While talking to reporters on the White House lawn Wednesday about his plans for prosecuting a trade war with China, the president of the United States looked up briefly toward the heavens.
"I am the chosen one," Donald Trump allowed.
Others had given the president gentle nudges toward divinity even before that. Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative bigot, conspiracy theorist and self-described "capitalist evangelist" who believes Jesus was the "CEO of the Christian religion," described Trump the day before as the "second coming of God." Trump gratefully tweeted Root's blessings on Wednesday morning, several hours before his White House epiphany.
Yes, of course you need a certain kind of appalling narcissism to be comfy promoting yourself as heaven-sent in a televised press briefing and as a deity on Twitter. It's doubly unhinged when you're doing this as president, commander-in-chief and the man who swore on Inauguration Day to "preserve, protect and defend" the country. When it follows a crazy, distracting public flirtation with a Greenland buyout and a dizzying flip-flop on gun control, it can convince people that your underlying behavior has moved beyond the routinely nutty and delinquent into something more profoundly ruptured.
Trump, however, has been self-absorbed, self-deluded and wildly self-aggrandizing for decades. New Yorkers who had ringside seats to much of this know how much of a sociopath he can be when he wants his way (a useful case study is his failed effort to develop Manhattan's West Side Yards years ago). They're now watching the rest of the country, and the world, acquaint themselves with a Trump whom many either didn't understand or willfully overlooked prior to his ascent to the White House.
The Trump of the past few weeks is the same disordered figure of the past several decades with, I suspect, a big dollop of something new blended in: unbridled and unmanageable panic.
When Trump has panicked in his business and public life in the past he's latched on to the zany to try to dig his way out. For example, after larding his Atlantic City casino companies with too much debt, and overspending to build the biggest of them, the Taj Mahal, Trump needed the Taj to rake in impossible sums to avoid bankruptcy. That didn't happen and in some of the earliest interviews about the megacasino's prospects, Trump lied – in deliciously outre ways – about what ailed it as he tried to stave off the inevitable financial catastrophe.
Trump told a TV interviewer, Larry King, that slot machines at the Taj weren't taking in as much money as expected because overly enthusiastic gamblers had jammed too many quarters in them too quickly and had broken them.
"So what, it blew out the slots, literally?" King asked.
"They blew apart," Trump responded.
"It would be, like, too much use?"
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"They were virtually on fire."
That was funny. It was also untrue and it was nutty. But Trump was operating on smaller stages back then: the gambling world, New York real estate and politics, and then reality television. Now he's on a global stage with unimaginable power at his fingertips and the possible consequences of acting out are far more severe.
Trump must believe that his decision to toy with the idea that he's an anointed savior -- "the chosen one" -- has a grotesque rationale, despite its ham-handedness and hypocrisy. To be sure, somewhere deep inside the president harbors a belief in God and the afterlife, which he discussed with me once as we drove together to one of his New Jersey golf courses.
"There has to be a reason we are here," Trump told me. "What are we doing? You know there is an expression: 'Life is what you do while you're waiting to die.' There has to be a reason that we're going through this. There has to be a reason for everything. I do believe in God. I think there just has to be something that's far greater than us."
My sense is that essentially Trump sees faith as an insurance policy. He would like to live forever and thinks a belief in God is one way to get there. He's never been much of a traditional churchgoer or Bible-reader and by at least one common definition of Christianity ("Love thy neighbor as thyself") he comes up exceedingly short.
The president grew up in a family that embraced Norman Vincent Peale's controversial "prosperity gospel," which focused on personal happiness and wealth. He has followed a similar path in his adult life, aligning himself with churches or ministers that tout the same dollar-based values. Although Trump had never been involved in traditional Christian churches (many of which look askance at the prosperity gospel), white evangelicals supported his presidential candidacy en masse in 2016. Trump sees that voting bloc – which has forgiven his extramarital affairs, his racism and incivility, his foul mouth and his lack of generosity in exchange for legislative advocacy meaningful to them – as one of his firewalls in the upcoming 2020 campaign.
So when Trump gazes into the sky at the White House and says that he's the chosen one, he's not the type who thinks he can actually walk on water. He's the type who's hoping that droves of evangelical voters might keep falling for his shtick.
And Trump is willing to playact in this extraordinary way, I think, because he's mired in fear. The clock is ticking as the countdown to 2020 grows shorter and Trump has spent the past few weeks making sure his own words and actions involving migrants at the southern border and global communities of color will leave him branded permanently as a racist. His poll numbers are weakening, perilously so. Most glaringly, there are warning signs of a U.S. recession on the horizon, which, if it arrives, will have everything to do with Trump's bungled global trade policies and not the Federal Reserve's stance on interest rates.
Trump is flailing, trying to find boutique tax cuts he can implement unilaterally as a way to stimulate the economy but which are unlikely to deliver the outcome he hopes for, especially if he doesn't reverse course on trade. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is soaring, markets are skittish and farmers across the Midwest are growing angrier about the hurdles they face.
The president has tied his standing to jobs, the economy and the securities markets and in the face of sustained problems the odds for his reelection worsen. Trump, understandably, has started to panic and his attempt to convince people that he's the second coming shows how deeply worried he is about things he can't control -- and how increasingly reckless he might become.