Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The fiction that Donald Trump is a “counter-puncher” is getting a workout as his defenders try to justify the President’s attacks on everyone from US Rep. Adam Schiff (“little Adam Schitt”) to the special counsel Robert Mueller (“gone absolutely nuts.”) The myth holds that Trump is a tough guy who fights back. In fact, he is a fragile man running out of safe places to hide.
Like so much about Trump, the counter-puncher theme is a clever marketing ploy used to obscure obvious flaws. In the past he promoted himself as a business titan to cover the shame of multiple massive bankruptcies. Today, as a politician, he poses as a victim when he’s actually a frightened bully. No one is ever on equal footing with the President of the United States, which means that whenever he “punches” anyone, he lowers himself.
Who does Trump fear? He fears the independent counsel, whose investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election threatens to expose the inner workings of the campaign and of Trump’s opaque business empire. He fears Schiff and other House Democrats he’s belittled because they will soon chair powerful committees that will launch their own investigations into Trump’s administration and, perhaps, his long-hidden tax returns.
The President’s insecurities all seem to revolve around his fear of being unmasked as a fraud. The tax returns, for example, would allow everyone to compare his claims to great wealth – in 2015 he said he was worth $10 billion – with black-and-white reality. More to the point, we could all see how he has benefited from various tax maneuvers and discover just how much corporate welfare the Trump Organization has lapped up over the years.
Beyond his finances, Trump fears being revealed to be a naïf who has been outplayed by others with power. In the case of the Saudi killing of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump seems afraid to listen to the audio evidence Turkish officials handed over to the United States. He seems to be in denial about what his brutal pals are willing to do.
Trump’s first overseas trip as President began with a stop in Riyadh, where he joined in a ceremonial dance and went all in with one of the most repressive regimes on Earth.
The desperation in Trump’s denial, whether it has to do with Khashoggi’s killing or domestic politics, can be seen in the tortured effort he makes to persuade us that what we see with our own eyes isn’t true.
The results of the 2018 election are a perfect case in point. Trump’s instinct brought him to frame the election as a “tremendous success,” even as his party lost control of the House and he became vulnerable to the opposition for the first time in his presidency.
Trump likely failed to detect the nation’s displeasure with him, and his party, because he is apparently afraid to go anywhere outside the parts of the country where he’s sure to draw an adoring crowd. (His did make a brief trip to California after the campaign in the wake of the deadly wildfires.)
The America he saw at his rallies was whiter, more rural and less educated than America overall. Obviously wary of any place where he wouldn’t be hailed as a hero, he didn’t hold a single rally in the Northeast or on the West Coast. In both those regions, Republicans suffered major election losses. If timid Trump had taken the risk of going to these places, he might have had a more realistic sense of how he is faring. But information that runs counter to the narrative he prefers may make him uncomfortable.
The President’s need for safe spaces is not just a matter of campaign strategy. In March, USA Today noted that Trump had seen less of the country than any president in 40 years. Whenever possible Trump has traveled to his own properties – the Mar-a-Lago resort is a favorite – where he can surround himself with sycophants, rest in his own comfy bed and tweet insults at the people he fears.
Although he talks tough, Trump has yet to leave his comfort zone to make a visit to a war zone to visit US troops – the men and women fighting for America. Except for Kennedy, every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has performed this duty. President Barack Obama did it a little over two months into his first term.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump “has spoken privately about his fears over risks to his own life, according to a former senior White House official.” The unnamed official said, “He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”
A bit of concern would be natural, but as the ultimate VIP, a president who goes to Iraq or Afghanistan, for example, should not tremble. (Obama went to both in his first 14 months in office.) But like any man who brags about how much he loves to fight, Trump long ago revealed himself to be a fearful fellow. Face to face with real combat troops he might be confronted with actual courage and feel diminished
Comfort is prized by our fragile-flower President, who spins fantasies of denial to avoid painful realities. His recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News was a frightened fantasist’s tour de force. “I did well in France,” he says after a trip where he skipped a ceremony to honor the war dead because, he claims, fog kept his helicopter grounded and the Secret Service forbade him to travel by car. In fact, the Secret Service cannot order a president to do anything, and other heads of state made the trek to honor the dead.
Did the Saudis lie to him about Khashoggi? “You know, who can really know?” says Trump whose advisers say they did.
As the President’s claims about his trip to France and Khashoggi demonstrate, what he fears most is the truth. Frightened of facts, he dismisses critics as unfair enemies and unpleasant realities as “fake news.” He can’t learn from his mistakes because he is afraid even to consider them.