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.