What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.” Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill. At enormous venues around the city, he is said to have sung, danced, and played the water organ for many hours—but not before ordering the gates locked to insure that the house would remain full until after the final encore. Driven half mad by Nero’s antics, Romans feigned death or shimmied over the walls with ropes to escape.
Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament. He has always craved attention. Now the whole world is his audience. In earlier times, Trump cultivated, among others, the proprietors and editors of the New York tabloids, Fox News, TMZ, and the National Enquirer. Now Twitter is his principal outlet, with no mediation necessary.
The President recently celebrated the holidays at Mar-a-Lago, the Domus Aurea of Palm Beach, and nearly every day, before setting out for the golf course, he thumbed his bilious contempt for . . . such a long list! Science itself did not escape his scorn:
In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!
Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.
Trump joined Twitter in March, 2009. His early work in the medium provided telling glimpses of his many qualities. He was observant. (“I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.”) He used facts to curious ends. (“Windmills are the greatest threat in the US to both bald and golden eagles.”) He was concerned with personal appearance. (“Barney Frank looked disgusting—nipples protruding—in his blue shirt before Congress. Very very disrespectful.”) He was fastidious. (“Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing: NO SHAKING HANDS!”) He was sensitive to comic insult. (“Amazing how the haters & losers keep tweeting the name ‘F*kface Von Clownstick’ like they are so original & like no one else is doing it.”) He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)
In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”). Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in. Meanwhile, he kept an indulgent eye on the family business (“Everybody is raving about the Trump Home Mattress”) and, via retweeting, sought new friends, including anti-Muslim bigots, a PizzaGate-monger, and someone who goes by @WhiteGenocideTM.
During the 2016 Presidential campaign, and then in the first days of the Administration, some commentators counselled their colleagues to ignore the early-morning salvos about small hands or large crowds. “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” Jack Shafer, of Politico, advised, just after the election. Trump’s volleys were merely a shrewd diversion from serious matters. “By this time,” Shafer wrote, “you’d expect that people would have figured out when Donald Trump is yanking their chain and pay him the same mind they do phone calls tagged ‘Out of Area’ by caller ID.” Sean Spicer, the President’s first press secretary, insisted otherwise. Trump, he pointed out, “is the President of the United States,” and so his tweets are “considered official statements by the President of the United States.”
Spicer was right: a pronouncement by the President is a Presidential pronouncement. But Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience. No bile goes unexpectorated. Trump, who does not care for government work, is more invested in his reputation as a creative writer, declaring more than once that “somebody said” that he is “the Hemingway of a hundred and forty characters.”
“Hey! I’m reading to you! Don’t even think about falling asleep.”
Last week, when Trump returned to Washington from Mar-a-Lago, he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day. He behaved less like a President than like a teen-ager locked in his room with an ounce of Purple Skunk, three Happy Meals, and a cell phone. In one tweet, directed at the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, he arguably narrowed the odds of nuclear confrontation—and did so with a reference to an anatomical feature that is a subject of keen and ongoing concern to the President:
Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
Trump went on to tweet that he would soon announce “the most dishonest & corrupt media awards of the year,” took credit for a year without an American air crash, scolded the “Deep State Justice Dept” for failing to “act” against Hillary Clinton’s former aide Huma Abedin, and quoted the Lou Dobbs show’s praise of the Administration for “a set of accomplishments that nobody can deny.”
Some of Trump’s tweets were more squirrelly. Though he lauded Iranian demonstrators for standing up for their “rights,” he continued to offer respect bordering on servility to the likes of Vladimir Putin. One of his signature phrases—“fake news”—has been adopted by autocrats from Bashar al-Assad, of Syria, to Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela. To the astonishment of our traditional allies, Trump humiliates and weakens a country he pretends to lead.
A new book by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” amplifies, in lurid anecdote and quotation, what we have been learning elsewhere every day for the past year: Trump believed that he would lose the election, but would multiply his fame, his fortune, and his standing in American life. To near-universal shock, however, he won. And the consequences followed. Trump has no comprehension of policy and cares about it less. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention. There are no lingering illusions about the President’s capacities:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump “a fucking moron” and spared us a denial. Wolff’s book, which leans heavily on interviews with Steve Bannon, makes it plain that pretty much everyone in the President’s circle agrees that he is, in terms of character and intellect, fantastically limited. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.
And so the West Wing in the era of Trump has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter itself: a set of small rooms and cramped hallways in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.
Predictably, Trump has reacted to Wolff’s book in the manner of a wounded despot—by declaring that Bannon, once his closest adviser in matters of isolationism and white nationalism, has “lost his mind,” and by declaring war on the written word. With the legal assistance of Charles Harder, a Beverly Hills lawyer who has represented Harvey Weinstein and Hulk Hogan, he is trying to silence Bannon and block publication of “Fire and Fury.” Bannon, who is rapidly losing his access to power and funding, meekly replied by going on the radio and calling Trump a “great man.” Executives at Henry Holt & Co. ignored a cease-and-desist letter and moved up the date of publication.
Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed. When he was thirty, having spent thirteen years in power, he was condemned by the Roman Senate as hostis publicus, a public enemy. He was doomed. One of his last utterances seemed to mark the despair of the politician-performance artist: Qualis artifex pereo! “What an artist dies in me!”
Scandal envelops the President. Obstruction of justice, money-laundering, untoward contacts with foreign governments—it is unclear where the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will land and what might eventually rouse the attention of the U.S. Senate. Clearly, Trump senses the danger. A former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted. A former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, has admitted to lying to the F.B.I. and has become a cooperating witness. The President sees one West Wing satrap and Cabinet official after another finding a distance from him. “Where is my Roy Cohn?” he asked his aides angrily, according to the Times, when his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, defied his wishes and recused himself from the Russia investigation.
In the meantime, there is little doubt about who Donald Trump is, the harm he has done already, and the greater harm he threatens. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land. This is not merely an orthodoxy of the opposition; his panicked courtiers have been leaking word of it from his first weeks in office. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United State