Donald Trump is moving into a new and more dangerous phase.
Before, he was constrained by a few “adults” — Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly — whom he appointed because he thought they had some expertise he lacked.
Now, Trump has either fired or is in the process of removing the adults. He’s replacing them with a “Star Wars” cantina of toadies and sycophants who will reflect back at him his own glorious view of himself and help sell it on TV.
Narcissists are dangerous because they think only about themselves. Megalomaniacs are dangerous because they think only about their power and invincibility. A narcissistic megalomaniac who’s unconstrained — and who’s also president of the United States — is about as dangerous as they come.
The man who once said he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and still be elected president now openly boasts of lying to the Canadian prime minister, decides on his own to negotiate mano a mano with North Korea’sKim Jong Un, unilaterally slaps tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and demands the death penalty for drug dealers.
For weeks, Trump has been pulling big policy pronouncements out of his derriere and then leaving it up to the White House to improvise explanations and implementation plans.
“Trump is increasingly flying solo,” Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press reported earlier this month. “Trump has told confidants recently that he wants to be less reliant on his staff, believing they often give bad advice, and that he plans to follow his own instincts, which he credits with his stunning election.”
Trump has always had faith in his instincts.
“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” Trump said on the campaign trail.
“I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right,” he told Time magazine last year.
But instincts aren’t facts, logic or analysis. It’s one thing for a business tycoon or even a presidential candidate to rely on instincts, quite another for the leader of the free world to rely solely on his gut.
Worse yet, the new Trump believes no one can lay a glove on him. He’s survived this far into his presidency despite lapses that would have done in most other presidents.
So what if he paid off a porn star to keep quiet about their affair? So what if he’s raking in money off his presidency? So what if there’s no evidence for his claims that 3 million to 5 million fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary Clinton, or that Obama wiretapped him? There are no consequences.
The new Trump doesn’t worry that his approval ratings continue to be in the cellar. By his measure, he’s come out on top: His cable-TV ratings are huge. Fox News loves him. He dominates every news cycle. The pre-selected crowds at his rallies roar their approval.
He’s become the Mad King who says or does anything his gut tells him to, while his courtiers genuflect.
How will this end?
One possible outcome is that Trump becomes irrelevant to the practical business of governing America. He gets all the attention he craves while decision-makers in Washington and around the world mainly roll their eyes and ignore him.
There’s some evidence this is already happening. Trump’s big infrastructure plan was dead on arrival in Congress. His surprise spending deal with Democrats “Chuck and Nancy” went nowhere. His momentary embrace of gun-control measures in the wake of a Florida school shooting quickly evaporated.
Meanwhile, world leaders are now taking Trump’s braggadocio and ignorance for granted, acting as if America has no president.
But another possible outcome could be far worse. Trump could become so enraged at anyone who seriously takes him on that he lashes out, with terrible consequences.
Furious that special counsel Robert Mueller has expanded his investigation, an unbridled Trump could fire him — precipitating a constitutional crisis and, in effect, a civil war between Trump supporters and the rest of America.
Feeling insulted and defied by Kim Jong Un, an unconstrained Trump could order an attack on North Korea — precipitating a nuclear war.
The mind boggles. Who knows what a mad king will do when no adults remain to supervise him?
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.” He blogs at www.robertreich.org.