Our political universe presents us with the same problem that physicists face when they contemplate the material cosmos: Should we pay more attention to the things that are very, very big or the things that are very, very small?
The Holy Grail for physicists is a unified theory that makes the physics of big things (stars, galaxies) mesh with the physics of small things (quarks, bosons).
The unified theory of our politics, of course, is Donald Trump, and few elements, whether large or small, of our political universe can escape his psychological and emotional gravity.
This somewhat overwrought metaphor occurs to me as I consider the comparative consequence of the range of issues that anyone who thinks about the current state of our nation has to take into account.
At one end, there are profoundly serious issues that could actually kill us. The persistent background static of our world is climate change; our response to this crisis continues to be woefully inadequate. At the same time, the slope toward a nuclear exchange with North Korea seems increasingly slippery; the consequences would be unimaginably devastating.
If we didn’t have issues like these to think about, we’d be more concerned about a president who is unable to make his way through a ceremony honoring the Navajo code talkers, genuine heroes of World War II, without succumbing to the temptation to attack a political opponent.
Or a president who can’t let go of obviously false and consistently debunked conspiracy theories, such as ones concerning the birthplace of President Obama.
Somewhere between these two extremes are issues of staggering importance, such as Russian interference in American elections and highly placed officials who lied about it, bad tax reform and the elimination of consumer financial protections, matters that won’t destroy our republic (probably) but which don’t do private citizens or our democracy much good.
It’s a confusing, threatening context in which to have a normal life or raise children. It’s hard to remember a time when the nation faced a comparable array of dangerous circumstances or had in place leadership so ill-suited to cope with them.
But thinking about Donald Trump as the cause or aggravating element of most of these issues helps explain a lot. For example, the mean-spirited tendency toward name-calling that provokes Trump to demean a ceremony honoring Indian war heroes by pausing to call a detested political opponent “Pocahontas” is the same tendency that leads him to call North Korea’s dictator “Little Rocket Man.”
To Trump this compulsive name-calling is probably highly satisfying. Much of his base approves of it, and it makes him feel good. But it’s neither tactical nor strategic; more likely it’s the product of an immature, undisciplined mind and a narcissistic spirit.
Unfortunately we have little evidence that Trump is able to distinguish between the first instance — the unseemly besmirching of a ceremony meant to honor war heroes — and the second — the dangerous taunting of an unstable, unpredictable dictator with nuclear weapons.
Of course, it’s not always possible to separate the big issues from the small ones. At best, name-calling is tacky and undignified, but it doesn’t threaten our nation until it begins to stand in the way of a peaceful resolution of the North Korea dilemma. In other words, it won’t always be easy to distinguish between the Trump who is uncouth and embarrassing and the Trump who is dangerous.
But Trump is the force that binds together a good deal of the current chaos, and not in a good way. He still has loyal supporters, and many Republicans are willing to tolerate him to serve political and policy goals; last week’s vote on tax reform in the Senate is a good example.
But at some point his volatility, unpredictability, lack of self-control and, indeed, mental instability — respectable psychiatrists and other mental health experts have weighed in on this point — will reach critical mass, and force us to cope with the fact that we’ve made a very poor choice to lead the free world. And then what?
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.