“In the small hours of one morning,” Fanny Stevenson recalled, “I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis” — the author Robert Louis Stevenson. Thinking he was having a nightmare, she woke him up. “Why did you wake me?” he said angrily. “I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.”
Thus was born The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, one of those stories that hardly anyone reads but everyone knows. Read it. You may find it helps you cope with the Time of Trump.
Coping isn’t easy. For those of us who are fascinated to see history in the making, the past two weeks have almost been too much. We have been drinking out of a historical fire hose. Each day produces enough news for a week. At this rate, human years will be to Trump years what dog years are to human years. Anyone who can program a virtual reality headset to simulate Hillary Clinton’s presidency will make a fortune. Even Republicans will need two days a week of what would have been so utterly boring, to recuperate from what has turned out to be so overexciting.
The most disorientating thing is that, just as you are all set to loathe something the president has done, he turns around and does something you rather like. After I had written this column last week, the president signed an executive order on refugees and immigrants that was hastily drafted, messily executed and disastrously received. Groan.
Just days later, Trump announced his nominee to take the place of the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch, a judge so impeccably conservative that as a schoolboy he quoted Henry Kissinger and read William F Buckley, the ineffable nemesis of 1960s liberalism.
The same people who had been surfing Canadian immigration websites were suddenly cracking open bottles of Trump vodka. This was why they had put aside their reservations and voted for him: to prevent Hillary Clinton from nominating a liberal — and probably more than one — to the highest court in the land.
The announcement of Gorsuch’s nomination was as deftly handled by the president and his team as the executive order on refugees had been botched. Compare a selection of the president’s tweets on the two issues.
Exhibit A: “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world — a horrible mess!”
“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained. Big problems at airports were caused by Delta computer outage, protesters and the tears of Senator Schumer. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!”
Exhibit B: “Hope you like my nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the United States Supreme Court. He is a good and brilliant man, respected by all.”
“Moment of prayer last night after my nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for #SCOTUS. It was an honor having Maureen and Fr Scalia join us.”
So will the real Donald Trump please stand up?
For about half of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, the narrator labours under the misapprehension that he is dealing with two people: his urbane friend Henry Jekyll and the ogre Edward Hyde. The equivalent delusion today is the argument that there are two different sets of tweets: those written by Trump’s staff, and those written by Trump himself.
Only gradually does the reader of Stevenson come to realise Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same man. For the ghastly truth, as Jekyll himself writes in his confession, is “that man is not truly one, but truly two . . . All human beings . . . are commingled out of good and evil.”
Seeking to conceal his private vices from a censorious world, Jekyll had used biochemistry to unleash the monster within him. At first, his ability to morph into Hyde was liberating, exhilarating. But Hyde was no captive beast, to be summoned and dismissed at will. Over time, he grew more powerful than Jekyll, until he was close to taking him over completely.
The Trump presidency seems set to re-enact Jekyll and Hyde on a weekly basis. World leaders will henceforth pick up the telephone with trepidation. Will they get Dr Jekyll, so affectionate that, as Theresa May discovered, he wants to hold hands? Or will they get prickly Mr Hyde, as the unfortunate Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, did?
Of course, Trump’s metamorphoses are the result not of biochemistry but of a very familiar political process — the one whereby a new administration changes from Dr Campaign into Mr Government. This is always messy.
There is a jockeying for position within the White House, where access to the president is everything. The exact composition and role of the National Security Council is a work in progress. The relative importance of the key cabinet appointments is established by trials of strength and deviousness. It takes a politically inexperienced president time to understand how much power he really has at his disposal, and how much lies with Congress or the courts.
All this is normal. Yet I can think of no other presidency that has begun with a campaign propagandist being elevated above the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the hierarchy of the National Security Council. As if his boss’s bad days were not enough, the brilliant but inflammatory Steve Bannon seems intent on encouraging his Mr Hyde persona. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Trump’s chief strategist said in a recent interview. “I want you to quote this,” he went on. “The media here is the opposition party.”
Like Trump, Bannon has a restless, combative energy. He is the one who wrote much of Trump’s stridently protectionist inaugural. He is the one who has set the blistering pace of these first two weeks, a pace calculated to prove to middle America that Trump will deliver on every one of his campaign pledges before the snow melts.
Bannon also has a genius for provocation. As chairman of Breitbart News, he learnt exactly how to delight the populists of the heartland and to infuriate the liberals of the coasts. He was probably hugging himself with glee last week as rioting leftists at Berkeley shut down a speech by the latest enfant terrible to be exported from the UK to the United States, Milo Yiannopoulos (whom I at first mistook for a new Sacha Baron Cohen character).
Trump is about to apply this confrontational style to foreign policy. First up is Iran, with its ballistic missile tests. China will probably be next. Will Dr Jekyll be content with exerting economic pressure? Or will Mr Hyde insist on gunboats?
In the book, Hyde is violent by nature, running over little girls and beating up old men. But the strength of the bully lies in only picking on the weak. Donald Trump has a great talent for detecting weakness in his rivals. We shall soon see if Iran and China are the next weaklings he rolls over.
If so, he may quite easily make America look great again. If not, prepare for another “fine bogey tale”.