If your name is Donald Trump, the past few weeks have brought a crescendo of bummers. Your party’s vaunted health care plan appears dead on arrival, beloved by none and mocked by all. The “fake news” has continued to harp on Russia, emboldened by treacherous leakers and disrespectful TV comics. You dragged yourself to yet another meet-and-greet with a foreign leader whose professorial eloquence made you feel like a shlub. This time, it was Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who proceeded to shame you and your Muslim ban with a flowery ode to America’s history of welcoming refugees. “Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp,” Kenny said, as you steamed and darkened like a charcoal briquette, “we [the Irish] were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans.”
Then, the crowning indignity: As reports swirled about your record low approval ratings, you had to play nice with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman who dares to disagree with you on trade and immigration but not in a sexy, impertinent way. (Flashbacks to that nasty Hillary Clinton.) After a private conversation during which you could neither tweet nor watch Fox News, you were forced to prolong the unpleasantness by inviting the press into the Oval Office for questions and photos. Here is what that looked like:
Let the record show that President Trump, in this moment, is not having fun. The bulk of his torso caves in on itself like the imploding Affordable Care Act. As Merkel leans toward him for a handshake—a perfunctory gesture of politeness—Trump angles his body in the other direction and refuses to meet her eyes. His shoulders hunch, his arms hang limply, he shifts uneasily from side to side. They can’t make me! he seems to sulk. Being president stinks. I want to play golf and yell at babies.
Trump does not quite have it in him to leave the room. His tantrum is equal parts fury, self-loathing, and a desire for love and approval. When a large enough star collapses, it becomes a black hole, thirsty for all the light and warmth it can swallow. This president is the teeniest, tiniest of black holes. He doesn’t have the gravity to attract anyone or anything. He is enraged, exposed, alone.
Before the Merkel summit, Trump’s handshake mostly made the news for its aggro endlessness. (The president manhandled Japan’s Shinzo Abe for 19 seconds.) That said, Trump has declined to clasp ladyfingers before. During the second presidential debate, he and Hillary Clinton sparked a mild scandal by forgoing the traditional greeting at the top of the show.
Back then, however, Trump smiled. He stood tall, perhaps anticipating the highlight reels his fans would create. He knew he was flouting convention and seemed delighted to play the rogue. On the campaign trail, Trump was a troll with a gleam in his eye, mischievously selling himself as an alternative to the pious bullshit of politics-as-usual. Standing across from Clinton, he wasn’t so much skipping the handshake as “skipping the handshake,” polishing his brand through a kind of kayfabe that mingled ironic posturing with genuine cruelty.
At rallies, candidate Trump zigzagged hypnotically between charm and menace. After an infant interrupted his speech, he cooed that he loved babies. “What a baby. What a beautiful baby,” he said. “Don’t worry about it, you know?” Then, in an instant, he transformed into a baby-hater: “I was only kidding. You can get that baby out of here.” Which was Trump the character, and which was Trump the person? Speaking to reporters in July, he quipped, “I will tell you this, Russia, if you’re listening—I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” But he couldn’t possibly be inviting a foreign power to hack his electoral opponent, right?
As Emily Nussbaum argued in her essay “How Jokes Won the Election,” the GOP nominee’s willingness to claim he was “just teasing” allowed him to smuggle evil into the mainstream. We thought the outrageousness was part of the act. In retrospect, we fell for a man using irony to veil his true hatred and bitterness.
Now that veil is gone. Having checked his bag of winks at the White House door, Trump has morphed into a professional angry person. He seethes at his staff. He fumes at celebrities. He threatens other countries. He denounces the judiciary. The typical Trump press conference no longer consists of sly innuendo and catchy slogans. Instead, we watch Trump rail against the Democrats and declare BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”
On Twitter, insult comedy (“Happy Thanksgiving to all—even the haters and losers!”) has become conspiracy-mongering (“This is McCarthyism!” “FAKE NEWS.”) Trump’s online persona “seems to have shifted from puckish to paranoid,” mused the New York Times on Tuesday, in one of many articles documenting his mounting rage. Even attempts at humor, such as the president’s suggestion that he and Merkel might bond over being wiretapped by Obama, read as poorly disguised resentment. They evoke candidate Trump’s cringeworthy routine at the Al Smith dinner, which appeared to be less about diffusing tension than exorcising demons.
Why is Trump so out of sorts? It could be that he’s simply found, in fire-and-brimstone Donald, his latest role. Yet it seems equally likely that Trump has stumbled into an Aesop’s fable of his own making. Having received what he so fervently wished for, he’s now found that leading the free world is a miserable chore. Trump, who loves Trump more than he loves anything else, used to jet around selling that self-love to voters. Now he’s stuck in meetings pondering policies and ideologies that matter a whole lot more to the American people than they matter to him. As a candidate, he got to accuse the establishment of trashing the country. He played hype-man for a future in which he’d refresh our ideals. Now he’s accountable in the present to all the men and women whose lives haven’t become fairy tales since he took office. That’s not fun. That’s a full-time job, and that’s the one thing Donald Trump has never wanted.