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).  


Trump and the Truth

No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.

            Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” (1967)

I think the pundits are missing the essential point when they simply call Trump a liar.

First of all, it is hardly a disqualifying attribute. We all are liars. Social life is lubricated by lies (“Thank you, Aunt Martha, it’s a beautiful sweater, I love it.”). Most politicians twist and bend the truth to their purpose. Many have been accomplished liars and the accepted script for contemporary political life calls for pretty constant fib and spin, where the question is how far the politician can depart from the “whole truth” without getting into too much trouble (the Clintons being masters of this). And needless to say many 20th century presidents, including those generally considered a success (FDR, JFK, etc.), lied about all sorts of things.

So what is it about Trump and the truth that is different?

Narcissists rarely behave as if truth is some static objective reality. Instead, the typical narcissist regards as “true” (in the sense of “valid”) 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 Trump, 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., I’m the most successful person ever, I’m a winner, I alone can solve our problems). Truth is what it needs to be to get him what he wants. 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 and the overwhelming imperative to fulfill his desires. As a result, narcissists tend to be relaxed and brilliant liars.  

This typical narcissistic trait is confirmed by those closest to Trump. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Art of the Deal, observed that lying seemed to be “second nature” to Trump. He reported, “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true. . . . He has a complete lack of conscience about it.” When confronted with opposing facts, Schwartz said that Trump would double down, repeat himself, and grow belligerent. Schwartz observed this in the mid-1980s and nothing has changed. All of us have observed this pattern repeatedly over the course of the campaign. (See, for example, the transcript of Trump’s radio interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who helpfully suggested that perhaps his Obama-as-founder-of-ISIS remarks were metaphorical. “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump replied.  “But . . . he’s trying to kill them,” the host pushed back. “I don’t care.  He was the founder.”)

This core narcissistic trait explains how Trump is able repeatedly to assert the manifestly untrue with enormous conviction and without any of the ticks or signs of embarrassment the rest of us exhibit when lying. It explains how he was able to drift into the dark waters of the birther crackpots and remain impervious to mountains of contrary evidence. The Economist called him “the leading exponent of ‘post-truth’ politics – a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.”  

In the case of ordinary politicians in a democracy, the lie is a mainly defensive tool, used only occasionally to hide or deny conduct or circumstances that would be embarrassing or inexpedient. But without conscience or even an underlying preference for objective truth, Trump’s rhetoric drifts constantly between the real and the fictional. When Politico reporters fact-checked 4.6 hours of Trump speeches and press conferences, they found more than five dozen untrue statements, or one every five minutes.

So, crippled by a real disability in relation to truth telling, why has Trump prospered? The great chronicler of 20th century authoritarianism, Hannah Arendt, would not be surprised: “Since the liar is free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations, of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth teller [emphasis added].” She also observed that in a democracy (i.e., before belief in lies is enforced by an authoritarian state), “deception without self-deception is well-nigh impossible” (i.e., for the liar to succeed, his audiences need to embrace the lies voluntarily). If you doubt the truth of Arendt’s observations, watch and listen to the New York Time’s video compilation of Trump rally audiences here.

So does Trump’s unique disdain for the value of objective truth matter? The answer is yes, it matters a lot. This is because respect for objective truth, and a broad social agreement that politicians and policies can and should be judged by how far they stray from it, is one of our prime defenses against authoritarianism (either of the right or of the left). Hannah Arendt pointed out that in the 20th century authoritarians were more hostile to facts that were inconsistent with their core narratives than they were to opposing political opinions. And one of the turning points on the road to authoritarianism was when objective reality (e.g., Obama’s birthplace or the greenhouse effect) was undermined to become a mere matter of political opinion. So yes, politicians have always lied. But a generalized disdain for objective reality in favor of the “greater truth” of the egomaniacal strongman is the core of what Tom Friedman called “the moral and civic cancer that Trump has [been] injecting into the body politic.”