What If President Trump Truly Decompensated?


Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Trump has around him an infrastructure of support that will work tirelessly to excuse, explain and justify literally anything he does, no matter how terrifying.

In the 1971 Woody Allen film Bananas, after a revolutionary leader succeeds in overthrowing the government of a small Latin American country, he begins issuing bizarre edicts. He declares the country’s official language to now be Swedish, and announces that “all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside, so we can check.” The new president’s aides, realizing that he has gone off the deep end, immediately remove him from power. 

Our current situation would resemble that kind of absurdist comedy were it not for the fact that the stakes are so high and the consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency so grave. But the real difference between America today and Bananas lie not in the president’s behavior but in the apparatus of support that surrounds him.

One can make a convincing argument that President Trump has become so erratic and his public comments so disturbing that he has shown himself to be mentally incapable of carrying out his duties. Alternatively, one could argue that not much has really changed, and in fact he has been this erratic since he took office. Even if you don’t agree with either of those assertions, it’s worth asking: What would happen if Trump truly decompensated? The answer is profoundly troubling.

Just to set the context, let’s consider some of what has happened over the past few weeks:

  • Axios reported that on multiple occasions, Trump has suggested to aides that we try to stop hurricanes by dropping nuclear bombs on them. “You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting,” a person present on one such occasion told them. “People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f---? What do we do with this?’”

  • Trump suggested that we buy Greenland from the Danes; amid worldwide mockery, the Danish prime minister called the idea “absurd,” and a petulant Trump responded by cancelling a scheduled trip to Denmark, saying the prime minister was “nasty,” a word he often uses to describe women who contradict him.

  • He tweeted that “American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” The president has no power to “hereby order” private companies to stop dealing with a foreign country, let alone by tweet.

  • He tweeted a surveillance image of an Iranian launch site, potentially giving foreign adversaries sensitive information about American intelligence-gathering capabilities.

  • He repeatedly mused that America’s involvement in Afghanistan could be ended very easily by committing the worst genocide in human history, but noted that he has decided against that particular strategy.

  • In the midst of a tirade on trade with China, he looked to the heavens and said, “I am the chosen one!”

Like many writers, I’ve been reluctant to diagnose Trump with dementia or some other mental illness. But as the estimable James Fallows notes, if Trump were an airline pilot or a CEO or a surgeon and displayed the behavior he does, he’d be quickly removed from his position. 

But that will not happen, even as he is guaranteed to keep doing and saying what he has been doing and saying. And what would happen if he got worse? If his statements became even more bizarre, if he grew even more impulsive and consumed with slights, if his weird verbal miscues became even more frequent?

The answer is: exactly what happens now. Trump has around him an infrastructure of support—his own aides, Republicans in Congress, and perhaps most importantly, a conservative media apparatus centered on Fox News—that will work tirelessly to excuse, explain and justify literally anything he does, no matter how terrifying.

They’re so used to it by now that even if Trump were to suffer a complete breakdown or show evidence of profound incapacity they would change nothing about their modus operandi. Some would even express their glee at how Trump’s mental struggles were driving the libs crazy. They would perform logical acrobatics to explain why he absolutely meant whatever surreal assertion he just made, and why it’s actually true if you think about it a certain way. They would tell Trump’s supporters that nothing is more important than defending their president against those dastardly Democrats.

And therein lies the key. "Is this good for the country?" is just not a question that matters anymore if you’ve convinced yourself that the worst cataclysm imaginable is the other party winning power, or even just gaining a momentary political advantage. 

This is about them as much as it is about Trump himself, because admitting that the president might ever be incapable of performing his duties would constitute an indictment of everything Republicans have already countenanced, from welcoming Russian campaign help to a disastrous trade war to tearing children from their parents’ arms. 

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and for the last year of his term in office, the government was essentially run by his wife Edith, all while Wilson’s administration pretended that he was in command and nothing was amiss. We look back on that and say it could never happen today, because of the far greater demands on the president and the ubiquitous gaze of the news media. If the president was incapacitated, we’d know about it almost immediately. 

But what if we knew about it, but we couldn’t do anything about it? The most likely scenario of Trump losing his marbles is not that the 25th Amendment is invoked and Vice President Pence takes over, but that it would become just one more partisan controversy. Democrats would say, “For Pete’s sake, the president has plainly gone mad—he just ordered the Air Force to nuke the moon!” Then Republicans would say, “No, in fact his unique genius is more evident than ever, and the moon has had this coming for a long time but other presidents didn’t have the guts.”

Every day on Fox News, programming would alternate between discussions of the moon's dangerous perfidy and attacks on Democrats for taking the moon's side over America's Mainstream news organizations would write stories headlined, “Parties disagree over moon-bombing plan,” while pundits caution Democrats not to get too shrill in criticizing the president lest they alienate white blue-collar voters in the Midwest for whom nuking the moon sounds like just the kind of action-packed initiative America needs.

After all we’ve been through up until now, that doesn’t sound like a particularly outlandish series of events, does it? 

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