The strong boy.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

“It’s not going to change a damn thing,” the President of the United States told an assemblage of news anchors at an off-the-record White House meeting some weeks ago. “But I’m still doing it.” To a certain extent, that groaning is just standard Trump shit—his signature all-caps triumphalism is balanced by an equal and opposite tendency towards teenish mopery when he doesn’t get what he wants fast enough, or hot enough, or served with proper deference. But there was something a bit different about this. He was referring to a trip he’d make to the Rio Grande Valley later that week, during the early-middle part of the 35-day federal government shutdown, at the point when various assholes were putting on barn jackets and getting themselves photographed squinting at arroyos outside of McAllen, Texas. It was just before a televised speech that Trump would make in primetime that night.

There was some concern about that speech, because Trump had been doing that Trump thing where he gets bored and flutters his eyelids and then veers psychedelically off-script and begins drawling about some bizarre shit that no one can quite place or even parse. For a while, that meant interrupting himself to explain how smugglers bring women across borders into Texas and California and Arizona with specific types of tape over their mouths—he would list the types of tape that the smugglers used, usually mentioning that it was blue. “They get off the road and they drive out into the desert, and they come on, they make a left turn,” he told a media gaggle on January 4. “Usually it’s a left, not a right.” The Washington Post dutifully attempted to run down where Trump might have been getting this, and mostly failed. It could have been a chopped-and-screwed remix of something a border patrol agent told him, it could have been from the sequel to Sicario, some poreless beige security goblin might have leered it out from within a box next to Lou Dobbs. Joan Collins might have whispered it to him in a dream.

The “left turn” thing and the tape thing kept coming up. For weeks it went on like this—syntactically erratic tweets at unholy times of day about things no one understood, weird sneering answers to unheard questions issued while a helicopter whined a few yards away, photo opportunities in which grim-faced white people in suits or uniforms stood around behind Trump while he described the situation at the border as if recapping the plot of Cannonball Run.

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But Trump read the nationally televised speech as written, which meant that it was both more egregious and more boring than usual—heavier on terms like “humanitarian crisis” than his off-the-cuff statements, with notably less action-movie color around the margins. It was the sort of performance that used to get him called “presidential” by certain clammy professional types. He had some more meetings and they didn’t go anywhere; he convened a meeting with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Charles Schumer and some other powerful people and then theatrically walked out of it after saying “bye bye,” then tweeted that he had just done as much. “The president walked into the room and passed out candy. It’s true,” the vice president told reporters after that one. “I don’t recall him ever raising his voice or slamming his hand.”

I don’t remember how long ago that was. It could be two weeks. It could be a year. On Friday, when Trump’s TelePrompter froze during a brief appearance announcing the end of the shutdown—or, anyway, announcing that it would at least be three weeks before a second one—he was left to ad-lib about illegal immigration and the wall he wants to build to stop it. He talked about the tape again.

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What most bears repeating and is most readily forgotten about Trump, even after his shutdown stole paychecks from 800,000 government employees and more than a million contractors for reasons even he never seemed to understand, is that he has no idea what he’s doing. There were certainly ways in which Trump’s shutdown reflected both traditional reactionary values—bullying and stiffing vulnerable working people are core to both Trump and his party—and Trump’s unique determination to leverage his every ugly belief to the max, but also there was never the sense that any of this was happening by design. On Friday, he agreed to the same deal that he rejected 35 days ago for the same reason that he rejected it then, which is that he decided it was the right thing to do. The belief, however inchoate and incoherent, is the thing.

He believes the bit about the smugglers and the duct tape because he believes it, and because he believes it now he will never stop believing it. In the last days of the shutdown, Trump and members of his cabinet explained, with the blithe confidence God gives only to people who have never considered the possibility that they might be wrong, that furloughed government employees could simply “work something out” with their local grocers and debt-collection agencies. When he says something confusing or stupid or glaringly wrong—something that can’t be explained by any existing set of facts or system of beliefs, something that even the embalmed-looking juche vendors on his favorite television channels haven’t dared put up for sale—it’s because he believes it.

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This is also true, and maybe even especially true, when Trump is obviously lying. Even before he banged his own personal left turn and began his full-tilt drive into the desert of cognitive decline, Trump was not an especially nuanced or strategic person. His mind is not what it was, and at its peak it was more of a Magic 8 Ball than a supercomputer. He can’t learn anything because he can’t listen to other people if they aren’t speaking from inside a television; he can’t remember what he hears there because he can’t really care unless it’s about him. These deficits are clear when Trump is extemporizing on furloughed workers cutting deals with the milkman or imagining cartoon coyotes piloting sedans full of duct-taped women across the Rio Grande, but they are even clearer when he tells knowing lies. The former tend to be about other people, and so tend to be both lurid and half-assed; he only really ever applies himself when the lies involve himself.

This gives these lies the advantage of being heartfelt, but it also strips them down. The stories he tells about workers gladly giving up their paychecks for his drowsy racist fantasies and the villains working against him are mostly just sounds he makes to keep himself interested; he might have noticed that they drew louder-than-usual hoots from the seething grandparents and dead-ender rubes at his rallies, but he also might not have. His lies, though, are more elemental. They are never anything more than the opposite of truth. If Trump keeps insisting that he’s not being investigated for his relationship to Russia in gratuitous and unconvincing ways, it’s not because he’s trying to leverage some advanced placement Dealpoint or exploit some hidden businessman’s trick or angle. It’s because he’s literally fucking being investigated for his relationship with Russia and because he very much wants people to think he’s not, and because that’s honestly the best he can do because his brain is an old donut bobbing around in a toilet.

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Trump is so relentlessly dishonest and so plainly diminished and so sorely overmatched that, at this point, he can only be taken at his word. This isn’t to say that you should believe what he’s saying, although you surely don’t need me to tell you that. It just means that what he does, from here until whenever his helicopter leaves the White House lawn for the last time, will never be anything but what it appears to be.

If he appears to be confronting an emerging truth that makes him look bad with a flailing childish insistence that Actually The Opposite Is True, it’s because he is. If it looks like he’s numbly ventriloquizing the rancid words of one of the aspiring genocidaires tasked with writing his more high-flown addresses, it’s because he is. If it appears that he is taking some cruel promise made idly at some point in the past and then spinning stupid stories to justify seeing that promise through, it’s because that is just what he’s doing. Trump repeats the same five or six phrases like a defective Teddy Ruxpin not because he’s trying to brainwash or brand but because he can only hold like 175 words in his head at one time and is just kind of mushing the button that seems most appropriate for the situation over and over again. There will be no new work done until he’s out of this job, not just because the venal and idiotic criminality that has defined his life belatedly appears to be catching up with him but because it simply isn’t in him to do new work, and because his current job transparently doesn’t matter to him at all. He’ll believe that he’s getting away with it—that he’s winning and commanding and leading—until the cuffs close or the lights go out, and he will always act that way. He will spend the rest of his life trying to demonstrate that he was right about whatever it was that he said or did before.

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There is no reason to overthink any of this. Trump himself surely is not. He will not fix any of it, of course; that’s not what he does. Instead he will just say that it is not broken, or already fixed, or that it was always supposed to be that way, or that someone else did it. Nothing will ever matter more to him than that work, and yet he’ll never work any harder at it than he is right now. When the time comes to stand and deliver, he will extrude the first trembling clot to clear his platinum-plated cloaca, and then he’ll point at it. When something else lands on top, he will point at that. That’s mine, he will say, I made that. And then, sometime later, he will say someone really made a mess.