Editor’s Note: Ted Gup is an author and writer-in-residence at Durham University in the UK. He has been a contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, Slate, The Guardian, National Geographic and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
In recent weeks, nearly all the talk in Washington centered around impeachment – would they or wouldn’t they? Now the nation faces a new worry – abdication. That’s right, the President who imagines himself a king, and expects others to treat him the same way, has declared that he will have nothing to do with Congress on infrastructure legislation – perhaps the one area where he could have won bipartisan support – so long as the Dems insist on holding him accountable. In effect, Donald Trump has announced that he has abdicated, having no longer any wish to serve.
Fittingly, the word “abdication” has two meanings. The first applies to when a monarch relinquishes his throne (in Trump’s case, not likely); the second, when anyone in a position of authority chooses to neglect or ignore his duties. The latter is what this petulant President has said he will do so long as anyone dares question him. He has announced, in effect, that America now has a government in absentia.
To understand what happened last week, it is best viewed through the lens of medieval times, which is the domain in which our President/king resides. What House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did by accusing him of a cover-up amounted to what monarchs call “Lese Majeste” – an insult to the sovereign. (For Trump, there is no real issue of constitutionality. The only separation of powers he seems to recognize is that which he has doled out between his advisers, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and his son Don Jr.)
Which helps explain the calculated and choreographed Rose Garden hissy fit (complete with posters on the podium) and why it is that Trump, who was always accustomed to getting his own way, has done so again. His threat not to deal with Congress so long as it has the temerity to question him, creates for him the ideal scenario: he gets to hold on to the throne without having to govern, which is most likely what he wanted from the beginning. For all his scorn and righteous indignation, he’s probably experiencing a measure of relief and even gratitude that the weight of the crown has been at least temporarily lifted.
After all, he has never had any interest in actually running things and when he did he often ran them into the ground (count the bankruptcies, and now the debacle of US immigration policy). He is the CEO who is averse to managing, the deal-maker extraordinaire who comes away from the negotiating table empty-handed, having offended lifelong allies to the delight of our adversaries; he is the wizard investor who is said to have lost more money over a decade than practically any other American. His competence rests exclusively on his own testimonials. In Texas they call that “all hat and no cattle.”
He is about scoring points, nothing more. It is only fitting that he was the host of the TV program “The Apprentice,” a show about sycophants vying for his favor. Trump is himself a lifelong apprentice, first desperately vying for the acceptance of his martinet father, and later, the nation. Look at his life – he is a success at courtship and wooing; fidelity, not so much.
In many ways, his inauguration was the high point of his presidency. What followed was the bewildering realization that something more was expected of him. He is perpetually on the campaign trail in pursuit of validation, and another win.
Trump, the consummate dealmaker, can always walk away from the table, not because he is a canny and tough negotiator, but because he does not seem to care what the outcome is or what the ultimate shape of the deal is. He has no true investment in the deal (the well-being of our country and its people), only in his ego – it is enough that he appears to have won.
His singular talents span the spectrum from bluff to bluster, which work well enough in inherited wealth and reality TV, but less so for those enterprises requiring actual hands-on governance. And is it not the ultimate expression of executive privilege, the right not to behave as an executive at all? He is drawn to the prerogatives of power, and not what that power can do for others.
So in threatening to eschew all manner of presidential engagement, save the pomp and circumstance for which he lives, he has simply shed all pretense and shown his true self. State dinners, motorcades, the pandering of Fox & Friends and endless ego-stroking were all that he ever wanted. Even on the campaign trail, nothing was further from his mind than finding solutions to the nation’s problems.
He has become a case study in the old adage, “be careful what you wish for.” One can be forgiven for wondering if it had even occurred to him that certain responsibilities might come along with holding office. How utterly inconvenient for tweeting and tee-off times.
And now we have the worst of all possible worlds: an abdication that leaves some 327 million Americans in limbo.
The problem is that Trump, in his own inimitable way, has created a most imperfect vacuum for the nation. For the foreseeable future the presidency will be both vacant and occupied, with the country reduced to waiting out his tantrum and deciphering its future from a fusillade of tweets and campaign-like rants.
Meanwhile, the nation’s bridges are left to crack, highways buckle, tracks heave, illicit drugs proliferate, medications grow ever-more expensive; diplomats scratch their heads and hind parts, idled by kingly disinterest, allies wonder whether we have their backs or should watch their backs, enemies salivate, polar ice caps slip into the sea, and poor, poor Doral Country Club – under Trump’s storied management – continues, like the rest of us, to struggle.
Now, freed of such noisome distractions as legislation, budgets, and infrastructure, he, like a child with a giant LEGO set, can concentrate on trying to build that wall to the south and dispense with pretending to care about the nation or its ills.
Instead of railing against Speaker Pelosi, he should be writing her a thank you note for handing him an excuse, however implausible, allowing him to shed the duties of the presidency. The saddest and most telling of all his pronouncements since entering office was this: “I loved my previous life.”