Home National Politics Presidential Historian Walter Issacson Needlessly Baffled by Trump’s Choice Not to Be...

Presidential Historian Walter Issacson Needlessly Baffled by Trump’s Choice Not to Be Constructive


I was just watching Thursday’s “The 11th Hour,” with Brian Williams interviewing presidential historians Jon Meacham and Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson sketched out an image to depict the great potential that Donald Trump had for how to use his presidency. If only he had chosen differently.

Isaacson envisions Trump’s opportunity to play a presidential role as a true “independent” — a leader who comes in with a fairly free hand and works with good people on both partisan sides to get good things done.

Yes, I will agree about such theoretical “potential” to this extent:

Someone in Trump’s position could have used such an opportunity to bring people together in that way. Trump was elected as a Republican, but the manner of his nomination and election gave him the choice to lead us forward as a nation. (Isaacson mentioned infrastructure as an arena for such action.)

In picturing Trump being that kind of president, one is reminded of the good accomplished by Kevin Cline’s character, standing in for the real president in the movie, Dave. The Kevin Cline character looks exactly like the real president– who has had a devastating stroke, and who was an SOB. So one can imagine a Trump lookalike fulfilling Isaacson’s fantasy of a constructive president in just the same way. It just has to be a completely different person.

It was puzzling, therefore, when Isaacson went on to say that he is “baffled by Trump’s having chosen to do just “the opposite” of the fine course that Isaacson had described.

Baffled? Really? Why? The simple version of the explanation is:

That’s not who Trump is.

That’s the opposite of where Trump is instinctively inclined to go. He’s not into making things better. He’s into picking fights and making trouble.

The longer version takes one into what I believe is the core thing that we should learn from this national crisis: follow the patterns of brokenness.

And bear in mind the simple principle: “Brokenness begets brokenness.”

To understand the crisis in America today, I believe, one needs to see these patterns of brokenness– because it is in seeing how those patterns transmit brokenness from one manifestation to another that we discover just what it is that we — in America, in these times — are up against.

Namely, a coherent “force of brokenness” that has been damaging America consistently for a generation. And that has now achieved the coup of inflicting on the nation this monstrous president, Donald Trump.

We can begin the task of tracing the transmission of brokenness by considering what Trump’s election to the presidency required: he could only become president because of the brokenness — in the patterns of thought and feeling — of those millions of voters who supported him.

These are people who were — by 2015-16– in a state of consciousness in which they could watch Trump demonstrate himself to be

  • a lying bully,
  • with poor impulse control,
  • eager to pick fights,
  • driven by vengeance,
  • incapable of telling the truth (and maybe even knowing it)

— and with all that see in him a man to entrust with the powers of the presidency.

The brokenness in the minds and hearts of these millions of Americans, in turn, was achieved by the impetus of brokenness coming from a propaganda campaign, issuing from a component of America ruled by greed and the lust to dominate. This component — with such public faces as Gingrich, Limbaugh, Ailes, Rove — labored consistently to degrade the consciousness of those under the sway of their deceptions and inflammations.

And this cultivation of brokenness led America to the point where enough voters could make that extraordinary judgment about Trump that he became president.

To be able to cultivate such brokenness in the minds of those millions, the propagandists exploited the brokenness that was already there– the least whole aspects of the patterns of thought and feeling that are long-standing parts of major American subcultures. All the resentments and bigotries and frustrations and projections and rage — all unchecked by habits of critical thinking or much self-awareness.

Through such openings — what we might call the brokenness of a kind of cultural “pre-existing condition” — the propagandists could pull many basically decent people into allegiance to the force that spreads brokenness onto everything it touches.

The subculture of the right has its virtues– but this is an era where what we see are its vulnerabilities. The tendencies ingrained by this subculture around giving power to authority create a vulnerability to seduction by untrustworthy leaders. Authorities aligned with brokenness can bring out their worst sides.

Brokenness has begotten brokenness. And so we should see “President Trump” as a representative of brokenness. His presidency represents a victory for the force of brokenness.

(And it must be admitted, this advance in the force of brokenness is also a sign of how the forces of wholeness have been too weak in opposing this advance at each stage. And, with this force having focused throughout on the arena of power, it is Liberal America — and its political expression, the Democratic Party — upon which the unmet responsibility for blocking this advance inevitably falls.)

That Trump is a representative of this force of brokenness is made crystal clear by the consistency with which his choices move things in the direction of breaking up what is good and whole.

  • He creates conflict, not peace.
  • He increases hatred, not love.
  • He makes the prospects for the earth dimmer, not brighter.
  • He antagonizes the leaders of decent countries and enjoys being buddies with tyrants and thugs.

Although Trump has no “ideology,” and doesn’t really seem to care all that much about “policy,” Nonetheless, somehow,  and every time — ignoring climate change, increasing hate crimes, widening the gap between rich and poor, undermining American norms, lying about everything (and being believed by his broken followers) — somehow, every time Trump chooses to make things more broken.

It is not in his nature to do anything that will make the country better. His motivational structure drives him in the opposite direction. That force brokenness that has been moving through the political right, and that then carried Trump up into the Oval Office, finds in Trump a thorough-going expression of its destructive spirit.

Why be baffled, Mr. Isaacson? Trump simply is transmitting the pattern of brokenness whose force brought such a man to the presidency, and that he himself embodies and almost reflexively spreads all around him.


My ongoing series, “A Better Human Story,” explores this idea that central to the human drama — since the rise of civilization, and specifically in today’s American crisis — is a conflict over control of the human world between a force that spreads a pattern of brokenness and one that works to transmit a pattern of wholeness. I claim that this way of seeing the human world — which presents in purely secular, analytic terms what might reasonably be called “a battle between good and evil” — is the perspective on our crisis that gives us our best chance of turning back this destructive force that’s hijacked the political right. It helps us see the full outlines of what we’re up against, and gives us a clearer picture of the battlefield on which the struggle over our destiny is taking place.

The five installments in that series already published can be found here. And anyone wanting to be notified about new installments as they come can sign up for the newsletter.


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