J. BROOKS SPECTOR puts Donald Trump back on the analyst’s couch, now that he is president The diagnosis is a tough one.
It is becoming increasingly easy to be fixated on – or even apoplectic about – the effects of President Donald Trump’s actions as he cuts a zig-zag path through the world from his solitary, late night eyrie in the White House’s living quarters. His wife and son remain in New York City in their penthouse in midtown Manhattan, at least until the end of the school year.
By all accounts – including Trump’s own – he consumes vast swathes of cable television news broadcasts, usually that paragon of objectivity and in-depth reportage, Fox News, to gain his information about how the world works. And maybe this brand of the alternative facts is consumed as he digs into yet another “taco bowl”, given his frequent, self-declared love for fast food and his declaration that that particular menu item is a favourite.
And then, satiated on his news diet, before sunrise, he reaches for that trusty electronic device – no one knows if he is still using a Blackberry or if he has graduated on to a Samsung Galaxy 7 for his fiery tweets – to insult or take down yet another target of his ire, in the showy fashion of WWE wrestling. But, routinely, by first light, he has already reset the news discussion agenda for the day with his pithy messages. Say what you want to, but these tweets read so like the way he talks, one can almost hear them in one’s skull, coming at you in his braying voice. That is quite a trick.
But we also know from his, and others’, testimony that he doesn’t read very much, neither for recreation and diversion, nor for information and introspection. Thus, no history, no science, no philosophy, and no literature – let alone any of the studies in those heavyweight policy journals Washington study centres churn out by the dozens, clear across the political spectrum. He is, however, well known for reading anything written about him that appears in the tabloid-style press and mass-market magazines.
Now that he is in the White House, the story is that he hadn’t read the crucial background information to some of his initial executive orders, let alone insisted his staff do the necessary legwork for him to co-ordinate the plans with the actual affected government agencies. The Muslim and refugee entry ban as well as the elevation of White House ideologue Steve Bannon to the inner circle of the National Security Council, in place of other more usual officials given permanent chairs, are cases on point to this failure to sort things out properly.
The worldwide refugee/Muslim visitor from various nations/Syrian asylum seekers ban, of course, is now going to wend its way through the federal court system. Eventually it will gain a test of its constitutionality, pitting the delegation of presidential power to manage entry into the country against the equal protection clause in that same constitution. Given the still-slender staffing at the White House, and the paucity of confirmed appointees at the senior levels in each cabinet department (all those deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, agency administrators, and the like), more things will slip through the cracks – in the same way as what happened with the planning for that special forces raid in Yemen.
Meanwhile, Trump continues with off-the-cuff remarks that amaze and dismay even his closest Republican partners – ostensibly elected officials from his same party. A short while ago it was that his secret replacement for Obamacare was to ensure everyone had protected health coverage (admittedly a Democratic goal since the 1930s, but surely not that of the GOP). Then, the other day, he spent time on a television interview explaining the moral equivalence of his own nation to that of Russia. A legion of Republicans have been left spluttering and swearing quietly as they look for inventive ways to avoid looking like they endorse the president’s unique view of things.
Further back in his life, there evidently wasn’t much heavy-duty reading taking place during his university days. He was in a real boutique speciality of a course of study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. This programme focused intently on real estate investment and development. Yes, it was, and remains, a renowned university, but in that course one didn’t delve much into Plato, Marx, Adam Smith, Tolstoy, or Shakespeare – or anybody else unconnected with the building or financing of the next big Manhattan skyscraper. But, probably, some Ayn Rand was on his bookshelf back then.
The man is 70 now and the habits he formed over those decades in the business world, reality television, and in tabloid news making will not be lightly undone. Moreover, the core of senior staffers around him seems certain to reinforce his tendencies, with no one except a son-in-law to whisper in his ear at the end of the day that something was ill advised, or even potentially disastrous. The tight phalanx comprising Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Michael Flynn and a few other lesser lights seems poised to reinforce the president’s combative, anti-experience, anti-expert, anti-insight, anti-learn-from-the-past approach to national challenges – and, instead, to encourage his verbal and tweeted bomb-throwing tendencies.
While Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Reince Priebus, the chief of staff of this new reality show, represent a potential counterweight of hardliner conservative thinking against the tear-it-up, alt-right bomb throwers in that first circle, Trump seems to be drawn more naturally to that inner group. This comes from his insistence that it is precisely such views, those biting slogans, and his electrifying promises that got him to where he is now, so why surrender that advantage when he is already on this successful trajectory?
What does it matter, then, if all this churn has left American allies in Europe, the Pacific and Asia totally perplexed; emboldened Russian initiatives; left the Chinese quietly plotting to deliver some exquisite revenge for breakfast; hardened attitudes on the part of Mexico towards any border control deal; handed Islamic extremists new hope for their causes; and flummoxed every international airport and airline? Yes, the stock market has been rising, but analysts are already starting to murmur that this unpredictability of policies will eventually be what punctures the balloon for many investors who will seek safer harbours than the NYSE for their loot.
So what goes on in that brain under that prescription-enhanced yellow hair? What are the core influences underpinning the Trumpian world-view, beyond a pretty obvious exhibition of Narcissist Personality Disorder – the kind of condition that led him to stand before the Republican National Convention (and then in his astonishing inauguration address) to declare that only he could fix the disasters he beheld, as he gazed upon America and the world? Trump biographers who have looked at the man carefully, beyond all the razzle-dazzle about his acumen as builder and money spinner, point to several key influences on his personality.
Here at the Daily Maverick we have previously written about this here and here. But now that he is actually in the Oval Office this needs more more engagement still, especially since his decisions will affect us all.
The first of three crucial influences on his life, not surprisingly, was his father, Fred Trump. The father had amassed a fortune building solid, unprepossessing middle-class housing in the outer boroughs of New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s. They weren’t flashy, they were often redlined to keep minorities out (even though they were built with federal loan guarantees), and they were a real money-maker for him. What they were not, however, was a path of entry into the elite world of the really big money men and social leaders in Manhattan – the kind of people who endowed museums and the opera. Still, the young Trump learned from his dad that one would gain wealth from unrelenting hard work, doggedly outworking and outflanking any competition. The underside to this insight was, of course, a sense of envy about the swells and their universe and a desire to break into it.
The second crucial influence was that of Roy Cohn, a genuine junkyard dog of a lawyer. Cohn is not much talked about these days, but back in Trump’s earlier years, Cohn was an advisor and mentor for the young man in his dealings with banks, investors – and anyone foolish enough to seek redress against Trump in court. Ever.
Cohn was a veteran of the US Senate committee used by Joe McCarthy to roust out communists and fellow travellers in the caverns of government, the entertainment industry, and the literary world for nearly a decade, and Cohn learned his aggressive determination from that school. What he taught Trump, in turn, was – boiled down to its essentials – when your opponent comes at you hard, you must always return the favour 10 times over. This lesson finds its cinematic expression in that dialogue spoken by Sean Connery in The Untouchables, in his explanation of how to deal with the Mafia.
But the third influence on his life was a preacher, Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s big contribution to 20th century theology was his evergreen volume, The Power of Positive Thinking. Any decent bookstore probably still has copies. Peale’s ideas harnessed that Presbyterian notion of predestination, with the adjunct that personal wealth and success were tangible indications of a person having found favour in the eyes of the divine. Peale’s contribution was to argue that success came from, well, the “positive thinking” that should infect every aspect of one’s life.
Now put these together in one package and it is easy to see features of the relentlessly aggressive, ebullient and dogged behaviour of the new president. Such a personality, coupled with his obvious NPD, becomes a rather potent mix in the form of a man who vastly admires his earthly success in business, politics and love, together with the doggedness and determination to succeed, and one where success is the positive feedback loop demonstrating the correctness of his approach.
In such a man, there is simply no space for Socrates’ deathbed utterance that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, although it seems to echo that bit of verse –
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
– that is the prologue to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, Self-Reliance. Of course it is highly unlikely Trump has read that either, although he has an unbounded sense that he is the creator of his success.
But there is one final element that provides additional motive energy to the Trump phenomenon. And that is his unrelenting behaviour as a bully. The kind of bully who pushes the other children around in a playground, and then smirks, “Who me?” whenever he is called out by an authority figure. Most of the time, most boys grow out of that phase in life once they get their hormones in balance, except for those who discover that bullying actually works for them as a tool to manage others – especially if the others show the slightest signs of weakness and that scent of fear.
Some columnists are starting to pick up on this personality issue as a key determinant of Trumpian behaviour. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote the other day,
“There are many reasons to loathe Trump. His policies are mostly wrong, and even those that are right have been chaotically announced or implemented. He prescribes barroom oaths for an economy that needs thought and creativity. He would let the Earth bake rather than take the most rudimentary of steps to moderate global warming. He alienates allies and friends, embraces enemies and indulges in a noxious moral relativism in which, somehow, Russia and America are on the same level.
“But it is my friend’s dilemma that best evokes what is so repellent about Trump. He is the winner who was supposed to lose. He is the bully in the fourth grade who never meets his match. He is the liar whose lies somehow don’t matter. He is the braggart who is never humbled. He refutes what Johnny Tremain [the hero of a children’s novel about the American Revolution] was told and every child once instructed: ‘Pride goeth before a fall.’ No, with Trump pride goeth before everything.”
Cohen goes on to say,
“… A father instructs. He raises a child to be good, to be honest, to tell the truth, to be humble, to be fair, not to be petty, to respect women, to accept fair criticism, to protect the weak and not to injure the injured, such as the bereaved parents of a son who died heroically in Iraq and a reporter with a physical disability. Trump teaches otherwise. He shows a boy that the manly virtues are for suckers, that the narcissism of youth should be cherished and that angry impulses have to be honored. Lots of men have failed as presidents, as Trump surely will, but few fail so dismally as role models. He’s a boy’s idea of a man. He’s a man’s idea of a boy.”
In that very same paper, Jennifer Rubin, writing from the much more social conservative side of the aisle, wrote,
“Trump’s unprecedented degree of out-and-out lying to the American people about things large (a conspiracy to cover up terrorist attacks) and small (crowd size) — especially stated in the presence of the intelligence community (as he did at CIA headquarters the day after his disappointing inauguration turnout) and the military — raises the legitimate concern that we cannot rely on the president’s words or assume his perceptions are accurate. The military and intelligence officers listening to his rants know he babbles nonsense. They surely are entitled to doubt the mental stability and trustworthiness of the commander in chief.
“Consider what else Trump might think is true: Our borders are open. Mexico will pay us back for the wall. Tariffs will hurt China, not the American consumer. The Russian government is no worse than the United States when it comes to human rights and international conduct. In other words, much of Trump’s world view — we’re losing, our allies are stealing us blind — and the policies he pursues are based on nothing but his imagination and urban myths fanned by right-wing talk radio. Far too many Republicans have played along, reticent to call out his reverence for Russian President Vladimir Putin, silent when his plan for a wall on our southern border started a war of words with Mexico and utterly unwilling to confront him on the noxious travel ban.
“There are some signs, however, that Trump’s erratic and unhinged behaviour has alarmed fellow Republicans…. [But] More is needed however from Republicans, Cabinet officials, Democrats, conservatives outside government and the public. Trump’s dangerous delusions need to be addressed head on — in part to determine if he is intentionally stoking fear or if he is intellectually and emotionally unfit.”
William Wordsworth’s words, “The child is the father of the man” encapsulates the truth that our early experiences are what shape us and turn us into the adult we gradually become. But, as is increasingly clear in the case of Donald Trump, what if the father begotten by the child in turn gives birth to a bullying adolescent who now has an entire world to push around? What happens to us? DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (R) speaks at a meeting with executives and union representatives from the Harley Davidson company at the White House in Washington, DC., USA, 02 February 2017. EPA/WIN MCNAMEE / POOL (AFP OUT)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine