Last Thursday’s press conference was a shocking display of Mr. Trump’s inability to “act presidential,” a phrase he often used on the campaign trail. He would tell his audience that his wife and his daughter constantly urged him to be more presidential. In an interview on NBC in 2016, he promised, “I will be so presidential, you will be so bored.”
The press conference last week was most alarming because it was clear that Mr. Trump was incapable of fulfilling his promise to be presidential. This serious failing is more than style, demeanor, or manners. It is lodged in the fact that in the array of socially available roles, the only role that Donald Trump is able to occupy is that of an “I”/“Me” of a self-absorbed person. For him the political is always entirely personal. He responds to all questions and crises not in the role of president, but as a person praised or attacked, loved or aggrieved.
While formally Mr. Trump has been the president for almost a month, his inability to assume and function as such was on display last week in his press conferences. Though examples abound, a glaring one was when he was asked twice a sociopolitical question about the alarming rise of anti-Semitism.
On Wednesday an Israeli journalist, Moav Vardi asked the president about the rising anti-Semitism in the United States. Mr. Trump responded instead to some imaginary personal attack on his feelings about Jews, “As far as Jewish people – so many friends, a daughter, a son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren.”
Similarly, at the press conference on Thursday, Jake Turx, a Hasidic Jewish reporter for a small weekly magazine asked about how the administration is planning to confront recent violence, “what we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report out that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or threatening to——”
Mr. Trump angrily silenced the journalist and told him to sit down, again responding not to a community’s distress the journalist raised, but to a made-up slight to which he responded with an ad hominem vicious attack, “I find it repulsive. I hate even the question because people that know me.” He added a ridiculous personal declaration, “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
He went on to say that last Wednesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had vouched for him as a good friend of Israel and the Jewish people and declared him no anti-Semite. Mr. Trump concluded that the journalist should have relied on the Prime Minster’s endorsement, “instead of having to get up and ask a very insulting question like that.”
It was clear that both journalists were seeking a White House presidential policy to address the threat of violence and the assault on religious freedom. While the questions were about anti-Semitism their approach marked broader immediate concerns about Mr. Tramp’s response to serious national crises. In his role as president he has distinct duties and clear responsibilities for the wellbeing of all citizens. As an American president it is his duty to ensure religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution and to guarantee the legal protection of all minorities from persecution. Yet, as a candidate and as president, Mr. Trump has ushered in anti-Muslim politics, cast aspersion on Mexicans, threatened immigrants, appointed bigots as trusted advisers to high positions, and refused to denounce racist white supremacists.
His meandering racist acts, including his defense of the failed travel ban, are politically reprehensible. And while sloppy, chaotic and haphazard they expose Donald Trump as a man who needs constant adoration and who cannot alienate his ardent xenophobic supporters. As president, however he has the duty to denounce violence and desist from inflaming hatred, yet he is incapable of doing so.
This inability goes far beyond any specific issue; it is a serious flaw, a damaging Achilles heel, an obstacle in every area, domestic and international. Since everything gets lost in his personal translation it is not surprising that Mr. Trump’s responses have little to do with reality or facts. America has elected Trump the self-absorbed man who stands in the way of his obligation to take on the role of president. Donald Trump the person simply cannot act for the United States, or on behalf of America.
We the people, pressuring Congress and the courts, supporting a free press, getting involved in local, state and national politics, have to confront Mr. Trump whenever he is incapable of fulfilling the sacred commitment he made under oath to perform the duties of the presidency.
I thank Naomi Schlagman and Peter Eisenstadt for their comments.