The presidency is no fun. Thomas Jefferson called it “a painful and thankless office” and said it brought him “nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends.” George Washington said the presidency gave him “feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” William Howard Taft said the White House was “the lonesomest place in the world.” Warren Harding called it “a prison. I can’t get away from the men who dog my footsteps. I am in jail.” The president is simultaneously lonely and yet constantly surrounded by the worst kind of people—those who pat you on the back one day and stab you in the back the next.
Of course, the presidency has its perks. Among them are Air Force One, a helicopter, a $1.5 million limousine, personal bodyguards, a mansion, global prestige, and immunity from criminal prosecution. Staying in the White House is a great way to stay out of jail.
It’s also a great way to stay on TV. President Trump craves attention and approval more than anything. Being on The Apprentice, Trump told Playboy in 2004, was “like being a rock star. Six people do nothing but sort my mail. People come in and want my secretary Robin’s autograph…. People like me much better than they did before The Apprentice.”
For Trump, being watched has always meant being liked.
Trump is not interested in the actual job of the presidency. He’s interested in the attention the presidency affords him.
After his election, he discovered that running for president was easier and more fun than being president. Which is why he continued to hold campaign rallies even after he was elected. He wasn’t campaigning for anything. He just liked hearing crowds screaming his name. Unlike most politicians, who campaign in order to govern, Trump campaigns as a way to avoid governing.
By the same token, his politics are an extension of his ego—which is why, at his rallies, he tells the crowds how big his crowds are and not what his policies are. Trump says he’ll hold rallies after he wins the 2020 election, too—even though he will be ineligible to run for the presidency again.
Instead of holding rallies for the purpose of getting elected, Trump wants to get elected so he can keep having rallies.
Twitter performs for Trump the same function as his rallies. Because he’s the president, he can tweet something mean, false, and/or nonsensical and, instead of cheers, get instantaneous likes and retweets—validation in milliseconds. After tweeting “CHINA!” in May, he got 236,000 retweets and 797,000 likes. Tweeting while you watch Fox & Friends, it turns out, is even more gratifying than shouting at the TV. When you tweet, the whole world listens to you, and some people even applaud.
Trump cares more about his Twitter account than people’s lives. It took him months to respond to the pandemic and a few weeks to be bored by it. Yet, two days after Twitter flagged two of his tweets, Trump signed an executive order targeting social media companies and said he would shut down Twitter if he could.
Instead of using Twitter to advance his political agenda, Trump uses the presidency to advance his Twitter agenda.
After promising to make America great again, Trump is ending his first term during a global pandemic, which so far has killed 125,000 Americans, and the worst recession since World War II. Not surprisingly, his campaign has struggled to come up with slogans for his re-election.
It was supposed to be “Keep America Great,” but you cannot keep America “great” in its current condition, which isn’t great. Recently, Trump has taken to spouting Nixon catchphrases, such as “LAW AND ORDER” and “THE SILENT MAJORITY.” But running as the second coming of Richard Nixon seems like a bad idea, unless you have no other ideas.
Trump doesn’t have ideas so much as instincts. These are, to quote the title of his niece’s forthcoming book, both too much and never enough. After running for president and accidentally winning, Trump is running again, this time on purpose, in pursuit of a job he clearly hates.
But as much as Trump hates the presidency, he doesn’t hate it as much as his enemies hate his having it. Relinquishing it would hand them a gift, and nothing displeases Trump more than pleasing his enemies. He would rather everyone be miserable with him in power than everyone be happy with him out of power.
The problem for Trump is that his presidency has no point. It is as devoid of purpose as his days are of work. He doesn’t want to make America great. He wants America to make him feel great.