The scene was recorded and disseminated by the White House press office. Of many accounts, Roger Cohen’s in the New York Times is the most arresting. We are in the Oval Office on July 17. In a carefully staged communications operation presumably intended to illustrate the humanity of the 45th president of the United States, Trump is receiving survivors of contemporary religious persecutions. Among them is young Nadia Murad, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and symbol of the suffering of the Yezidi people of Iraq, who were one of the Islamic State’s targets during its caliphate.
“What’s this Yezidi business”, the President seems to be wondering in the strange images we see of him seated at his desk, pouting disdainfully, his face a mask of torpid boredom, as he struggles to listen to the young woman standing with other survivors around him. Sensing the need for a bluff, he assumes the tone of a promoter describing the site of an upcoming real estate operation: “I know the area very well,” he boasts, once it dawns on him that the area in question was the theater of one of the rare massacres for which the United Nations reserves the terrible label of genocide.
Plainly losing patience and fighting to pay attention as the young woman, on the verge of tears, evokes the memory of her mother and six brothers who were exterminated by ISIS before being pushed with tens of thousands of others into one of the mass graves that mark the area that he says he knows so well, he asks, “Where are they now?” “And they gave [the Nobel Prize] to you for what reason?” he interrupts a moment later, seeming doubtful, almost suspicious, but, for the first time, mildly interested. Are you telling me that they gave you the Nobel Prize for that, he seems to be saying, as she tries to explain that her mission has been to travel Europe and now the United States to raise awareness of this unpunished slaughter.
And when the young woman then undertakes to recount her experience as a sex slave who fled Mosul to bear witness to the ongoing ordeal of her people, he poses this last question in which one detects at once bewildered incomprehension, childish spite, and the same strain of stubborn scorn with which he reproached John McCain for having been “captured” and then trying to pass as a hero: “So you escaped?” They gave you the Nobel Peace Prize because you escaped, is that it? At which point, looking disgusted, he makes a gesture with his hand that seems to say, “Next!” And that is where the clip ends.
Having seen it, it scarcely matters whether one is pro- or anti-Trump.
One can argue endlessly about the pros and cons of the deal of the century in the Middle East, about the diplomacy of taking the first step in North Korea, or about whether history will prove the Europeans or the Americans right in Iran. One can tout the advantages or the disadvantages of a weak dollar, of the Federal Reserve’s lowering of the interest rate, or of Trump’s attacks on the liberal economy.
That clip is worth a thousand words.
It preempts discussions of how and why the world’s greatest democracy came to elect this person. In a few seconds, it reveals the truth about a man, his reflexes, and his deepest thoughts. It is a confession, conclusive evidence, a surprise look at the DNA of the most powerful head of state on the planet, one whose character has been laid bare by slips of the tongue.
And like Lenin’s too-resounding voice in Nabokov’s telling; like Malaparte’s dictators, whose evil minds are most clearly revealed in their posturing and their ticks; like with Putin posing in the icy waters of Seliger Lake north of Moscow; like the images of Qaddafi as medal-bedecked assassin or the grotesque uniforms of Idi Amin in Barbet Schroeder’s film—like all the other clichés in which the bully seems all the more fearsome in a clown suit, the moment captured in this clip suddenly says more than the thousand pages of the Mueller report.
Trump, however much he pines for the America First of the 1930s, is neither a fascist nor a dictator, strictly speaking. Even if he were tempted to become one, there would remain in American society, and even in his entourage and his party, enough antibodies to dissuade him from acting on that temptation.
For what it is worth, I disagree with Nadia Murad’s implication, expressed on this and other occasions, that the Kurds bear equal responsibility with other Iraqi groups for the Yezidis’ plight. Still, in this scene—where the grotesque vies with the indecent, the pathetic with the terrifying, and situation comedy with the ghastly sense of witnessing a misunderstanding of potentially tragic consequence—we are exposed to a face that resembles no other and that is utterly chilling. The blend of vanity, stupidity, and indifference to others, the air of the big baby, the deep and defiant ignorance accompanied by what appears to be pathological inhumanity—that, perhaps, is the essence of Trumpism.