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Let’s stop pretending Trump is just pretending

He’s been a dangerous demagogue since before he was a politician.

President Trump Holds Campaign Rally At The Bojangles Coliseum In Charlotte, North Carolina
Trump holds a campaign rally at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

After a week of political and religious violence, there’s a near desperation among the political press to hear President Trump apologize for whipping up crowds and feeding online hate.

Reporters were exasperated during an exchange with the president Friday after federal agents arrested a Florida man suspected of sending bombs to notable liberals. TV news aired footage of the FBI towing away his now-infamous van plastered in ugly internet memes. The deep dive into his social media accounts revealed he attended Trump rallies and tweeted about the targets of Trump’s tirades, several of whom he attempted to bomb.

REPORTER: Are you to blame at all for what happened, Mr. President? Does it bother you at all?

TRUMP: No, not at all. No, I mean — not at all, no. There’s no blame … There’s no anything … If you look at what happened on — numerous of these incidents, they were supporters of others. No.

It’s certainly understandable why someone would want to believe the president can’t be as clueless or indifferent as he claims. It’s especially understandable for the political press, which, up until very recently, could beat a steady drum and get a politician to back down and apologize for an awful comment. The act of contrition made us feel that the natural order had been restored.

But not Trump. Trump, as the dominant school of thought goes, does not apologize, because he is a cynical, clear-eyed political animal who plays to his base’s darkest instincts to stay in power. It’s not that he doesn’t want to apologize; he can’t apologize. He’d be ruined.

If Trump held a rally that began, “I know I said I’d fix our broken health care system, but I’m gutting protections for people with preexisting conditions,” the crowd would boo him instead of CNN. Trump can’t run on his actions in office. His key achievements are unpopular. Instead, he’s boldly lied again and again. He claims he supports protections for people with preexisting conditions, while his administration weakens them. He’s lied about a tax plan that he says will help the middle class, while instead it gives breaks to the ultra-wealthy.

He moves on quickly to social divisions — where he can win. He’s deliberately provoking hysteria over a caravan of migrants, for example. The story has dominated the news and Google searches (as Judd Legum of Popular Information found). Trump has succeeded in focusing our attention on a racist sideshow instead of his policies.

Google search data on immigrant caravan since Donald Trump made it a campaign issue.
Popular Information collected Google search data on searches for “caravan.”
Popular Information/Google

But that’s not to say that he’s insincere in his hatred of immigrants, or in his disdain for women, religious minorities, or any other group he’s smeared or attacked. The evidence is overwhelming that Trump actually believes what he’s saying. It’s not an act. And it’s a distinction that makes Trump’s behavior as president much more troubling.

Trump has publicly taken racist positions for decades, whether it was insisting that the Central Park Five (all black) were guilty of raping a white woman even after they were exonerated or fanning the birther conspiracy about Barack Obama even after he became president.

Trump surrounds himself with advisers who are clearly true believers. One of his longest-serving advisers is Stephen Miller, the id of Trumpism and the man reportedly responsible for all immigration policy in the administration, including cruelty to children. There was the architect of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon, who spent years mainstreaming white nationalism. And then there’s Sean Hannity, whom Trump talks to secretly on his phone (secret from his aides, but well-known to the Chinese officials listening in). Hannity makes his living these days peddling conspiracy theories and stirring up fear.

To believe this is all an elaborate ruse is as absurd as believing any of the conspiracy theories that have emerged in the past two years — from a pizza parlor child sex abuse ring to claims that prominent Jewish donor and Holocaust survivor George Soros is a Nazi. Trump isn’t operating on two distinct levels. He sympathizes with the bigoted attitudes of the crowds he whips up, and he’s happy to use those sympathies to get away with hurting anyone.

Trump attacks people of color, immigrants, women, victims of sexual assault, people with disabilities, and religious minorities. He makes his white, working-class supporters feel valued above these other groups. But court documents show he’s cheated workers and small-business owners for decades, and in his own books, he shows open disdain for the non-rich. Trump’s presidency isn’t about his base; it’s about Trump.

Narrowly, that’s meant Trump makes policy that is good for him and his family, like a tax law that’s great for the very wealthy, particularly real estate tycoons like him.

But he wants more from the presidency than wealth. As my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote during the campaign, Trump could have gotten as rich as he is today as a passive investor:

The point is that after decades of touting his business acumen, his ability to negotiate tough deals and spot good investments, and after spending this entire campaign season arguing that he’s qualified for the presidency based on his skills in the market, Trump nonetheless has an investment record that at best roughly matches and at worst underperforms the market. He did only as well or possibly worse than a retiree with a Vanguard 401(k) did.

Instead, Trump has spent his entire adult life using, cheating, and manipulating people to make money by putting his name and face on books, buildings, golf courses, hotels, wineries, third-rate bottles of vodka, and even steaks. He needs to feed his ego, not just line his pockets.

In office, Trump’s ego has only ballooned. He’s consumed by a version of Nixonian resentment of the media and elites, whom he needs and uses when it serves him. He craves proving them wrong, showing them that he is better than the men who did the job before him, especially Barack Obama. “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” he’s bragged.

Trump has built a mob to fuel his political power. In turn, it fuels his ego. He feeds off the crowd.

When he loses control of the mob and his enemies demand he apologize, Trump scoffs. His goal is to topple the elitists he despises, to boost himself, and to maintain his power. Apologizing would risk all of that.

As he told a reporter on Friday, recent events aren’t going to change him. The fallout from the mob he’s built does not matter. As he put it, what matters is that he’s winning:

REPORTER: Would you yourself pledge to tone down the president for the next few days during the campaign?

TRUMP: Well, I think I’ve been toned down, if you want to know the truth. I could really tone it up. Because, as you know, the media has been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party.

REPORTER: How? How have we been unfair?

TRUMP: I think the media has been very, very unfair in terms of the Republican Party and the way it’s been covered. And they understand that. They write articles about that. Many of them admit that. But the media has been unbelievably unfair to Republicans, conservatives, and certainly to me.

But with all of that being said, we’re winning. So, I like that.

We should not look for an apology from Trump. He has shown us who he is. And there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity.

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