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Donald Trump’s Fractal Presidency

Max Stearns


frac·tal | \ ˈfrak-tᵊl \

Definition of fractal

: any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size.

A fractal is some thing or image for which the defining features of the subparts also characterize the whole. Consider a cauliflower, a large triangle subdivided into smaller ones, a Lego brick sculpture of single Lego brick, or even certain Mark Rothko paintings.

Historians, and perhaps most importantly, schoolchildren who study it, will discover that unlike any other presidency in our history, the Donald Trump presidency is fractal. To see this, it is helpful to identify the critical features that define each smaller component of his presidency, and also his presidency as a whole. Those include (1) using people, (2) dispensing with people no matter the cost to them or the extent of their prior loyalty, (3) utter indifference to, even disdain for, the welfare of his staunchest supporters, (4) demanding and expecting blind allegiance from his supporters, (5) indifference to the stature and moral standing of the United States domestically and around the globe, (6) a complete unwillingness to learn, grow, or gain perspective.

These characteristic features defined quite literally each major, and so many lesser, moments of the Trump presidency. This list is necessarily partial: (1) breaking up families of lawful asylum seekers, and housing them in horrific conditions; (2) castigating Mexicans and Muslims; (3) threatening, implicitly or otherwise, those at risk of disclosing Trump’s past unlawful or politically vulnerable behaviors; (4) thwarting COVID-19 safety precautions, such as masks and social distancing, while holding super-spreader rallies and a public appointment ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; (5) commanding vast numbers of supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, resulting in actual deaths, placing other notable public figures at severe risk, and exposing his followers to serious legal jeopardy; and (6) planning his departure from the White House, by Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago, so as to avoid approval by then-President Joe Biden, while insisting on a display of military honors. Of course, it is easy to add so many other items to this list. That is the point. In a fractal presidency, the defining characteristics listed above capture these and so many other specific behaviors, along with the Trump’s presidency as a whole.

Most presidents, and most human beings for that matter, when confronted with evidence of past mistakes, especially those imposing harm on others, reflect, exhibit remorse and regret, and grow. Put more generally, they exhibit human qualities. It is hardly news for Donald Trump, a malignant narcissist, is incapable of perspective, insight, or personal growth. But even the most deeply troublesome of our past Presidents have exhibited personal struggles as a result of their failings. It is reported Donald Trump winces, indeed grows angry to the point of rage, when compared to Richard Nixon. The irony of course is that from Donald Trump’s vantage point, such comparisons seem benign. To be sure, that is not because Richard Nixon’s presidency was successful, although he did have some successes, or because Nixon was a good man. Rather it is because for all his flaws, Nixon’s inner conflicts revealed him to be human.

A President who struggles, who is capable of growth, cannot have a fractal presidency. For a fractal, each small unit must possess the defining features of the whole. Outlier moments, stepping even temporarily out of the larger character, reflecting, reconceiving, and the like require a grander theory to capture the whole. A fractal administration is simply impossible for a President capable of pain, regret, and reflection. These traits necessarily reveal personally inconsistent behaviors even when the balance falls strongly on the ledger’s negative side.

To be sure, fractals can convey images of beauty, as with the Ice Castle in Frozen, as reflected in the lyrics to Let it Go. But the same insight applies. Even the wisest and most brilliant leaders can never be perfect. They too are prone to flaws, lapses in judgment, and outright mistakes. For them, this leads to reflection and growth. The features that define the subparts can never capture the whole.

Donald Trump, of course, exhibits none of these benign characteristics. We criticize two-dimensional fictitious characters as forced and unhelpful, except sometimes as a foil or to advance a turn of plot. Effective writers try, at least for main characters, to expose depth, to explore dimensionality, even in characters we ultimately grow to disdain. Complexity defines the human experience. At least for most of us. Trump’s fractal presidency might reveal the need to recognize that some protagonists, even persons of great influence and power, really are two dimensional. The more you look, the less there is. They truly are small.

As, finally, we rid the nation of its only twice-impeached President, a vile man who held the highest office in the land, I hope we also rid ourselves of future fractal presidencies.

I welcome your comments.

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