John Dean: Fasten Your Seat Belts, We're In For a Bumpy Ride

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Donald Trump steps out of his plane for a rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport on October 25 in Sanford, Florida. John Dean writes that Trump is now our captain, and he is flying the ship with no experience whatsoever in the operations of government. Not only is it going to be a bumpy ride, there is no assurance we will land safely, given his lack of knowledge, experience and skill—not to mention his unwillingness to acquire them. Joe Raedle/Getty

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

On January 20, 2017, only those Americans who lack common knowledge or are self-deluded celebrated the inauguration of Donald Trump—the most unqualified man ever to be elected to our highest office.

To wit: There is no evidence that Trump has even a good newspaper or TV-news understanding of the American presidency, or that he has ever read a single biography or autobiography of any of his 44 presidential predecessors.

To the contrary, the evidence suggests that he does not have sufficient concentration to even read a book, let alone listen to an audio edition (not to mention receive exhaustive briefings on the duties of his job).

On noon last Friday, Trump began the first of 1,461 days of his (hopefully last) term as president of the United States—barring his death in office; or his removal because of a physical or mental inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office; or his impeachment and removal by Congress for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Death, disability or impeachment are not likely, however.

More specifically, as president, Trump will have the best medical care available to anyone in the United States, since that benefit comes with his position of higher office. While Trump appears to be overweight, and a connoisseur of junk food, many modern presidents have become healthier on the job. Trump has over 14 years of life expectancy, and the Secret Service is very good at making sure the president's life is not cut short during his time in office.

While there is troubling commentary on Trump's mental suitability—for example, political commentator Keith Olbermann questioned his psychological stability with "Could Donald Trump Pass a Sanity Test?" in Vanity Fair—it's doubtful Trump's Cabinet would petition Congress for his removal under the 25th Amendment, or that a Republican Congress would tolerate such an insurrection from his top appointees.

(It should be noted in passing that President Reagan's first chief of staff advised his replacement that he might need to invoke the 25th Amendment because the president was "inattentive," "inept" and "lazy" in carrying out his duties. And should Trump indeed go off the deep end, it is not likely that someone like Secretary of Defense James Mattis will tolerate it long.)

Finally, impeachment is unlikely because Republicans control both the House and Senate, and as long as Trump signs their legislation, they will not cause him any problems.

For these reasons, I expect Trump will serve at minimum one term as president, and as I recently told McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, it's enough time in office to give me nightmares, largely because Trump is so unprepared for the job. Not only does he not understand the presidential position, he has been pushed to the hard right during the transition because he is a man without firm political beliefs of his own.

Preparedness for the Unexpected

Presidential campaigns do not truly focus on the capability of candidates to handle unexpected events should they become elected. It is doubtful George W. Bush would have become president had America known about the imminent attacks of September 11, 2001, given that Bush had little grasp of national security. After 9/11, many Americans were pleased that his father pushed him to appoint former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney as his vice president.

Post-9/11, the issue of preparedness has morphed into a secondary campaign issue, the so-called "3 a.m. telephone call"—or the preparedness of a presidential candidate to deal with difficult national security issues that arrive at the White House in the dead of the night.

This issue played out during the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton campaign, with Clinton's ads claiming Trump wasn't ready to handle such a call, and Trump claiming that Hillary, as secretary of state, had slept through such a call during the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The matter never became a serious issue. Polling showed most voters felt Hillary had all the experience needed to be president, while few felt Trump had such experience. In the end, Trump voters did not care.

Washington insiders, people knowledgeable about government, do care that Trump is totally unprepared to deal with the unexpected matters that will make their way to the White House because they cannot be resolved at a lower level of the executive branch.

Trump, of course, claims he is prepared because of his "gut instincts," and "common sense," but many issues that arrive in the Oval Office call for actual knowledge and experience, which Trump lacks. In addition, Trump has made it clear that he is not one to study or read briefing books, or for that matter, sit through lengthy meetings necessary to make himself familiar with issues.

Think of the White House in this way: A president is like the captain of an airplane that inevitably finds itself confronting endless storms of varying danger, or are even under fire by heat-seeking missiles. Most people, like passengers, are not even aware of these difficulties or existential threats, because the skill of the captain averts them, drawing upon his experience to avoid dangers along the way.

Trump is now our captain, and he is flying the ship. Not only is it going to be a bumpy ride, there is no assurance we will land safely, given his lack of knowledge, experience and skill—not to mention his unwillingness to acquire them.

In fact, he has appointed a team of people that in some cases are totally ignorant of the jobs they are taking on, so it may get terrifying, and it will be something of a miracle if we survive 1,461 days of a Trump presidency.

Trump Is an Empty Vessel

Following the November 8, 2016, election, NBC News prepared an analysis of Trump's positions on some 23 recurring issues during the campaign, noting that he had taken 141 different stances. This NBC study concludes:

After more than a year and a half of stadium rallies, around-the-clock interviews, sweeping primary wins, and one stunning general election victory, the Republican president-elect has the most contradictory and confusing platform in recent history.

If placed in an even broader context of his long public career, Trump has no carefully considered and long-standing core beliefs whatsoever; rather, he has been on all sides of many of the most important issues facing the nation. Trump appears to believe anything and that everything is negotiable. Given these facts, he has naturally been susceptible to the thinking of others.

It will be remembered that Trump had several campaign managers, first Corey Lewandowski and then Paul Manafort, before his final team of Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway was assembled during the last 90 days prior to the election. Lewandowski, Manafort, Bannon and Conway clearly realized that Trump was an empty vessel into which they deposited ideas, which explains how some of his conflicting stances developed. Bannon and Conway, however, are fronts for billionaire hedge fund operator Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who have strong beliefs. As a result, Rebekah directed much of the transition.

The Mercer agenda is radical right wing. It is not difficult to trace Donald Trump's sudden turn to the hard right, which occurred during his transition.

Rebekah Mercer is a direct link to the Heritage Foundation, Charles and David Koch, Betsy DeVos and her family's foundation, along with countless other conservative causes. The Mercers' fingerprints can probably be found on nominations who want to abolish departments and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Energy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the like.

Because Trump has no strong feelings about any of these matters, and he needed all the help he could get during the transition, he has given those who came to his assistance at the conclusion of his campaign a free hand in organizing his administration.

Authoritarians Are Not Good at Democracy

Trump's authoritarian personality is also very troubling. Authoritarianism does not work well in a democracy.

In the first column I wrote about Trump's candidacy in July 2015, I described his authoritarian nature, noting that authoritarian leaders are "dominating; they oppose equality; they desire personal power; and they are amoral."

In addition, they are. . .

usually intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, dishonest, cheat to win, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, militant, nationalistic, tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of "suckers," specialize in creating false images to sell self, may or may not be religious, and are usually politically and economically conservative and Republican.

These traits may work well in the military or law enforcement, but have not been successful for American presidents. Richard Nixon, who kept his authoritarian nature behind closed doors, makes the case against such a personality thriving in a democracy.

Other than the gold in Fort Knox, it has been clear from the outset what Trump wants (and demands): attention.

I recently re-read the psychological profile of Trump by Northwestern Professor of Psychology Dan McAdams for The Atlantic. In his analysis, Professor McAdams noted Trump's authoritarian personality, and hence his appeal to authoritarian followers.

More importantly, as the professor looked for what might be behind Trump's bid for the presidency, he found a striking answer. It was a giant ego trip—my words, not the professor's. Here is how McAdams concluded his findings:

Who, really, is Donald Trump? What's behind the actor's mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why. [Emphasis in original.]

In short, we have a captain lifting off for 1,461 days of flight—a man with no prior experience in such an undertaking who, in fact, is on a colossal ego trip. The world media, along with people everywhere, are thrilled to be watching this very dangerous high-stakes political reality TV show, because it could result in the end of the end of the United States of America as we know it. This empty-suit ego maniac is fighting for any of many crazy right-wing ideas that he has only recently embraced and which only a fringe of Americans support.

For some of us it is more troubling than captivating.

John W. Dean is a former counsel to President Richard Nixon.