"You are a king," Donald Trump's father reportedly told him. And the thing about being a king is that nobody gets to tell you what to do.
It's becoming clear that few parts of the president's character are as important as how harshly he reacts to any attempt to constrain him. He grew up in wealth, and without any sense of obligation to anyone. As the head of a private company, he had no board of directors overseeing him and no one to answer to. And today, the very idea that someone might try to push him in one direction or another—let alone force him to do something like testify before a grand jury or reveal his tax returns—seems to fill him with rage.
Seldom has a leader mattered more as an individual, divorced from institutional imperatives, party commitments, international alliances, traditional norms, and historical forces. Indeed, that was part of the appeal Trump made to voters, and the thing that made many in his party suspicious of him. He'd be unpredictable, unmoored, and in the best interpretation, unsullied by a corrupt system.
It turned out, of course , that he is far more corrupt than the system he claimed he'd clean up; it's just that his corruption is purely personal. And as he rampages across the globe, we're seeing what a truly unconstrained president looks like.
Right now, he is vigorously challenging the very idea that America should need or want alliances, or even friends. "America First" turns out to mean America alone, to such a degree that Trump is doing everything in his power to alienate and antagonize the countries that share our democratic values and with whom we've spent decades attempting to build an international system that could foster peace and stability. While continuing to act as though his fondest wish is to win the affection of every authoritarian thug around the world—none more so than Vladimir Putin—Trump has decided to pick a fight with Canada. Canada, for God's sake.
And not just them. Before departing for the G7 summit, Trump announced that Russia, which was expelled from the group after the invasion of Crimea, should be allowed back in. And why? He couldn't really say. The fact that Russia was a member between 1998 and 2014 was something of a mistake to begin with; it happened because Bill Clinton and Tony Blair thought it would help foster democracy there and integrate them into the international system. That didn't work; Vladimir Putin has ruled the country for almost two decades, and he regularly tries to destabilize the G7 nations. Furthermore, the G7 is an assemblage of the most important economic powers among western democracies, and Russia is neither a democracy nor an important economic power.
So after that bizarre suggestion, Trump went to the summit and proceeded to act like the spectacular jerk we've all come to know. He arrived late, berated the other leaders for allegedly taking advantage of the United States, then departed early, sending out some insulting tweets on his way. "To the United States' closest partners, the pattern has become disturbingly familiar," The Washington Post reported. "Trump's abandonment of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement and his decision to impose protectionist tariffs on European steel and aluminum products have established a level of animosity between the United States and Europe that, by many measures, surpasses even the rift over the Iraq War."
Afterward, some of Trump's aides, in the apparent belief that the way to gain their boss's favor is to enact a public performance of Trumpian belligerence, went out to attack Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had committed the offense of repeating what he had been saying for weeks, that if the United States goes ahead with tariffs on Canadian goods, Canada will respond with equal tariffs on American goods. "It is a betrayal. That is a double-cross," huffed economic adviser Larry Kudlow. "There's a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door," said trade adviser Peter Navarro. As conservative foreign affairs columnist Max Boot noted, "No U.S. officials have ever spoken this way about any U.S. ally, ever. These are the kind of words that normally precede military action."
Is there a logic at work here? Some have argued that while Trump may not be acting at Vladimir Putin's behest, he certainly is carrying out all of Putin's goals, doing what he can to weaken the structure of the entire Western alliance. But it's hard to believe that there's some grand plan at work. It may be more likely that Trump simply sees every existing institution and arrangement, whether it's the Justice Department or the G7, as a constraint on his ability to do whatever he wants.
From his supremely narcissistic perspective, anyone telling him what to do—a group of allies wanting to coordinate economic and security policy, lawyers insisting he respect the law, a bunch of experts pleading with him to prepare for a high-stakes nuclear summit—is something to rebel against, to smash with his tiny fists until everyone knows who's really in charge. And the more appalled they are, the more he's convinced that he's doing the right thing.