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Friday, January 27, 2017


As I promised, I am going to continue today to talk about the crisis we face, but I have a confession to make first.  I don’t like talking about Trump.  It makes me angry, sad, disgusted even to think about him.  I would much rather be talking about Marx, or Kant, or Hume, or Plato, or Kierkegaard, or Game Theory.  If I may repeat a story I have told here before, sometime in the late ‘60s I gave a talk at a Columbia University faculty seminar on Mill, excoriating him for the failings of his political theory.  Hannah Arendt was in the audience and she came up at the end to say hello.  She pretty obviously hadn’t much liked the talk, but she was polite.  “What are you working on now?” she asked.  “I am writing a book on Kant’s ethics,” I replied.  Her face broke into a broad smile.  “Ah,” she exclaimed, “it is so much more pleasant to spend time with Kant!”

But duty calls.  Today I shall engage in some speculation about Trump the man, about what makes him tick, and how we might use our conclusions to influence him and even, perhaps, to damage his ability to harm this country and the world.  My observations will be psychological, not political.  Now, we litigated here some while ago the appropriateness of using medical terms drawn from psychoanalysis to describe Trump, and we agreed that doing so was unwarranted since I am not a trained analyst and neither I nor anyone reading this blog has the sort of clinical access to Trump on which a medical diagnosis could be based.  But as I noted then, and will repeat now, people have been sizing up other people at least since the start of recorded history and in all likelihood for 100,000 years before that.  All of us form judgments about people every day, based on our experience and observations, and I do not intend to refrain from doing so simply because I am unable to offer clinical justification for my judgments.  Do with these reflections what you will.

The first thing we must understand is that Trump is not a normal person whose actions fall within the customary parameters of adult behavior.  Let me offer a few examples in support of this claim.  These are not large and significant official actions of the sort that make the news, as it were.  But that is just the point.  All of us learn to judge others on the basis of small but telling signs that we are conditioned by long evolution and experience to pick up on.  Sometimes we call this body language.  Poker players call them “tells.”  We notice subtle changes in speech or facial expression or voice.  This is neither arcane nor controversial.  Indeed, without attention to these clues we would have trouble walking down a crowded street without bumping into people.

Here are a number of observations I have made of Trump that set off alarm bells in my head.  One:  Trump lies about things that are common knowledge to the people he is talking to.  He tweets that Meryl Streep is a failure as an actress, for God’s sake.  This has been so widely commented on that I need not cite examples.  Two:  Trump is obsessed with issues of size.  He exaggerates the size of his hands, the size of his genitalia, the size of his fortune, the size of the buildings that bear his name, the size of his election victory, the size of the crowds he draws for his speeches.  Three:  Trump uses language in primitive ways that reveal an almost complete lack of thought or knowledge behind them.  One example that struck me especially powerfully was his bizarre claim, in referring to his speeches, that “I have the best words.”   Think about that for a moment.  What can he possibly have meant by that?  Four:  Trump makes claims that are absurd and immediately refutable, apparently simply because at the moment he is making them it feels good to make them.  I am sure many of you could add countless additional examples.

What do I make of all this?  First, it seems obvious to me that Trump’s mental processes are extremely psychologically primitive.  They are the thought processes of a child of three or four or five.  Now, let us be clear, all of us start out as infants, and if Freud is correct, as I believe he is, we carry along with us throughout our lives the primitive thought processes that develop in us as infants [“primary thought processes,” Freud calls them.]  But in normal adults, reality-tested secondary thought processes have been acquired and overlie the primary processes, which nevertheless live on in the unconscious and never cease affecting our experience of or thought about the world.  It is a commonplace, or ought to be, that even such refined intellectual activities as Logic and Mathematics are driven and shaped by psychic energies and drives buried deep within us that find expression, in sublimated form, in such expressions as “driving a proof through” or “tearing a putative logical demonstration to shreds.”  This is normal, and the behavior rooted in these repressed or sublimated desires and drives is well within the parameters of the normal.

But some people are psychologically damaged.  They never successfully integrate those secondary thought processes with the primary processes and the drives that fuel them.  Such people quite often acquire a patina of normality, as it were.  They may have nice party manners and be quite capable of pursuing adult activities successfully.  But the never reach the point at which they actually grow up, to put it as simply as I can.  Trump, I believe, is such a person.

Let me say a word about why I consider him infantile.  This is a little tricky, so follow along, if you will.  It is clearly obsessively important to Trump to be the alpha male, as primatologists call it.  Now, this is hardly uncommon.  Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone could make a sustained and successful drive for the presidency without a deep and powerful need to be first, a winner, The Big Cheese.  But most adults who have this drive define winning, being first, being the big cheese in real world symbolic ways.  Holding the title of President is for them the goal, the measure of success.  Trump, like a child, obsesses about physically and visually immediate evidences of dominance.  A case in point is the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day as compared both with Obama’s Inauguration Day crowds and the crowd of the protest the day after Inauguration.  And it is not simply the numbers that he obsesses about, it is the pictures.  This is very primitive thinking.

The terms “narcissist” and “sociopath” have been used a good deal to describe Trump, and I think they are useful shorthand ways of summarizing our observations and intuitions about him.  Countless observers have written about Trump’s need to exercise dominance over those around him, about his bullying, his cruelty, hid need to humiliate those who have opposed him.  To an extraordinary extent, Trump seems not actually to be able to grasp and employ the notion of other people.  As an old friend observed to me, he treats his children as extensions of himself and his wives as possessions.  I would add that he treats everyone else as objects, not persons.  In the jargon of an early video game that my sons played when they were boys, he treats them as mushrooms.

All the evidence suggests that Trump is extraordinarily insecure, that he has, as many people have put it, a “fragile ego.”  I would say rather that he has an imperfectly formed ego.  This same old friend offered a judgment that startled me when he first said it, but which has struck me as more and more insightful on reflection.  He said that the day Trump walked into the White House after the Inauguration was the worst day of his life, because [if I am getting this right] he felt as empty, inadequate, and small then as ever, and he had just secured the biggest prize in the world, the prize that he hoped would make him finally feel whole.

If these speculations are correct, then Trump as president is a uniquely dangerous person.  What can we do to weaken him, undermine him, even, God willing, make him self-destruct?

Some thoughts.  Probably you all saw reports, and perhaps pictures, of the sign proclaiming “RESIST” that some brave souls hung from the crossarm of a huge construction crane within sight of the White House.  I applaud their courage and initiative, but I think the gesture would have been vastly more effective if they had instead hung a sign that said “LOSER.”  A sign reading “RESIST” simply tells Trump that he is dominant, that he is strong, that those whom he is dominating are reduced to calling for resistance.  After all, no one would call for resistance to someone who is weak.  It would not be necessary.  But Trump would be simply incapable of ignoring a sign calling him a loser, because that is what he really fears he is

Is there someplace visible from the Oval Office where, every day, picketers could stand carrying signs declaring Trump a loser, declaring him illegitimate, calling him small?  If so, it would be worth the effort to station people there.  Let him call the Capitol Police to drive them away.  That would be the news channel story of the day.
What is going to happen?  I honestly do not know.  Today is January 20th.  Impossible as it is to keep this simple fact in mind, it is only one week since the Inauguration.  There are growing evidences that Trump’s White House is chaos, that staffers are deeply unsettled by the lack of ordinary routine work.  It seems clear, and terrifying, that Steve Bannon has great influence over Trump.  But on the evidence we have seen thus far, Trump seems to be completely overwhelmed by the job of President, flailing about for quick, symbolic actions that cannot in act be effectuated [the confusion surrounding payment for The Wall is a case in point.]

I believe that my characterization of Trump is correct, but I do not know how we can use this understanding, if it is correct, to weaken him.


Howard said...

Someone, must be his Iago, an operative from the CIA or social services, and crush his ego.
Someone close to him must betray him, ideally a psychopath with a sense of duty to his/her country,
or there must be someone like Hanoi Jane, to taunt him.
I think Michael Moore must barrage Trump with a diet of deadly tweets.
Moore should lead the opposition as he organized the march in Washington.
Trump does not have the ego strength for psychoanalysis, but Hannibal Lector would make a great shrink for Trump

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Of everything I've been reading about Trump lately, this blog is certainly the most insightful. There's two markers about Trump that I think need further philosophical, psychoanalytic, and tactical examination in order to properly resist.

First, if I remember correctly, much of the frankfurt school's analysis (I draw mostly from my Fromm, whom I adore), indicated that fascism was a masochistic relationship where the abuser (Trump) felt a sense of belonging in the reliance of mistreatment on his host (the populace). The populace also felt a sense of belonging in being abused, because they had a steady abuser. But Fromm and others rightly pointed out that America was different, and was very much a conformist society where a sense of identity, security, and belonging was found in market place transaction and corporate relationships. E.g., "I'm a Nikes kind of guy" or "I'm a Dilliards kind of Gal". This makes sense, since Trump is essentially a brand, which prima facie symbolized success. Thus many of his supporters could be said to be conformist in seeking identity in the brand of Trump. But Trump as president is NOT a brand, and it also means his exercising of government over a populace is not masochistic. Which leads me to ask, do we really know what we are even in for? When we draw on our knowledge of fascism we draw on masochistic traits, but this isn't a masochistic presidency. So, what does an authoritarian president mixed with a conformist society result in? I don't know. If we knew, would it help in resistance?

Two, you're definitely right that Trump's great fear is that he's a loser, and your friend is most assuredly right that upon entering the white house he felt awful. And so resisting a big man-child is one tactic, but we have to ask ourselves, how does a 70 year old infant literally acquire this much power and wealth. Certainly not ALONE, certainly by acquiring a following of allies. But we also know he has a hard time attracting long term loyalists outside his kin. So as a corollary resistance strategy, how do we wake up his present supporters (republicans both in the populace and in government) to the OBVIOUS EMPIRICAL FACTS BEFORE OUR EYES: that he has a giant man baby liar. I think both of these things need to be done at the same time, i.e., letting Trump know he's a giant loser, and awaking the world to the four character traits you mentioned that most of us see clear as day. Republican congressional leadership cannot ALL be pure evil, they have to know (pre-consciously) those four traits are there. How do we get them to share in resistance? After all, just flipping a small handful of Republicans in the senate and house would do MASSIVE good to thwarting Trump.

Sorry for typos, wrote this quickly.

Chris said...

We could organize mass calls, letters, tweets and e-mails to the white house that just say/express LOSER in bold...

Howard said...

Yes, Chris, a mass media campaign, the possibilities are endless

s. wallerstein said...

I have no reason to doubt your psychological acumen, but in my experience in dealing with unstable people, especially if they are armed and dangerous (in this case, with nuclear weapons), the wisest course is keep a safe distance and if one comes close to them, humor them, not to provoke them or to undermine their precarious psychic equilibrium, which once undermined, will trigger violent reactions.

Rather than baiting Trump the child, we need to organize to win the house for the midterm 2018 (and the Senate if that is possible, I have no idea of the math) and the presidency and both houses of congress in 2020.

Chris said...

"the wisest course is keep a safe distance and if one comes close to them, humor them, not to provoke them or to undermine their precarious psychic equilibrium, which once undermined, will trigger violent reactions."

This is why I hypothetically asked, is there a way for the left to flatter him and trick him into thinking the right is his enemy.

Critton Childers said...

(I previously posted as "Lounger" but I deleted my blog when it outlived it's purpose).

I look forward to your blog posts everyday and have for years been a devoted reader. The following blog is another that I read every day. It is by an expert in interpreting body language. This is his most recent post and it is about the President and the wall:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Critton Childers, this is a fabulous site. Thank you for directing me to it.

J. W. F. said...
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David said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for your two-part post. I find it insightful in many ways, especially your analysis of Trump’s character—or at least what we know about it.

I will respond to #2 in your first post and try to build my response into some general observations about Congressional Democrats and state-level elected officials.

Part 1

Let me start by saying that I don’t know what the best or right strategy is for Congressional Democrats. If not supporting infrastructure bills is the wrong strategy, then what is the right one? And if supporting infrastructure bills is the right strategy, how will Democrats minimize the damage when the Republicans inevitably use the Democrats’ good intentions against them? Supporting infrastructure bills might be the right strategy, but is it the best one?

I don’t know. But what I do know—or think I know—is that we have the wrong type of Democrats in Congress. I will cite a couple anecdotes to illustrate my point.

When my member of Congress, Pramila Jayapal of the 7th District in Washington state, stood up during the Electoral College certification and raised objections, only to be summarily cut off by Vice-President Biden, a former Chief of Staff for Mike Lowery, the predecessor of Jayapal’s predecessor, argued that she had made an amateurish mistake. As a newbie in Congress, she should have followed protocol and the traditions of the House. The former Chief of Staff said that she would have a hard time working with other Democratic members because they now saw her as a flake. I argued directly with this former staffer, and I concluded that while he loathes the President, he still thinks we live in a pre-Trump world that merely has installed the loathsome Trump in the White House. Perhaps he’s been disabused of his innocence by now, but I don’t think his view is all that off the mark from the views of others in DC. That’s my guess, anyway.

David said...

Part 2

Our two Senators are Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. I worked with Sen. Cantwell and her office on legislation during the 2005-2006 timeframe. While I may have spent a grand total of about three hours in the same room with her, I think I developed a good sense of her character. She is a transplant from Indiana, and she moved here during the booming late-nineties, when she made her fortune as an executive for Reel Networks. She used her own money to defeat the execrable Slade Gorton. (Praise be!) Since then, she’s been a hard-working Senator who’s developed a reputation for being a wonky policy expert in the areas of energy and the environment. She is, in fact, fairly intelligent, and she believes that she has earned her place in the Senate by working tirelessly to represent the people of Washington state. However, in 2003, she voted for the Iraq war resolution against overwhelming anti-war sentiments of her constituency. Why? My guess is that she has spend most of her life in Washington D.C. and values the respect of her social circle more than the respect of her constituents. She wanted to be taken seriously by the serious people who supported the resolution. This was more important than the will of the voters. Since the election, he continues to issue missives that seem to indicate that she still lives in a pre-Trump world where she will be valued for her formal policy statements and the introduction of wonky legislation—legislation that has zero chance of ever getting out of committee.

Maria Cantell is not the kind of Democrat we need in the Senate, but we are stuck with her because when she runs for reelection in 2018, we will have to support her to make sure that her seat remains in Democratic hands. It would be much more worthwhile to work to unseat, say, Dean Heller, the GOP Senator from Nevada.

Our other Senator is Patty Murray, who is seen as a scrappy fighter, a populist, the “Mom in tennis shoes” fighting for veterans issues. She is also a major power-broker in the Democatic Senate caucus. However, as a fighter, she lacks fire, lacks edge. Her missives are watery. She seems to suffer from what we call around here “Seattle nice,” the inability to speak frankly. She is not what we need in Congress, but we are stuck with her for six years. The reason I am projecting beyond the next four years is that I think that if and when Donald Trump is unseated, we will still have to contend with the Republican Party’s right wing, which, these days, is most of the bird.

In any case, we need in Congress fighters and organizers like Pramila Jayapal. She can do legislation, which was evident in her time in the state legislature, but she’s also a fighter and an organizer. She started Hate Free Zone after 9/11, an immigrants rights organization that morphed into One America. She knows how to work on the grounds, knows how to organize and inspire people. If Murray retires in 2012, then my choice would be to have Pramila Jayapal move up to the Senate.

David said...

Part 3

My larger point—a long time coming—is that we need to elect fighting and organizing Democrats at every level. No office is too trivial. When seats become vacant, fighters and organizers should move up.

One last anecdote to illustrate my point. Our Mayor is Ed Murray (no relation). I’ve had some interaction with him. Some years ago, when he was the state Senate leader, two of us on our union’s election committee interviewed him. Something I said pissed him off, and he almost stalked out of the room. I was able to calm him down and clarify a misunderstanding. I learned from this episode that he lived up to his reputation as an anti-labor arrogant hothead. I don’t like him. But he doesn’t suffer from “Seattle nice.” If Trump and his regime actually take on Seattle for its status as a sanctuary city, I look forward to Ed Murray’s response. While he may be a jerk, he is our jerk, and he knows how to organize and fight.

In short, we need to be electing fighting and organizing Democrats everywhere, and it starts this spring, when some offices (such as on School Boards and whatnot) become vacant. This is serious work, but if we want to fight the Republicans, we are, in part, fighting a territorial war in which we want our best people on the field.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...
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Henry said...

With the plethora of examples of Trump's lying about things that are common knowledge, you chose an incorrect one. He did not tweet that Meryl Streep is a failure as an actress; he tweeted that she is "one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood." That is an opinion, not an alleged fact. It is, however, revealing of Trump's being infantile. That is because his opinion is not based on his assessment of Streep's acting ability. It is based on his anger at her for criticizing him. Trump's reaction to criticism is always to attack the person making the criticism, rather than to address the criticism.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your point about his obvious obsession with size, I've not yet seen any mention of how he wears his ties: very, very long; unusually long. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Project on Civic Democracy said...

Something I just wrote on a green thread about 'trolling' in general regarding debates about violence against people/things, nonviolence, and also dealing with the alt right.... Important thread. Keep it to thoughtful satire. Don't follow HRC down the '3-0' rabbit hole. When they go low, go high. Interestingly this is related to anti-fa, anti-alt-right anti- politics...Every green party has a non violent pillar more or less, and every healthy left and green party has a lively debate about violence against things and people, pacifism, humanitarian intervention (Fischer on Kosovo). We have to always keep in civil and respectful. And let's remember even Gandhi had the backs of people who were trying other more aggressive forms of political action....And Gandhi worked because he was only fighting despicable neo-con Churchillian conservatism...and there are worse kinds....
Well perhaps we can all agree that Kant is preferable to Mill. The Greens and the left are getting all riled up that liberals are now using the word 'resist'; but of course this has a magnificent non liberal pedigree - Thoreau, Gandhi, Sharp, etc etc. Calling him a loser is actually playing into the psychobable playbook of Bannon and the alt right. Wolff is unmediated, and while focusing on the psychology and the individual, he is unmediated by the action of the culture industry and the dynamic of national and international politics. Shows he hasn't shed his own liberalism....Kant would help him with this, and Arendt's understanding of 'political psychology', whatever that is, even more....and of course the concept of mediation would even helpfully give Arendt a bit of a shove....