Imagine that through some combination of luck, ruthlessness, and an animal feel for what certain American voters like to hear, you become president of the United States. You wake up every morning with a country to run, programs to implement, fires to put out. Your job is probably the most important one in the world, and certainly the most closely examined. When you speak, the nation listens, even if you don't particularly like big swathes of the nation and even larger swathes definitely don't like you.
You made some promises when you were running for office and now you have to at least try to keep them. This is going badly. You have not been a transformative leader, instead quietly going along with longtime obsessions of your party. Your most important legislative push ended in humiliating failure you can't accept. The healthy economy, which you inherited from your predecessor and brag about every chance you get, may not be as strong as many people assume. The thing you've been most successful at is starting feuds with the media, which fires up portions of your base, but doesn't come close to substituting for real accomplishment.
So you take a break. The heat of the DC summer is oppressive and Congress is in recess anyway, so you head out to one of your many golf courses. (This one's in Jersey.) You're not on vacation because the president can never go on vacation, of course, and you take the time to give a short presentation to the media on infrastructure. You talked about this during the campaign—the country's crumbling roads and its pathetic airports—and you want to make this a priority. You show the media charts. There's too much red tape, you say, and here's a chart demonstrating that.
It's going fine. There was a rally over the weekend where some people gathered around a Confederate statue, marched around with torches; there was brawling and a person died—it was bad, and the media said you said the wrong thing about it. But look, you said the right thing eventually, OK? Time to move on to infrastructure.
Then you take questions and everything goes off the fucking rails:
President Donald Trump defended the group of white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, telling assembled reporters they were largely justified and being unfairly vilified by the media….
"The night before people innocently protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee," Trump said, in reference to the group of white supremacists who spent the evening carrying torches, shouting Nazi slogans, and delivering Nazi salutes. "You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent."
If it's hideous to watch America's president try to excuse the behavior of white supremacists as "innocent," it's also deeply embarrassing, a reminder that this is the person leading the country. Embattled, constantly distracted by Twitter and cable news, and increasingly at odds with Senate Republicans, Donald Trump was given an opportunity to present himself as a unifier by simply denouncing a bunch of violent racists in Charlottesville. He failed that test on Saturday with a weak statement about "many sides," and, after condemning the white supremacists on Monday, failed again on Tuesday with a bizarre press conference that saw him excusing the fringe right. He even adopted its talking points about how if monuments celebrating the Confederacy came down, statues of George Washington would be next.
He finished up by bragging that he had a winery in Charlottesville that was one of the largest in the country. (As noted by Mother Jones, the winery is officially owned by a business named after Trump's son Eric.)
What was advanced by Trump producing another controversy from thin air? If anything, his continued defense of the hard right will make mainstream Republican politicians more leery of him than they already are, and remind them how unpredictable he is. Meanwhile, it helps further convince white supremacists that the president is on their side, and will surely deepen the division between Trump supporters and detractors nationwide.
The country is getting angrier. Maybe it was just as angry during the Obama years, but Barack Obama could make people believe in civility, or at least the appearance of civility. Trump doesn't have that talent and he doesn't seem to care much, anyway. His instinct is to fan the flames, to make more enemies, to turn every story into a story about him and what he said. The brutal and tragic thing was that that instinct was exactly what America wanted—it got him the presidency, if only barely. But he's utterly incapable of doing the job, a point that was obvious even before Monday. He can't get through a simple press conference without spewing more bile and alienating leaders who would have endorsed more infrastructure spending.
Trump is failing. It's a terrible thing to watch.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.