In the aftermath of the neo-Nazi terrorist violence this weekend in Charlottesville, there’s really only one now obvious fact that matters, and not a terribly nuanced one at that: Donald Trump couldn’t care less about being president.
Trump, however inchoately, had thrust to the fore issues that too many Americans rightly feel have been ignored for too long. And many of his critics have too conveniently ignored the spotty records of his predecessors and opponents in an effort to portray Trump as the sole source of all of our national woes. These are all questions we can and should debate soon.
But today, a steelier truth looms large. We’ve had bumblers before at the Oval Office, and plenty of dark-hearted men have ascended to positions of great power, in this nation as in any other. But never before have we had a president so disinterested in—even, it seems, repulsed by—the emotional bond that ties the commander in chief to the men and women he was sworn to protect.
Writing in The Washington Post, Michael Gerson riffed on this very point. “It falls to the president to express something of the nation’s soul,” he wrote, “grief for the lost, sympathy for the suffering, moral clarity in the midst of confusion, confidence in the unknowable purposes of God. Not every president does this equally well. But none have been incapable. Until Donald Trump.”
I don’t think we’ve ever experienced this before. Even those for whom we reserve our most heated scorn—like General Lee, whose statute inspired the Nazis to swarm Charlottesville—could hardly be accused of not having, or caring enough about, a cause. Trump is vapid, and his disinterest in any aspect of the office that does not serve to caress his own wounded ego leaves a vacuum in the mind, the heart, and the soul of America.
The threat of Donald Trump was never that he was a secret fascist hell-bent on returning all of America to the golden days of the Confederacy. It is that he possesses a unique combination of characteristics: cravenly self-interested, wildly disorganized, and lacking any actual beliefs. We’ve had presidents who were two out of three, and it was bad; three out of three is a rarity—and it’s catastrophic.
If Trump believed in anything, if he believed in the sacred duty of the President of the United States of America, he would’ve said something appropriate on Saturday — or made sure that he surrounded himself with a professional staff capable of doing that in his stead. But Trump can not be bothered, because in addition in to being either uninterested in or incapable of filling the office to which he was elected, he is also a terrible manager who surrounds himself with sycophants and clowns and regards the weight of the office as just another piece of bad debt.
Maybe one day soon we’ll be able to have important political conversations, with nuanced historical observations and rational arguments and honest inquiries. For now, however, we have a vacuum; and if history has taught us anything, it’s that whenever there’s a vacuum, the Nazis are usually quick about marching in and filling the void.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.