Donald Trump obviously relishes the role of bully. But his greatest talent by far lies in playing the victim.
He’s a victim of Adam Schiff. A victim of Nancy Pelosi. A victim of all Democrats, really, and of his own seedy henchmen (Michael Cohen, Lev Parnas) and of the “deep state” and of the “fake news media” and of the entire establishment, whatever that is.
He’s a victim of so many forces so many times over that even “martyr” doesn’t do justice to his lot, which is what you get when you multiply Job in the Old Testament by Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” and add the protagonist of “Unbroken.”
No president has ever been treated so badly. I’m not being sarcastic. I’m taking dictation: He has made this exact claim — repeatedly.
The lawyers write of a process “rigged” against Trump. They portray his Democratic accusers as unhinged tormentors, too consumed with his destruction to see how unimpeachably he has really behaved. The 171-page document is so soggy with Trumpian self-pity it weeps.
It’s so bloated with Trumpian hyperbole it waddles. On just one of those pages, his lawyers recount how Democrats exercised “shameful hypocrisy” as they “concocted an unheard-of procedure” and held those infamous “secret hearings in a basement bunker” while journalists “happily fed the public a false narrative” and the poor president was denied any rights whatsoever. This is the bodice ripper of political sob stories. It’s a Harlequin harangue.
It expands on — and continues in the precise spirit of — a preliminary legal brief that his lawyers filed last weekend. “The scream of a wounded animal” was how two legal experts who contribute to The Atlantic assessed that argument. They could as easily have been describing the rest of Trump’s presidency, the whole of his political career and much of his life.
He’s always right and yet always wronged. He demands that we marvel at his invincibility even as we tremble at his degradation. He can vanquish any enemy — and his enemies are legion! — but look at how he’s pushed around. Trump takes a textbook oxymoron and gives it presidential form. Behold, at the Resolute Desk, a jumbo shrimp.
“This goes all the way back to his childhood,” Michael D’Antonio, the author of “The Truth About Trump,” told me. D’Antonio said that at the military-themed boarding school that Trump attended, he was known for complaining to superiors about unfair treatment. “It’s a strategy for him. He believes and has said that whining is a way to get what you want.”
Timothy O’Brien, who wrote the Trump biography “TrumpNation,” recalled that in the 1980s, when Trump failed to get the support that he wanted from Mayor Ed Koch for an enormous development in Manhattan, he threw himself a pity party, railing that “the system and local government were conspiring against him.”
Trump similarly fashioned himself as a beleaguered hero battling dark forces when he bought into the fledgling United States Football League and sought to make it competitive with the National Football League. Goaded by Trump, the USFL filed an antitrust suit against the NFL.
The suit was a bust; the NFL was ordered to pay $3 in damages. But that didn’t throw him off his game, which he upsized for his presidential campaign.
As the conservative columnist Rich Lowry noted in August 2015: “By Trump’s own account, he’s the baddest, smartest thing going, except if you ask him a challenging question, in which case he kicks and screams and demands to know how anyone could treat him so unfairly.” Lowry crowned Trump “the most fabulous whiner in all of American politics.”
The CNN anchor Chris Cuomo subsequently asked Trump about Lowry’s words.
“I am the most fabulous whiner,” Trump conceded. “I keep whining and whining until I win.”
He whined operatically as November 2016 approached and it seemed that he’d lose to Hillary Clinton. “The election is going to be rigged,” he pouted, ever the victim. Then he beat Clinton — and still whined, insisting without proof that she’d done better in the popular vote because of millions of illegal ballots.
Woe is he, the object of a “witch hunt” regarding Russian assistance to his campaign, the butt of a “hoax” about improper pressure on Ukraine, the commander in chief of armed forces that the whole world takes advantage of.
In a key passage of the new book “A Very Stable Genius,” by the Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Trump rants at top military brass about what he perceives as America’s exploitation by South Korea and by NATO allies, barking, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
It’s disgusting. It’s also part of his political genius. He has turned himself into a symbol of Americans’ victimization, telling frustrated voters who crave easy answers that they’re being pushed around by foreigners and duped by the condescending custodians of a dysfunctional system.
He’s their proxy, suffering on their behalf, and in that way he collapses the distance between a billionaire with multiple golf resorts and displaced factory workers struggling to hold on to their one and only homes.
But while it’s a fact that they’ve been dealt a bad hand, it’s a farce that he has. His fortune began with money from Dad. He has stiffed creditors, evaded taxes, attached his name to a bogus diploma mill, skimmed money from a fraudulent philanthropy, run afoul of campaign finance laws, signaled receptiveness to Russian interference in the 2016 election and tried to obstruct the investigation of that — all without any commensurate punishment.
Thanks to Republicans in the Senate, he’s poised to evade punishment again. We should all be such victims.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.