Defenders of President Donald Trump offer two arguments in his favour—that he is a businessman who will curb the excesses of the state; and that he will help America stand tall again by demolishing the politically correct taboos of left-leaning, establishment elites. From the start, these arguments looked like wishful thinking. After Mr Trump’s press conference in New York on August 15th, they lie in ruins.
The unscripted remarks were his third attempt to deal with violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend (see article). In them, the president stepped back from Monday’s—scripted—condemnation of the white supremacists who had marched to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, and fought with counter-demonstrators, including some from the left. In New York, as his new chief of staff looked on dejected, Mr Trump let rip, stressing once again that there was blame “on both sides”. He left no doubt which of those sides lies closer to his heart.
Mr Trump is not a white supremacist. He repeated his criticism of neo-Nazis and spoke out against the murder of Heather Heyer. Even so, his unsteady response contains a terrible message for Americans. Far from being the saviour of the Republic, their president is politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office.
Start with the ineptness. In last year’s presidential election, Mr Trump campaigned against the political class to devastating effect. Yet, this week, he has bungled the simplest of political tests: finding a way to condemn Nazis. Having equivocated at his first press conference on Saturday, Mr Trump said what was needed on Monday and then undid all his good work on Tuesday—briefly uniting Fox News and Mother Jones in their criticism, surely a first. As business leaders started to resign en masse from his advisory panels, the White House disbanded them. Mr Trump did, however, earn the endorsement of David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The extreme right will stage more protests across America. Mr Trump has complicated the task of containing their marches and keeping the peace. The harm will spill over into the rest of his agenda, too. His latest press conference was supposed to be about his plans to improve America’s infrastructure, which will require the support of Democrats. He needlessly set back those efforts, as he has so often done in the past. “Infrastructure week” in June was drowned out by an investigation into Russian meddling in the election—an investigation Mr Trump helped bring about by firing the director of the FBI in a fit of pique. Likewise, repealing Obamacare collapsed partly because he lacked the knowledge and charisma to win over rebel Republicans. He reacted to that setback by belittling the leader of the Senate Republicans, whose help he needs to pass legislation. So much for getting things done.
Mr Trump’s inept politics stem from a moral failure. Some counter-demonstrators were indeed violent, and Mr Trump could have included harsh words against them somewhere in his remarks. But to equate the protest and the counter-protest reveals his shallowness. Video footage shows marchers carrying fascist banners, waving torches, brandishing sticks and shields, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Footage of the counter-demonstration mostly shows average citizens shouting down their opponents. And they were right to do so: white supremacists and neo-Nazis yearn for a society based on race, which America fought a world war to prevent. Mr Trump’s seemingly heartfelt defence of those marching to defend Confederate statues spoke to the degree to which white grievance and angry, sour nostalgia is part of his world view.
At the root of it all is Mr Trump’s temperament. In difficult times, a president has a duty to unite the nation. Mr Trump tried in Monday’s press conference, but could not sustain the effort for even 24 hours because he cannot get beyond himself. A president needs to rise above the point-scoring and to act in the national interest. Mr Trump cannot see beyond the latest slight. Instead of grasping that his job is to honour the office he inherited, Mr Trump is bothered only about honouring himself and taking credit for his supposed achievements.
Presidents have come in many forms and still commanded the office. Ronald Reagan had a moral compass and the self-knowledge to delegate political tactics. LBJ was a difficult man but had the skill to accomplish much that was good. Mr Trump has neither skill nor self-knowledge, and this week showed that he does not have the character to change.
This is a dangerous moment. America is cleft in two. After threatening nuclear war with North Korea, musing about invading Venezuela and equivocating over Charlottesville, Mr Trump still has the support of four-fifths of Republican voters. Such popularity makes it all the harder for the country to unite.
This leads to the question of how Republicans in public life should treat Mr Trump. Those in the administration face a hard choice. Some will feel tempted to resign. But his advisers, particularly the three generals sitting at the top of the Pentagon, the National Security Council and as Mr Trump’s chief of staff, are better placed than anyone to curb the worst instincts of their commander-in-chief.
For Republicans in Congress, the choice should be clearer. Many held their noses and backed Mr Trump because they thought he would advance their agenda. That deal has not paid off. Mr Trump is not a Republican, but the solo star of his own drama. By tying their fate to his, they are harming their country and their party. His boorish attempts at plain speaking serve only to poison national life. Any gains from economic reform—and the booming stock market and low unemployment owe more to the global economy, tech firms and dollar weakness than to him—will come at an unacceptable price.
Republicans can curb Mr Trump if they choose to. Rather than indulging his outrages in the hope that something good will come of it, they must condemn them. The best of them did so this week. Others should follow.