles — or choking on nuclear fallout? Or even imagine the impact of that statement on normal people with a functioning imagination?

Clearly not. Blithely he declares trade wars with unknown consequences to our economy; withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal without a backup plan; and impulsively schedules a high-stakes summit with a ruthless North Korean dictator bound to thwart his fantasies of instantaneous success. What then?

The stakes make his ever-shifting reality ever more disorienting — to Americans, to allies and adversaries alike. No one knows what Trump will do from moment to moment — including Trump. His synapses and dendrites are wired for spontaneous combustion.


Watching him, majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan resemble mollusks in a catatonic trance, unable to speak or move — even as Trump threatens a constitutional crisis by attacking his own Justice Department. Asked to protect Mueller’s investigation, they refuse and are reduced to pretending that Trump is normal — even predictable.

They should recall the wisdom of Forrest Gump: “My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Imagine a box of hand grenades.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.