The Emperor Has No Clothes

Millions are scratching their heads, if not banging them against a wall, trying to fathom the first few days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump's first ten days have exacted a good deal of collateral subjective damage to Americans and people around the globe who awaken every morning with a knot in their stomach, wondering, fearing what did he do now? With his twenty executive orders in ten days, it is as though Trump has hijacked our psychic energies and forced himself upon us as an object of constant meditation. 

To my mind, Hans Christian Andersen 1837 story  “The Emperor’s New Clothes” provides a fresh perspective on the agitated state of our union and commander-and-chief.

Andersen begins this tale by telling us that once upon a time there was an emperor widely known for his passion for fancy attire. One day, two swindlers come to the royal palace promising to make "the most wondrous clothes that anyone could imagine." Not only would the patterns be beautiful but the material would have “the amazing quality of being invisible to anyone who was no good at his job or to people who were just stupid.” Of course, there is neither silk nor any other material on their loom. Shortly thereafter, the emperor is asked to undress. The culprits pretend to make adjustments on his pants and train. Naturally, the town is abuzz with excitement about the emperor’s new clothes. After his fitting, the emperor strides out before his subjects. At first, the crowd and royal court gushes, “Oh, my, aren’t aren’t the emperor’s new clothes magnificent. What a beautiful train on his coat! How divinely it fits.” Then a child, unaware of the ruse that only bad and stupid people won’t be able to see the garments, blurts out, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” His parents try to hush him, but the child repeats the same words. Alas, the throng takes it up shouting, “He’s really got nothing on!”

It pains and frightens me to say this, but it is time we realized our president is not clothed in a sound mind. It does not require a Freud to recognize that the commander-in-chief may not be in complete command of himself. But who will pronounce the equivalent of “the emperor has no clothes?”

Trump's advisors are just like the couriers in the Andersen story. Be it Kellyanne Conway or Jared Kushner, or any of the others members of the Trump team: no one will tell the president that it is lunacy for him to insist that nearly 5 million illegal ballots were cast in the presidential election and that we desperately need an investigation into voter fraud. No one has the gumption  to risk offending the boss by telling him it is bonkers to stand before the Wall of Honor in CIA headquarters and blather about the size of your inauguration crowd or about many times you have been on the cover of Time.

Forget his impulsivity, his inability to let things go, and the bizarre Twitter eruptions. The day after his swearing in, Trump was angrily jabbing his finger and barking that he has “a running war with the media” and that reporters are some of the worst people on the face of the earth. But some of the press, at least, are beginning to pipe up and say the equivalent of the “emperor has no clothes.”

Trump is often accused of being a pathological liar. However, Paul Krugman suggests that this accusation might not be fair. As the New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate reckons, the best explanation for Trump’s falsehoods might be that the most powerful person on the planet is delusional. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Jennifer Rubin suggests that Trump is teetering on the edge. After registering  a select list of Trump’s jaw-droppers, Rubin raises the question “When he denies saying something, what if he honestly does not, cannot recall statements that now come back to haunt him?”

With his recent ban on vistors and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump slid over the line that divides "this is terrible but we can live with it" from "something must be done." There are growing murmurs in the crowd that the emperor has no clothes. Sen. Bernie Sanders has let it be known that he thinks the POTUS is "delusional."

In July 1965, the twenty-fifth amendment was passed. The fourth section of the amendment outlines the procedure for transfering power from a President who is judged to be incompetent. As Jeffrey Frank explains in a New Yorker article titled, "What if the President Loses Control": 

The machinery moves slowly: a Vice-President, with a majority of either the Cabinet or of Congress, may inform the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate, in writing, that the President “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” In that case, the Vice-President takes over as “Acting President.” 

If the president objects, matters become very complicated, but the central question is: What would it take for the likes of Mike Pence and Paul Ryan to conclude that the president is not mentally fit to lead? 

Leon Festinger's famous theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that, when we have two conflicting beliefs, we will be in a state of anxiety, and therefore strongly motivated to change one of our beliefs. Many Democrats already suspect that Trump is bordering on unhinged. But for those who have backed the reality-show star—and even ridden into the precincts of power on his back—I suspect it would require a lot for them to concede that they have help put an Ahab at the helm of our ship of state. But if the first few days of the Trump administration are any indication, the Republican leadership had better start thinking about the unthinkable. 

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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