The Press Conference

All you need to know is this: there is and always will be only one Donald Trump. Thinking that he can or will suddenly become fit to be President is like thinking that a paraplegic will leap from his wheel chair at any moment. Just as a damaged spinal cord disables a person from walking, Trump’s life-long severe narcissistic personality disorder disables him from accepting any truth that contradicts the narrative of his greatness, taking advice, or behaving in public in any manner that is remotely appropriate for a head of state. It’s not going to happen because it cannot happen. Character is destiny and the flaws in Mr. Trump’s character are so deep that his presidency is destined to be – at best - a chaotic lurid spectacle.

All this was apparent prior to the election. And to those who indulged in the fantasy that he might change, it should be apparent now that he will not. If you still have doubts, just watch the video of yesterday’s bizarre and terrifying press conference.

In September, I wrote that Trump world is “a type of theater of the absurd, in which the boundaries of the possible dissolve. It is the world of the preposterous.” Is there a better word to describe the nonsense which we face daily? The White House said five days ago “We have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration.” What can you say other than preposterous. Yesterday the President said “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” He has already made the world a better place through his “great conversations” with foreign leaders. Yup, a few incoherent phone calls from the Donald and the world is already a safer place. Plants and factories “are already starting to move back into the United States, and big league.” “Jobs have already started to surge.” And he solved the problem of attacks on cops, “directing federal agencies to ensure they are protected from crimes of violence.” That is sure to do the trick. 

Perhaps most revealing at yesterday’s news conference was his defense of his incorrect assertion about his Electoral College margin of victory being the biggest since Reagan: “I'm skipping that information, I don't know, I was just given . . .Well, I don't know, I was given that information. I was given -- I actually, I've seen that information around.” And there you have it. We have a President who makes public assertions about matters of objective fact based on “I’ve seen that information around.” It is shocking when he states it so plainly, but no one should be surprised. Many of the core arguments of his campaign were based on information he saw around the dark fringes of the Internet, such as Breitbart. And now the purveyors of that information sit in the West Wing, having discredited and marginalized the 16 intelligence agencies on which a president usually relies, giving the man the false facts required to feed his voracious vanity, indifferent to whether it becomes apparent to the world that the President of the United States lives in a world of fantasy and misinformation.   

And Mr. Bannon is not the only person who has learned how to manipulate our President. Trump said this in response to the stew of Russia related issues that has already brought down his National Security Advisor: “President Putin called me up very nicely to congratulate me on the win of the election. He then, called me up extremely nicely to congratulate me on the inauguration, which was terrific. But so did many other leaders, almost all other leaders from almost all of the country. So that's the extent. Russia is fake news. Russia -- this is fake news put out by the media.” Got it? Putin flattered him twice, nicely and then extremely nicely, including taking his side on the question of whether the inauguration was the best ever, so all the rest is fake news. 

In a moment that gave me hope for the future of journalism, CNN reporter Jim Acosta asked the obvious question: “You said that the leaks [regarding the Russia connections] are real but the news [that is, the reporting of the leaked information] is fake. I guess I don't understand. It seems that there's a disconnect there. If the information coming from those leaks is real, then how can the stories be fake.” In a bit of revealing mental gymnastics, the President replied, “the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” You understand? It’s really not so complicated. The media (other than Fox) are dishonest enemies. This is what makes their reporting about Trump “fake,” not the truth or falsehood of their reports.

There is one advantage to the man’s off-the-cuff style; it tends to be much more revealing about what he believes and how he thinks than the carefully prepared statements of most presidents. Consider this: “Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It's a disaster. I know you can say, oh, Obamacare. I mean, they fill up our alleys with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing.” Where to start? Were that it was merely incoherent ranting. But it’s not. Among the possible insights into the man’s mind: People who need health insurance are homeless people in alleys? Homeless people in alleys “got there” through some conspiracy? But the people who need insurance are not, in any case, Republicans? And therefore it doesn’t matter because Republican control means that the House is now representing only Republicans? Unfiltered Trump is the real Trump.

Finally, an attack on the press and the courts, really the only two institutions in our democracy that stand in his way, was woven through the long press conference. These were the themes to which he returned in his answers to many unrelated questions. Most ominously, he announced yesterday that the press is “out of control” and we have to “find out what is going on,” which I took as a promise to use the tools available to the Federal government to investigate and then solve the problem. As I argued in my book Christian Nation, authoritarians usually announce in advance exactly what they will do and then do it. As the narrator says, looking back from a future where American democracy has been lost, “They said what they would do and we did not listen.  And then they did what they said they would do.”

No Room at the Inn

On Friday afternoon the man in charge, seeking to burnish his tough guy image, took his limo to the Pentagon and signed a bit of paper that upended the lives of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable people, betrayed America’s deepest values, and is almost certain to harm the country it is designed to protect.   

The weekend’s events again demonstrate that the man’s personality flaws and personal history – not politics – will be the primary driver of what emerges from this administration.

·      He did not first attempt to forge an immigration reform policy that could attract the support of Congress, the representatives of the people.  President Obama signed executive orders regarding immigration, but only after years of attempting to work with Congress to accomplish immigration reform.

·      He acted without the analysis, planning, or preparation that normally would have preceded a similarly consequential change in policy.   This has been his MO for years in business, where the frequent result was a moment of publicity for him, followed by chaos and failure.  

·      He took this action impulsively, without (or perhaps in disregard of) consideration of its many dangerous consequences.  Apart from the human tragedy, American business, together with the thousands of Americans who live, do business, and travel overseas, all will suffer.  And many experts believe that the jihadist narrative will be reinforced, domestic counter-terrorism efforts will be compromised, and America's global standing and leadership diminished.  

·      He left thousands of government employees, sworn to uphold the rule of law, struggling to understand what he had done, what it meant, and what they should do.   Again, this is his hallmark:  leave others to pick up the pieces.

·      By giving preference to Christian refugees and contemplating that immigrants would be chosen based on their “attitudes,” he demonstrated a typical populist/authoritarian indifference to the niceties of the constitution.

·      The arguments proffered in support of the order (i.e., that his order would have prevented 9/11, or that current vetting can be improved, or that immigrants are more prone to crime than others) all are false.  Welcome to the world where policy is made based on “alternative facts.”

·      The policy, like the man, is cruel and reckless.  Like all severe narcissists, he lacks empathy.   The consequences of this are on full display.

The innkeeper, indifferent to the suffering of a pregnant traveller about to give birth, relegates Mary and Joseph to the stable.   The Bible story celebrated each Christmas has inspired generations of believers and non-believers alike to the necessity of embracing -- and even sacrificing for -- the weak and vulnerable.    Instead, exit polls showed 80% of Christian evangelicals again chose to slam the door of the inn.   If He exists, Jesus weeps.

The First Week

I am breaking my silence regarding the man who now holds the office of President out of frustration at the lack of context and completeness in the media’s reporting and analysis.  (Sorry for the awkward elocutions, but I will not feed his lust for attention, even in the tiniest way, by writing the man’s name.)

Reporters seem completely befuddled by the two major “stories” of the first few days of the administration.   First the President falsely stated that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever, a statement that his people then had to defend with the Orwellian construct of calling it an “alternative fact.”    Then the President again falsely bragged that he won the popular vote, claiming the officially reported tally was off by more than three million due to “massive voter fraud.”  

And how do our professional journalists respond?  They behave is if the man is a normal head of government whose Tweets and statements deserve some kind of presumption of seriousness or validity, as opposed to the reality-TV blather, WWE trash talk, and narcissistic braggadocio that most of them are.  They dignify the gap between his assertions and reality as if there is an actual “issue” that needs to be covered.  And when they marshal the evidence that his statement is objectively untrue, the story reads as if it is a case of a conventional politician caught in a lie.

Consider the following.  If an alcoholic politician said he hadn’t had a drink in months, and you then discovered he drank shots at the local bar two days prior, could you run the story of the lie without mentioning the alcoholism?  Would you write how strange it was that the person told a lie so easily revealed, or leave unanswered the question of why in the world he would do it?  No, the only way to understand and report the story is that the politician did what alcoholics do, which is to lie about drinking.  

The man in question entered office suffering from a severe life long case of narcissistic personality disorder.  Investing narcissists with power is like putting an alcoholic in charge of a liquor store, it can only exacerbate the condition.  And endowing one of the planet’s most afflicted narcissists with the most power and attention that a human being can have, is guaranteed to create a monster.

Narcissists rarely behave as if truth is some static objective reality. Instead, the typical narcissist regards as “true” that which he says and thinks in the moment, that which makes him look good, and that which will get him what he wants. So for him, truth is not the way things are, but the way things ought to be given the overriding validity and importance of the narcissist’s narrative about himself (e.g., everything is transactional, I’m the most successful person ever, I’m always a winner). This deep conviction allows the narcissist to stray from the truth without conscience or shame, because a small thing like objective reality is nothing compared to the greater truth of the narcissist’s specialness narrative and the overwhelming imperative to fulfill his desires.  There is no place in his cognitive landscape for facts that contradict his narrative.  This has been completely clear throughout his life, it was clear during the campaign, and it is clear now.

So the man was being completely transparent and truthful when he said he would not accept the results of the election if he didn’t win.  He is a winner, and thus if he looses, the results must be rigged.  So why the surprise that he doesn’t accept the popular vote?  Of course he doesn’t.   He’s a winner, and a winner doesn’t lose by three million votes.   Asking for his evidence is foolishness.  You might as well ask a child why he wants a cookie.  He just knows that he does.   Similarly, as the greatest at whatever he does, of course his inauguration turnout was largest.  How could it not be? 

Those who now have the unenviable jobs of enabling his narcissism face an impossible task because his cognitive landscape can never be reconciled with the realities of the world.   What could Ms. Conway do other than accurately describe her boss’s world as one of “alternative facts.”  

You might want to review my October posting on Trump and the Truth.

And while I have your attention, please indulge four other points.

First, many of us were criticized during the campaign for characterizing his program as populist, nationalist, and protectionist.  It is fascinating that he now self-describes in exactly that way.   In his inaugural address he was clear that power was not passing between the parties, but from the politicians to the people.  He stated that our normal political culture has been replaced by a popular “movement,” a movement which of course bears his name, which has no coherent ideological complexion, and whose only organizing principle appears to be allegiance to him personally.   He doubled down on the fascist/nationalist slogan by stating that there will be “only” “America First” which will be the basis for “every decision.”  And, in another assertion contradicted by the experience of history, he stated that protectionism will lead to “great prosperity and strength,” as opposed to the mutually impoverishing “beggar thy neighbor” which inevitably results.   So the media now has no possible excuse for failing to explain in every instance what populism, nationalism, and protectionism are and where they inevitably lead.  (Although he didn’t self-describe as an authoritarian, his administration’s attempts to stifle and control communication at all levels of the EPA and Department of Interior are early signs of an authoritarian tendency.)

Second, those of us who hoped that responsible Republicans might stand in his way, at least when their own core values are challenged, are instead seeing hypocritical accommodation that is nothing less than unpatriotic and morally despicable.   The man now President said in the course of a few days that (i) NATO is obsolete, (ii) he is indifferent as to whether the European Community breaks up, (iii) that he would trust equally America’s morally courageous friend Angela Merkel, and the thug that is our most dangerous enemy, Vladimir Putin, and (iv) that he planned to trade away the sanctions against Russia in return for reductions in their nuclear arsenal.  Just think if President Obama had taken any of those positions.  The entire right would have risen in righteous outrage and accused him of treason.   And now, though we know that most of them were privately appalled, almost all of them stayed silent.   (History will be kind to the few, such as  John McCain, who have had the courage to speak up.)

In the mean time, Europeans were flabbergasted.   Press around the world correctly described these remarks as offensive, absurd, ludicrous, ignorant, incoherent, confused, and mystifying.  In the U.S., they were reported largely without comment for a single news cycle.  If the journalism profession does not get its act together and rise to this extraordinary challenge, the man will get away with it all.   The fact is that the incumbent U.S. president’s views on foreign policy are no better informed than those of any other reality TV star who does not read books or know history.   It is outrageous that he should be permitted by those around him to continue to make these sorts of ill considered off the cuff statements, which render the orderly conduct of U.S. foreign policy impossible.  I predict that if he continues this practice, Rex Tillerson will not last the year. 

Third, he has predictably continued as President his business MO which consisted of a lust for splashy launches at which he would take center stage, brag and promise the thing or event would be the greatest, and then pay no attention to follow-through or substance.  It didn’t matter if Trump Vodka (or university or shuttle or mortgages or magazine or water) crashed and burned, each remains in his mental world of “alternative facts” “one of the most successful launches ever in the history of this business.”   If he liked dramatic entrances in the lobby of Trump Tower to the applause of B list celebrities, he loves sitting alone at the paperless bookless desk in the oval office, the white guys in suits clustered around at a respectful distance, signing and brandishing executive orders (with a signature that a former Secret Service handwriting expert explains is extraordinarily devoid of curves, revealing that the writer is an extreme example of humans who lack empathy and crave power, prestige and admiration).  But here’s the thing:  most of these executive orders are pure political theater with no legal effect.  I don’t mean to underestimate the harm he is doing and can do, but actual implementation of many of the policies expressed in these orders requires concerted effort and follow-through, not to mention Congressional action.   The man seems in the grip of the illusion that he can simply sign “orders” to make things happen.  The constitution, rule of law, and objective reality (as in Mexico paying, sorry, reimbursing us, for The Wall) get in the way.

Finally, in the search for a silver lining, I had indulged the hope that the man’s lack of ideological or political conviction might mean that the administration’s actual policies would bounce idiosyncratically between right and left.  His early interest in a large federal infrastructure program signaled that his agenda might not tow the right wing line.  This hope has been dashed.   The actions to date are closely aligned with the agenda of the alt-right/far right.  This now seems inevitable, because he is surrounded by alt-right/far right advisors, who doubtless are learning quickly that the way to interest him in a policy is not to describe its merits or politics in conventional terms, but to describe how strong and good it will make him look, and to package it with an opportunity for an event or signing.   As a result, we are suffering the perfect storm.  We are getting the same undiluted far right agenda that we would have had with Ted Cruz in the White House, and at the same time, are suffering all the risks that arise from giving power to a sneering ignorant self-obsessed populist.    The only bright side:  we can impeach the man and take Pence, because we’d have the same right wing agenda, but at least the nuclear button would not be controlled by an impulsive bully.

*    *    *

I want to acknowledge to readers of Getting to Green that, no matter how predictable, it is hard not to feel shock, horror, and grief as scientists are muzzled, the Orwellian counter-truth of climate denialism becomes the official policy of the U.S. government, and the stewardship of the agency charged with protecting the environment is handed over to someone sworn to cripple or destroy it.   But the truth is that the same things would have been done by almost all of his GOP primary competitors.   The “day one” reversal of course on Keystone, the Clean Power Plan, and the Paris Agreement demonstrate the thesis of Getting to Green: if the green agenda has no bipartisan support, then even the few federal “victories” achieved by the movement are illusory because they simply will be reversed when the other side takes power.   Making policy changes that stick requires changing the politics of the environment. 

When Trumpism, which stands for nothing other than gratification of the man’s narcissistic needs, collapses in chaos and the betrayal of those who pinned their hopes on a delusion, someone is going to have to reconstruct a center-right party.  Those rebuilding a GOP that can be competitive in the 21st century would be wise to move to the center on green issues, and anyone who cares about the green agenda will work to help this happen.  

In the mean time, my advice is the following:  (i) double-down on your environmental and conservation work at the local and state level; even in relation to climate, the collective impact of that work, together with similar efforts by countries around the world, can make a real difference; (ii) if you are in business, become a loud voice within your organization for sustainability, insist that climate risks be analyzed and quantified, and align your business and investments accordingly; and (iii) make politics a personal priority and become more politically active than you ever have been (think like you’re 20 and its 1970 and unless you stop the war, you’ll be sent to Vietnam to die – that kind of politically active).  


Cry, the beloved country

The posting I had drafted on the assumption of a Trump loss began, “We have dodged a bullet.”   Instead, the bullet hit its mark, fired by one-half of our almost perfectly divided country.

This series of blogs was motivated by my strong sense that a Brexit-like revolt was in the making, invisible to the polls, unseen by the pundits, and condescendingly dismissed by the establishment. I wrote that only complacency could open the door for a demagogue in 21st century America, and that is exactly what happened. Millions of Americans of all stripes dithered about whether they trusted Hillary Clinton instead of mobilizing to stop a dangerous demagogue from assuming power.

My basic argument was that Trump’s unprecedented combination of unpreparedness and demagogic populism was a threat that should transcend our normal partisan divisions. It should have, but it didn’t. Instead, the country doubled down on its recent politics where the animating force is angry antipathy directed toward the other team rather than positive ideological conviction or a rational consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates.   It turned out, among other surprises, that Christian “values voters” are prepared to overlook values and character; that “movement conservative” voters, who previously had professed dedication to ideological purity, were prepared to support a candidate totally lacking in political ideology; and that white men with well-paying union jobs would embrace a union-busting, “right to work” billionaire. It turned out that what mattered more were the lies and half-truths that reverberate around the Internet, viruses that infected many good Americans with an unreasoning furious conviction that the other team must be defeated.

George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” America suffers from problems of historic proportions.   Even before Trump, our political culture had collapsed into a hyper-partisanship not seen since the Civil War. The percentage of the population that has lost faith in our government and public institutions is at an all-time high. We are not educating our citizens to the minimum level required to sustain a democracy. The vigorous press we have enjoyed since our founding has withered and the very notion of professional journalism has been undermined, replaced by faith in the un-intermediated drivel bouncing around the web. We have a popular culture that is clueless about history, obsessed with celebrity, addicted to the superficial, bereft of critical thinking, disdainful of learning and expertise, and ignorant of basic civics. And Americans are now segregated, both geographically and in the virtual world, into echo-chambers of shared belief, where falsehoods and pernicious narratives spread at the speed of the web, making us vulnerable to manipulation by advertisers and demagogues alike. We cannot expect better in our politics and government until and unless these underlying conditions are addressed.

The lurid outrageousness of Trump’s campaign fed the media’s appetite for politics as entertainment, and gave him a free platform from which to instill a poisonous sense of angry victimhood in those fearful of demographic change and globalization. It was a campaign that gave voice to the nativism, prejudice, and misogyny that remain in the hearts of some of our fellow citizens, and that shamefully legitimized the conspiracies and stupidities that have long been confined to the fringes of our political life. The question now is whether the themes of his campaign also will be the themes of his government. We can hope they won’t, and Republicans in the administration and Congress will have a special responsibility to ensure that the worst of his ideas are abandoned (banning Muslims, killing terrorist families, mass deportation, etc.). But precedent does not provide cause for optimism. Populists usually try to do the things they said they would do.

I recommend to all of you the recent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, titled What is Populism? Professor Müller’s study of historical and contemporary populist regimes around the world suggests that we can expect the following when any populist attains power:

·      The populist demagogue in power continues to polarize the population and escalates his rhetoric to suggest that every political debate is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation between “the people” and their opponents.

·      The populist remains in permanent campaign mode, attempting to maintain almost constant direct communication with “the people.”

·      The populist claims moral authority derived from “the people” which justifies the muzzling of the press and the erosion of civil liberties, a type of “discriminatory legalism” which Professor Müller describes as “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

·      Populists in government are unable to actually implement many of their absurd promises, so they blame their failures on vast conspiracies by their opponents. 

·      Eventually and inevitably, even their most ardent supporters understand that they have been betrayed by a con man. 

Taken together, the populist gives us an “illiberal democracy,” meaning a condition just short of full-on authoritarianism. “Illiberal democracy” is characterized by a gradual usurpation of state institutions by the populist and his “movement,” on the basis that the institutions are corrupt tools of the establishment, and that constitutional limits on his power are fundamentally undemocratic because they oppose the will of the people. All of us have two choices:  we can understand the risk to constitutional democracy now or we can face it later once the damage has been done. We can battle to contain its earliest outbreaks; or we can come to our senses years from now and join the much harder fight then. The transition from a constitutional democracy to an “illiberal democracy” is gradual. Many will be inclined to overlook or forgive the first steps taken by Mr. Trump. Republicans have a special moral obligation to oppose their man when he attempts to transcend the limits of the law and the constitution, not to mention the bounds of decency.

As tempting as it is, I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress does not repeat Mitch McConnell’s immoral and un-American error of announcing, when President Obama first assumed the presidency, that the entire GOP would be mobilized to oppose everything that emerged from the White House. Instead, Democrats should take their clue from Secretary Clinton, who graciously told the country – including the man who unforgivably said he would accept the election results only if he won -- that the people had spoken, we must all respect the result, and moreover, that we owe him “an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would be saying if, like Hillary, he had won the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College? Resisting the urge to descend to Mr. Trump’s level will be the hardest but most important thing for the half of of the country that is appalled and terrified by his election.

This blog made the case against Mr. Trump based not on policy or ideology, but solely on the basis of his narcissistic personality disorder and the lessons that history teaches us about demagogic populism. Nonetheless, I cannot end the series without acknowledging my despair at what we face with Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, even if his proposals that are plainly illegal or impractical are blocked. Among other things, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be revoked, and the Paris Agreement on climate will collapse. Environmental regulation will be gutted. Cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers. With a doctrinaire conservative majority on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, civil rights, and separation of church and state all will be eroded with drastic consequences for those living in red states. Read my novel Christian Nation if you want to know what that will look like. State gerrymandering, voter suppression, and campaign finance laws will be approved by the Supreme Court, ensuring another generation of GOP competitiveness without the party having to move to the center. I won’t go on.

I would like to close by saying that American democracy is strong and will survive Mr. Trump. I cannot. It is frayed and very much still an experiment that could fail. I would like to say that civilization is enduring, but we have been reminded again that the forces of darkness churn just below the surface. All I can ask is that you not take refuge in despair, or allow yourselves the luxury of disengagement. History provides few clear lessons, but one of them is that individual conviction and action is what changes the world. We all must do what we can.

*   *   *

It is now time to resume work on my next book, a novel that explores the moral challenges of the most disruptive technology humanity has yet encountered, genetic engineering, which, by giving us the power to create and edit DNA, will allow us to hack evolution and shape the future of all living things on the planet. The book explores whether humanity is ready to wield this power.



Once to Every Man and Nation

My secondary school maintained the tradition of a Sunday evening “Sing” during which the whole student body gathered to belt out vigorous (if not exactly pious) renditions of Protestant America’s top hymns.   One of my favorites instructed us as follows:

Once to ev'ry man and nation

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth and falsehood,

For the good or evil side;

Some great cause, some great decision,

Off'ring each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever

'Twixt that darkness and that light.

I often wondered whether my life would present me, and the nation, with such a “great decision.”  And now here we are, squarely facing “bloom or blight.” 

I refer not to the choice between competing political parties, ideologies, or policies.    As much as their partisans may try to present these as a choice between good and evil, they are not.   And if you think that that the choice I am referring to a simply a choice between people, consider how many of us remember who the losing candidates were in Italy in 1924, Germany in 1932, or Venezuela in 1998.  Does history suggest, with the benefit of hindsight, that the elections that brought populist demagogues to power should be viewed simply as contests between competing policies or candidates?  No.  History teaches that the voters were called on to make a choice between the continuation of some sort of democracy, no matter how creaking, weak, or dysfunctional, and the dangerous illusions offered by a strongman.   From this perspective, Hillary, whatever her weaknesses and strengths, is nearly irrelevant.

As much as you may have doubts and worse about Hillary Clinton, her long time critic, conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, put it plainly: “Mrs. Clinton is not the apotheosis of evil.  She may be a corner-cutter and a liar, and she’ll surely appoint liberals to the Supreme Court.  But at least she’s not a sociopath.”  It may be the strangest endorsement ever given to a candidate for the presidency, but for the millions of Americans with significant doubts about both candidates, it is the answer.


Post script:  Early in this series of posts I warned against complacency.   It is a potentially fatal mistake to believe that Mr. Trump cannot win.   Movements in the polls in during the past week show him recovering ground in Nevada and Ohio, and gaining the lead in Florida.   And if the polls are wrong, the Brexit results suggest they are likely to be wrong in Mr. Trump’s favor.   If you are less scared of a Trump victory today than you were a month ago, I respectfully suggest you are not only in error, but actually raising the odds of a Trump victory.  This is because millions of Americans will be moved to vote at all, and to vote for Hillary, only if they feel there is a realistic chance that Mr. Trump could win.




Does Trump's tackiness matter?

I am revealing my age when I disclose that I can remember clearly my first flight on the Trump Shuttle.   Looking at the shiny new chrome seat belt buckles bearing the letter “T,” fake wood veneer paneling, and in the lavatories, faux marble sinks and fake gold fixtures, I remember thinking, “tacky.”   And since that time, the T-word emerges time and time again in appraisals of Mr. Trump.  The National Review has called Trump “tedious, tacky, and trite.”   Trump and his first wife Ivana were called by New York magazine “two of the tackiest people in the history of America.”  The New York Times called Celebrity Apprentice, “alluringly tacky.”  Trump’s Art of the Deal ghostwriter wrote of Trump’s “gaudy, tacky, gigantic obsessions.”  

Given all the seriously disturbing things we have learned about Mr. Trump, to examine his tackiness might seem to be a trivial, irrelevant distraction.   But so often we find that the small and seemingly superficial provide useful clues to things more profound.   So let’s ask the questions, what do people mean when they accuse Mr. Trump of being “tacky” and does it matter?

Having just spent an unsettling hour reviewing tweets and posts accusing other tweeters, brides, and celebrities of tackiness, I observed three distinct but related uses of the word.   Most often it refers to appearance and means that the thing appears flashy, garish, gaudy, loud, showy, and flamboyant.  It means that it lacks “style.”   This usage, often signaling nothing more than deviation from current fashion, strikes me as wholly subjective and thus not particularly relevant.

The second way “tacky” is used layers on an accusation that the thing also lacks quality -- a sense that the thing may appear flashy, but actually is cheap or “trashy.”   This one hits closer to home.  It suggests that one essential feature of tackiness is a misguided or failed attempt to portray quality or “class.”   It can be misguided in the sense that it gets it wrong (no, the people you are trying to impress do not consider it admirable to cover every conceivable object in gold leaf) or that it unwittingly reveals a delusional grandiosity (a Business Insider editorial reported “Donald Trump has the home-decorating taste of a third-world dictator.  This is not a coincidence.”).   And the attempt to promote the trashy as flashy often fails (e.g., the vodka may be in a gold bottle, but after one sip you know it’s garbage).  In this sense, Trump’s tackiness does matter, as it provides additional evidence of his indifference to integrity, propensity for manipulation, gross superficiality, and habitual attempts, in both business and politics, to peddle illusions.

But I think the explosion in the use of the T-word with respect to Mr. Trump is mainly due to its third sense:  “tacky” behavior is crass, impolite, embarrassing, obnoxious, vulgar, or crude.  While this type of behavior by Mr. Trump is authentic (in the sense that it reflects his personality), it also in part may be a deliberate tactic.  Mr. Trump is an avid fan of (and occasional participant and character in) Vince McMahon’s Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (formerly WWF), which features extreme vulgarity, fake spectacle, and overall outrageousness.   It is an in-your-face explosion of tackiness on steroids.   WWE’s audience shares the demographics of Trump’s most ardent supporters, and some have suggested that Trump has consciously modeled his campaign on the WWE recipe of character names (Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, etc.), insults, feuds, and conspiratorial fantasy.

In the realm of entertainment, the WWE formula has been a huge success.  Americans sit fascinated week after week as these appalling behaviors play out on their screens.  Similarly, no matter how appalled we may be by what we are seeing, all of us have been drawn into the lurid spectacle of Trump’s campaign, aided by the media’s giddy embrace of politics as entertainment.   But I believe that at some level, most Americans understand that Mr. Trump is as tacky as the most outrageous character on WWE, Jersey Shore, or Bridalplasty.  And most of them have the common sense to know that while extreme tackiness may make for entertaining “reality” TV, it signals a stew of personality defects that belongs nowhere near the oval office.



The narcissist in office

            “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”

                        Thomas Merton


And indeed, Donald Trump strikes us as strangely artificial, a cartoonish character, a shallow TV sketch of bombastic braggadocio lacking the depth and complexity of a real person.   But we must remind ourselves that if he is elected, the man in the White House will be very real.   In the last post we explored how his narcissism is at the root of who Donald Trump is.  In this post, I argue that his narcissism tells us more than anything else about the sort of president he would be.

The British doctor David Owen, who also served as Foreign Secretary of the UK, has studied narcissism in politicians and coined the term “hubris syndrome.”  Dr. Owen’s research has identified five behaviors we can expect when we elect a narcissist:

·      Disproportionate concern with image, and predisposition to act in a way that enhances their image as opposed to solving problems.  The Art of the Deal ghostwriter, keeping a contemporaneous journal as he interacted with Trump almost daily during the mid-1980s, observed that Trump seems to be driven entirely by a “compulsive” need for public attention.  There is no reason to think this would change.  A Trump presidency would be all about Trump, not the country or even the people who supported him.  Like his new business ventures, the emphasis would be on spectacular announcements with little follow-through or attempt to sustain any particular policy initiative.

·      Tendency to conflate their own interests with those of the country.  The narcissist knows only his own needs, and often redefines the needs of others to fit his purposes.  When he acts to lower his own taxes, increase his own wealth, punish his enemies, stifle his critics, or just generate the adulation on which he thrives, he will be deeply convinced he is acting in the public interest.   

·      Excessive confidence in their own judgment and contempt for the advice and views of others; an incurious nature.  The narcissist can be crippled by his sense of superiority and arrogance, resulting in a gross overestimation of his own abilities (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me”).   As he has told us, he plans to take advice from “myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  Also, he is reported from multiple sources to be supremely incurious about anything other than himself.  Thus as president he would most likely exist in a bubble of sycophants and yes-men, who validate his idiosyncratic and ill-informed decisions.   He would be at near-constant war with the press and all others who challenge his decisions and the misinformation on which they are based.

 ·      Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness.  This is where the narcissist in office can cause the greatest damage, and why so many in the foreign policy community and military say they dread Mr. Trump acquiring actual power.   Why such fear?  According to psychology professor Dan McAdams, angry narcissists act impulsively and “take high-stakes risks.”  When a businessman does that, it leads to repeated bankruptcy and a tattered reputation.  But when a U.S. president acts impulsively and takes high-stakes risks, the whole world trembles.  Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis explains the particular link between narcissism and a propensity for violence:  The narcissist is easily threatened when reality thwarts his desires or contradicts his narrative, and in reaction to these threats often lashes out violently.   Haidt points out that when violent emotion is leavened by a belief (usually false) that the violence is a means to a moral end (for the narcissist, that means satisfaction of his desires), you end up with war and atrocity.

·      All of the above leading, at best, to hubristic incompetence(and, at worst, to disaster).   In the case of Trump, it is unlikely that hubristic incompetence would the limit of his damage as president.  Why expect the worst?  When things go badly for the narcissist they are, explains one of the main students of contemporary narcissism, “quick to resort to anger, aggression, despair, or paranoia.”  Anger, aggression, despair, and paranoia are not qualities that we want in the human being with his finger on the nuclear button.

Dr. Owen’s list is only a generic catalog of the types of behaviors you can expect from a narcissistic politician.   I am saying nothing here about the likely consequences of Mr. Trump’s other personality defects or of his strange beliefs and political views, not to mention the effects on the American spirit of four years of vulgar eruptions and braggadocios bloviations.   But there is one additional consequence of his narcissism that we must consider.

As much as Americans love freedom and individual choice, a strong sense of being in it together is a strain that runs throughout our history.   As much as we may identify as Texans or New Yorkers, or conservatives or progressives, our identity as Americans has been stronger.  That sense of togetherness has been fracturing for decades, and a Trump presidency could prove the last straw.   British philosopher Simon Blackburn explains that “as we have seen again and again, narcissism, vanity, and the arrogance that goes with them are the great enemies of togetherness.  The narcissist set apart, the pouting figure on the catwalk, the plutocrat eaten with envy of others yet more plutocratic, are each of them prey to the worms that destroy ‘we’ in favor of ‘I.’” 

Trump’s America would be an America of “I alone.”  Since Christopher Lasch alerted us to the Culture of Narcissism in 1979, our descent into the atomized abyss of the selfie has accelerated, with devastating effect on our political culture.   Were Trump to become president, the resulting divisions between those who fall in line behind the rule of “I” and those who struggle to protect democracy and decency, would make our previous partisan divides and dysfunctions seem trivial. 

So let us hope (or pray, if you are religiously inclined) that the Book of Proverbs (16:18) has made the right call regarding the results on November 8:  “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”


Who is Donald Trump?

Following each disturbing incident, Trump’s apologists tell us “that’s not who he is.”  But his long campaign, and a long career in the public spotlight, tell us exactly who is is.   

In 1996, a journalist (for Playboy, not surprisingly) who spent the weekend as Mr. Trump’s houseguest wrote of his impression of Trump the man:  “Trump struck me as adolescent, hilariously ostentatious, arbitrary, unkind, profane, dishonest, loudly opinionated, and consistently wrong.  He remains the most vain man I have ever met. And he was trying to make a good impression.”  This strikes me as the most concise description of Trump the man that I have read, as perfectly calibrated today as when those words were written in 1996.   Let’s deconstruct the elements:

·      Adolescent.  Arrested development is an essential feature of narcissistic personality disorder.  It is no wonder that so many people watching him in action say he reminds them of the petulant bully in high school.  In last night’s debate, he showed us that his argument style is stuck at grade school recess level (“You’re ugly.”  “No, you’re ugly.”).  When Mrs. Clinton commented that President Putin would “rather have a puppet as president of the United States” he responded:  “No puppet, no puppet.  You’re the puppet.”

·      Hilariously ostentatious.  Have a look online at pictures of Trump’s Fifth Avenue penthouse, with gilded everything and ridiculous thrones for “the King.” 

·      Arbitrary.  The word means “based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.”  This precisely describes his fluid views, incoherent policies, and lack of any grounding ideological conviction.

·      Unkind.  The narcissist lacks empathy.   He is incapable of genuine kindness and lacks respect for others, who he values only as means for satisfying some desire.  This lack of empathy in turn permits . . .

·      Profane.  You’ve seen the video.  His speech is crude and vulgar in public, and now we know it’s worse in private.  The male narcissist, like Trump, typically has contempt for women while at the same time claiming to idealize them.

·      Dishonest.  As I argued in Trump and the truth, he is not so much a conscious liar as someone who regards as true the things that ought to be true in order to facilitate his desires or comply with his narrative of self.  His disregard for reality is a crippling disability arising from his narcissistic disorder.

·      Loudly opinionated.   The narcissist is generally hostile to authority and expertise, regarding his own opinion as superior.   In addition, he rarely is able to retreat from a view once expressed, which makes him . . .

·      Consistently wrong.   When you say whatever pops into your head and can rarely retreat from an opinion once expressed, you are consistently wrong.    Consistently, not occasionally.  PolitiFact rated 72% of Trump’s public remarks about factual circumstances as false.   And it is all rooted in . . .

·      Most vain man I have ever met.  I hope you read the last post in which I let Mr. Trump speak for himself.  It’s hard not to reach the same conclusion regarding vanity.   But how vain, really?  Professor of psychology Dan McAdams describes following: “When, in the summer of 1999, he stood up to offer remarks at his father’s funeral, Trump spoke mainly about himself.  It was the toughest day of his own life, Trump began. He went on to talk about Fred Trump’s greatest achievement: raising a brilliant and renowned son. . . . Where others spoke of their memories of Fred Trump, [Donald] spoke of Fred Trump’s endorsement.”

The people who best understand how personality disorders translate into sociopathic behavior are alarmed.  More than 2200 mental health professionals, both practicing and academic psychiatrists and psychologists have signed an on-line manifesto.  They are united by the conviction that Mr. Trump suffers from an extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder.   Because professional ethics do not allow psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose metal health disorders in persons not their patients, the manifesto deals with Trump’s “public persona” and what they call “Trumpism.”  These thousands of mental health professionals say that Trump has “fostered a cult of the Strong Man” who, among other things:

       Appeals to fear and anger

       Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him

       Reinvents history and has little concern for truth

       Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence

       Sees no need for rational persuasion

       Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them

       Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient, and

       Incites and excuses public violence by supporters.

While Trump is a proto-typical narcissist, this is not his only personality defect.  For example, noting his inability to stop speaking or tweeting, chronic inability to pay attention (people spending time with him report he fidgets “like a kindergartner who cannot sit still”), and shockingly deficient impulse control, others have diagnosed Trump as also having a severe case of ADHD.  Professor McAdams, writing in The Atlantic, concluded, “Trump’s personality is certainly extreme by any standard.” 

If ordinary people, even on casual acquaintance, easily perceive Mr. Trump as vain, immature, pompous, arbitrary, vulgar, dishonest, and uninformed, then how do we explain the dedication and enthusiasm of his core supporters?  Part of it may be explained by the resonance of his nativist populist message.   But this kind of adulation by the mob also is a common response to the narcissist, regardless of his message.   One of the essential features of narcissism is that the narcissist simultaneously attracts and repels us.  Professor Elizabeth Lunbeck framed the puzzle as follows:  “Why is it that we are susceptible to narcissists’ charm even as we suffer their contempt?”  Part of the answer is our attraction to what the Professor called their infectious, intoxicating self-confidence.  And recent research, as reported in Psychology Today and Scientific American, suggests we often find selfish narcissistic jerks to be attractive: “The narcissist may initially ‘be hard to resist’ . . . seduc[ing] his victims into intoxicating submission . . . .” 

But here is something in which we can take comfort.  The same research concludes:  “we can find consolation in the certainty that over time their appeal will fade.”   Professor Lunbeck reminds us that, in the myth, Narcissus dies of what Francis Bacon called “rapturous admiration of himself.”  Sociopathic narcissism is fatal.   It never, ever, ends well for the narcissist. 

Note on last night’s debate:  This morning’s headline is Trump’s repeated refusal at the debate to say he will accept the results of the election.  We’ve known this for a week.  Six days ago, in my post A line crossed, I wrote:  “He has moved from nascent demagogue and proto-fascist, to a full-blown enemy of constitutional democracy.   He now tells his supporters that the ‘system is rigged,’ and if he loses it means the election will have been ‘stolen.’  This is an explicit and unprecedented repudiation of our democracy and its institutions.  . . .  I cannot see how he could possibly take the Presidential oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’   Like all fascist demagogues, he rejects our laws and institutions, and offers in their place ‘I alone.’”

This is one of those moments when principle must prevail over expedience.   History will judge harshly those who accommodate Trump’s repudiation of our electoral system.   If the Republican Party does not contradict Trump within 24 hours, its very legitimacy will be at risk.   They and to some extent the rest of us consistently have accommodated Trump’s repudiation of the norms of our political culture.   We slid with him down a slippery slope, with the inevitable result. 

One more thing.  While there is no excuse for what he has done, there is an explanation.   If you believe as I do that his personality defects are the main drivers of his behavior, then it was predictable, even inevitable.  His core narrative is that he is a winner and his enemies are losers.  Some losses simply can be denied (like his many business failures, where he generally just carries on claiming they were in fact a success).  But when the loss cannot be denied (such as not receiving the Emmy or losing the election), the only possible way to reconcile the fact of loss with the deeper truth of his core “winner” narrative is to claim that the contest was rigged.    So of course he couldn’t say that he would accept the election result as fair and honest.  If he loses on November 8 he will go to his grave believing that the election was unfair, and that a vast conspiracy of powerful forces dishonestly conspired to rob him of the victory that otherwise would have been his.   This is who Donald Trump is.