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).  


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.


In his own words

For to all who swell with proud thoughts there is a noisiness in their speech . . . unsteadiness in their conduct . . . rancor in their reply.  Their mind is ever strong in inflicting, weak in enduring . . .”

St. Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job (c. 578-595 AD)


Christian thinkers have long recognized that all the sins are rooted in pride.  I believe that most of Mr. Trump’s defects are rooted in his narcissism. Let’s allow Mr. Trump to speak for himself:

“Nobody’s ever been more successful than me.” (Interview with the Des Moines Register)

“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  (on who his advisers are, March 16, 2016, on MSNBC)

“My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.” (Twitter)

“[T]here’s nobody like me.  Nobody.” (his book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again)

On Islamic terrorism: “I alone can solve.” (Twitter)

On America’s descent from “greatness:”  “I alone can fix it.”  (RNC acceptance speech)

I am “running the biggest real-estate empire in the world.”  (Weekly Standard, 1999)

  “Nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.”    (Interview with AP, May 2016)

“I’m the king of Palm Beach.”  (Trump Nation, 2005)

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” (November 2015)

“I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” (June 2015)

“We’re on the cover of every newspaper, every magazine.  Time magazine many times.  I just learned they’re doing yet another cover on Trump – I love that.  You know, Time magazine’s a good magazine.  You grow up reading Time magazine – who ever thought you’d be on the cover of Time magazine?   Especially so much?”  (The New Yorker, 7/11-18/16)

During an MSNBC interview, Trump responded to questions about bankruptcies by saying he was not involved with these companies.  Michael Isikoff asked Trump what exactly he was paid for if he “had nothing to do with running the company.”  And Trump replied to that: “Excuse me . . . Because of my genius. OK?”

“My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”  (New York Post, 2011)

“Isn’t he handsome?” (holding up a picture of himself, Reform Party meeting, 1999)

“Love him or hate him, Trump is a man who is certain about what he wants and sets out to get it, no holds barred. Women find his power almost as much of a turn-on as his money.” (yes, this is Trump speaking about himself in the third person, Kluger, The Narcissist Next Door)

“I will be so good at the military your head will spin.” (Hugh Hewitt Show, 2015)

“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” (Good Morning America, 2011)

“I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.” (NY Times, 1999)

When psychologists write about those afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder, they point to a narrative of self that is remarkably consistent across time, and serves as the main tool used by the narcissist to navigate the world.  You’ve just read Mr. Trump’s narrative, spoken across the years in his own words.   His most distinctive characteristic is a dangerously inflated ego, consistently revealed by extraordinary and arrogant grandiosity.

Please consider again what you’ve just read.  Healthy people do not speak like this. Healthy people do not believe such things about themselves.

Think about the events of the past week, and marvel at the aptness of St. Gregory’s 1400-year-old prediction of the consequences of Mr. Trump’s grossly inflated pride: 

·      noisiness in speech

·      unsteadiness in conduct

·      rancor in their reply

·      strong in inflicting (i.e., insulting others)

·      weak in enduring (i.e., dealing with criticism).

The next couple of posts will deconstruct the narcissistic personality and the dangers it presents when invested with political power.