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The two-dimensional president

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP

A few weeks ago, I returned to Richard Nixon’s presidential library in Southern California, where visitors watch a short film on the career of the 37th president. At one point in that opening video, the Nixon biographer Evan Thomas makes a deceptively simple statement.

“History is made by humans,” Thomas says. By which he means that even the greatest humans among us are indelibly flawed, and Nixon, as it happens, was more human than most.

I found myself ruminating on this observation after I heard it, and again as I watched President Trump deliver his first State of the Union address this week. Because as we look back on Trump’s first tumultuous year in office, it seems to me that what’s really missing from his presidency is exactly this — the basic humanity.

By lack of humanity I don’t mean that Trump is cruel or without grace (although these things, as we’ve seen, are too often true). I mean human in the sense of being knowable — a genuine, three-dimensional person, as opposed to a character you play on TV.

Despite all the insidery books about his administration that are now flying off the virtual shelves, despite dozens of interviews and thousands of images, we actually know little more about who Trump really is, alone and away from the cameras, than we did a year ago.

It’s as if we’ve pulled back the curtain concealing the wizard’s projected image, only to find the same projection behind it. 

By this time in other modern presidencies, we had begun to piece together a series of small but telling details about the essential nature of leaders who were actually less accessible, publicly, than Trump turns out to be.

We knew that Barack Obama was by nature an introvert who struggled with a smoking habit. We knew that George W. Bush was an easy crier who so hated to disrupt his routines that he brought his own pillows on trips.

We’d seen both men give voice to emotions stirring deep inside them — Bush standing on the heap of rubble in Manhattan, Obama speaking to the anguish of being accosted by police because you were black. We could easily imagine them as spouses and parents.

What we know of Trump, filtered through those closest to him, is that he’s given to passing tirades and is easily distracted, that he goes to bed early and watches “Fox & Friends.” Well, all right.

But what profoundly moves or humbles him? When does he admit self-doubt, and to whom? What delights him or weighs him down?

I have no idea, and neither do you, and I’m not sure those who see him on a daily basis could do more than guess. When he was a TV performer, it was reasonable to assume that Trump was hiding some pivotal part of who he really was. Now you have to wonder if the persona is all there is.

We’ve seen how he responds to injustice and suffering — to the beating of Turkish protesters in a Washington traffic circle, to the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the murder of a woman opposing white nationalists in Charlottesville. His reactions ranged from indifferent to equivocal.

He sounded more emotional about the shooting of a caged gorilla in Cincinnati than he does about foreign children who have lived here since birth, or than he did about the American heroes his staff seated in the balcony of the House chamber this week, during a speech that was mostly notable for its Mad Libs-style recitation of political clichés.

I guess you could call this an end to the “I feel your pain” kind of presidency, and maybe that’s not a bad thing; we certainly need imaginative policy more than we need tears and hugs from a commander in chief. But the absence of any obvious empathy — even when empathetic words are serviceably written and reliably fed into a teleprompter — would seem to hint at a shallow reservoir of moral conviction.

Trump’s human disconnect runs deeper than just a lack of visible compassion. When I met him in the late ’90s, he refused to shake anyone’s hand, for fear of becoming contaminated. (I guess Purell solved that problem.) The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has pointed out that Trump seems somehow without close friends.

He is, as my Yahoo colleague Jerry Adler noted, the first president since James Polk without a pet. He is probably the least spiritual president in any of our lifetimes.

Trump forges no easy or meaningful relationships with congressional leaders or foreign heads of state. He is a leader without a true home, having been all but ostracized by the New Yorkers who ought to know him best.

Maybe you can recall seeing Trump lose himself laughing at something, or shake his head in joyful wonder at the world. I can’t. He is rarely photographed with a spontaneous smile.

During the 2016 campaign, I compared Trump to P.T. Barnum, perhaps the greatest of American hucksters. Like Trump, Barnum amassed a fortune as a relentless self-promoter, then turned to a career in politics and public service.

But as I was recently reminded watching “The Greatest Showman,” the infectious musical loosely based on Barnum’s life, Barnum’s brand of chicanery was warm-hearted and childlike. (In Bridgeport, Conn., where my parents grew up and where Barnum was mayor, he was known for riding an elephant across a bridge. No fear of germs there.)

Barnum’s illusions came with a knowing wink. He understood that the “sucker born every minute” just wanted to believe in something thrilling, as he did.

That’s not Trump. He isn’t the lovable rogue he might have been in the best version of his presidency, spinning out tales in order to demonstrate the need for reform, or just to put on a show worth watching. His fraudulent shtick is humorless and strangely synthetic.

At times, even now, I’m tempted to feel sorry for Trump. He seems always to be a man out of his element, uncomfortable and besieged by pitiless critics. There must be private hours of sadness or self-doubt, humanizing moments he hides from the world.

Inevitably, though, Trump responds publicly with the only real emotion he has consistently displayed as president — the bottomless rage against otherness that binds him tightly to his supporters. It is the closest he comes to a heartfelt humanity.

All of which brings to mind another quote you will hear should you manage to drop by Nixon’s boyhood home in Yorba Linda.

“Others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them.

“And then you destroy yourself.”

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