Opinion: The story isn’t about Trump, it’s about us

5:26 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 Opinion
Tom Brenner/The New York Times
FILE — President Donald Trump discusses trade policy at a fan manufacturing plant in Springfield, Mo., Aug. 30, 2017. After a political campaign in which Trump frequently trained his wrath on China and Mexico, few could have foreseen that a primary target of his actions on trade would be a stalwart ally, Canada.

According to Playwriting 101, Act One of a play must introduce us to our cast of characters, to their strengths and limitations, and also to the setting in which they operate. A loaded gun — in some cases literal, but more often figurative — has also been introduced somewhere in the opening scenes, and now sits ominously on the fireplace mantel.

I think that’s a pretty good description of where we stand today in our national melodrama.

The curtain has closed on Act One, otherwise known as 2017, and the holiday intermission has ended. The curtain now rises on Act Two, in which the complications only hinted at earlier will begin to take a more solid form, and when the appetites, fears, strengths and weaknesses of our leading characters begin to push them toward their destiny.

By now, we have also learned the basic tension that will drive the plot: We have, as our president, a man who has an unquenchable, bizarre craving for public approval, a craving so intense and unmodulated that it has crippled both his character and his judgment. The more he demands legitimacy and respect, the more his own desperation makes it impossible for him to achieve those goals, and the greater his frustration grows.

On Tuesday morning, as if to remind us of his own absurdity, he even tried to claim credit for the fact that in 2017, nobody had died in commercial jet aircraft service anywhere on the planet.

“Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation,” he bragged on Twitter. “Good news - it was just reported that there were Zero deaths in 2017, the best and safest year on record!”

There is no evidence that Trump has been “very strict” on commercial jet aviation or in any other regulatory field. More to the point, here in the United States the string of zero fatalities on commercial jets long predates Trump, reaching all the way back to February 2009, one month into the presidency of Trump’s predecessor. Last year was unique only because commercial jet aircraft in other countries finally achieved the same level of passenger safety that the United States had recorded for years, yet somehow, Trump needs to be given credit for that.

In normal human relations, the pathetic immaturity of a person who would make such a ridiculous boast would make it impossible to see that person as a leader or even as someone capable of intelligent judgment. If the person making such a claim was your neighbor, your boss, your employee or your four-year-old, you would find it laughable, and you would shy from giving that person any degree of responsibility. Yet it comes from the president of the United States, and some pretend not to recognize what that tells us.

One of the other things that we’ve learned about Trump in Act One, something confirmed with that latest tweet, is that he is not capable of change. He cannot become more presidential, less insecure or self-centered, or more knowledgeable. And since the central figure in any drama must have a narrative arc, a storyline in which the hero or heroine grows and transforms to meet a challenge, Trump cannot be the leading character in our story.

We are.

In the drama to come in the new year, think of Trump as the plot device — the storm, the earthquake, the war that reveals the character of those who are forced to deal with it. Put another way, he is the hair-trigger gun on the mantelpiece. It is we the people of the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, whose intelligence and wisdom will be tested. It is our story, not his; our challenge, not his.