Pundits often attempt to explain the president’s actions and motivations. I catalogued many Trump actions, tweets and comments in a framework based on my characterization of him. Almost everything he does can be explained if viewed through this framework. Simply, the framework describes the president as a
- whose only goal is his personal brand management.
Thin-skinned – This is the inability to accept criticism whether constructive or not. It results in his quick explosion of negative comments frequently with personal attacks on the critic and rarely with any defense of the issue. This is a major (but not the only) motivation for many of his ad hominem attacks. Another element of being thin-skinned is insecurity.
Narcissistic – Wikipedia has a very good description of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder“. I recommend you look at the nine main descriptors and see who comes to mind. Briefly, it includes a feeling of entitlement, need for and expectation of adulation and lack of empathy. Narcissism motivates his need for rallies. He needs to see his supporters cheering for him. Narcissism also explains why he is unable to understand how others may think of him. If they can’t see him the way he is, in his own mind, then they must be awful people. He hates the press because they report others’ negative comments towards him.
Bully – Think about the sixth grader who tries to take the little kid’s lunch, hits him if he refuses and kicks him he refuses successfully. The bully is vindictive. Bullies are particularly effective at getting what they want when they are also in positions of power. His bullying tendencies are not motivating as much as they are tools for protecting his thin skin or his brand.
Personal brand manager – The brand is the Trump personal brand. This characteristic is closely related to narcissism and maybe a psychologist could show they are the same. Maybe what I call brand management is just another form of needing to look good to your fans all the time. It certainly is describing facts to your advantages. It is unfortunate that the brand he is so concerned about isn’t the United States brand.
No presidential candidate should have more than a smattering of any of those characteristics. 45 is defined by them and they are his primary, maybe his only motivators.
He is still harping on the Russian investigation because he sees it as a threat to the reality of his victory. It isn’t. But his need to push any such possibility away aggressively shows how fearful he is that it might be right! Just this month he felt the need to emphasize that he won the election because he was a better candidate. He is the eleventh president I remember in my lifetime and the only one who was still trying to convince someone he won six months after his inauguration.
I believe the hurt he feels when he is criticized is a major contributor to the frequent personal attacks he inflicts on individual members of the press, political opponents and anyone else who criticizes him. This becomes dangerous when he feels like his manhood is questioned by, say, the erratic leader of a hostile nuclear power and they go all escallatio on each other. Or when it causes him to diminish important institutions like the press, the Department of Justice, the courts and others. In combination with his narcissism, being thin-skinned is very disturbing. The combination makes it impossible for him to understand any constructive criticism and therefore for him to learn anything.
Really. Look at the nine characteristics of the medical description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He often talks in superlatives. “The greatest increase in jobs . . .”, “the largest inaugural crowd . . .”, “most presidential since Lincoln . . .”. Everything he says or does is the best (he has the best words). This characteristic includes lack of empathy because the world revolves around him. No one else is very important so all events are judged based on how they affect him or his image. Hence, we see late responses to moral outrages such as the chaos in Charlottesville. I’m sure it didn’t occur to him that he should respond because he saw nothing that would reflect on him. He wasn’t even there! When it became clear that the country expects its president to react, he reacted badly. When he was belatedly told to fix that, he was offended by not being credited for winning another situation. Finally, in a fit of thin-skinned narcissistic reaction to a smudge on his brand, he lashed out in bullying fashion against the media and everyone who had criticized him to begin with.
He believes that whatever he says is true. So when, after Charlottesville, he said he delayed until he “knew the facts”, he believed that. He has the loosest relationship with the truth of any politician in history. Yet, his narcissism prevents him from understanding that. He can’t be wrong because “he is the greatest”! (He probably also thinks he is the first to use that line too even though Muhammad Ali began using it when he was still Cassius Clay!)
That brings up the biggest problem with being a narcissist. You think you are infallible, that if you say it, it is true, and that criticism is equivalent to assault. It follows that your experienced advisors, if you have any, won’t have much consistent effect on policy. We saw a glimpse of that with the recent episodes with North Korea and Charlottesville. Narcissism motivates him to stay the course right or wrong and never recognize the difference. His narcissistic lack of empathy also prevents him from understanding the sensitivities of other nations and Americans who are not his supporters. It argues that he will never work on unifying the country because we should all rally around his greatness without his needing to do anything different.
Khizr Khan, Comey, Sessions, McConnell, all the Republican presidential candidates, members of the Manufacturing Council and the Strategic and Policy after they disbanded themselves and many others are recipients of the bullying pulpit’s venom. The bully wants his way in all things, cannot compromise and uses disproportionate and unnecessary force to get his way. No rules. This, along with the narcissistic tendency to believe yourself always right leads to blaming others for any failures. Look at the blame dumped on the Senate for the health care bill’s failure. Many have argued that a more engaged president who changed his position less would have been helpful in getting it passed.
And a bully never takes the blame. Nothing is Trump’s fault. When suggestions that a military operation on his watch may have been less than fully successful, he promptly blamed his generals even though it was conceded to have been mostly a success.
These are deliberate actions as opposed to the knee-jerk reactions that drive bullying, narcissism and thin skin. This is really how he made the money he didn’t inherit. He is a promoter much more than a builder and a self-promoter at that. This characteristic explains how he flip-flops on issues like whether federal jobs numbers are believable or not. The answer is that it depends on whether they are good for his brand or not. His ability to find shiny objects to distract attention is also part of this phenomenon. It’s always useful to keep attention away from any potential defects in the brand. Gives you a chance to fix them or more likely to let people forget. That’s why it’s always two weeks until Trump will release his taxes, release his budget, release his tax program, . . . Our attention span is shorter than that especially with the amount of distraction Trump is capable of creating.
This combination of ingredients is frightening to me. It describes a person who is guided by no principle other than what he wants at the moment and all of that is directed at what makes him look good, at least to his target audiences. The targets of course are first himself and second anyone who will praise him. So what? So this makes him divisive. He can appeal only to his target audience and threaten, bully or ignore the rest. This is not presidential behavior. We are seeing the results and the division escalating in the wake of Charlottesville.
It is also very dangerous for the country. Nations fail when faith in their main institutions fail. Trump is shaking our confidence in the presidency. Congress has spent the past 30 years weakening our trust in them. The president is pouring kerosene on that fire. The president has cast aspersions on the courts and on the ability of judges (or anyone else) to respect the facts. He believes others would act the same way he would which is why he was afraid of and insulted Judge Curiel. Members of Congress have already taken to calling the sitting president a liar during the State of the Union address. Pretty much the only institution with on-going support in the US is the military.
If the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the NSC or other groups lose faith in the capability of the president to govern the country, what happens in an emergency? Do they follow orders they think may be crazy? Do they quit? Do they refuse? That’s what we call a true constitutional crisis. Does the army revolt? Does the navy stay loyal? Are there splits within each service? Let that image sink in for a while.
Any theory ought to have some predictive power. Using this framework, I predict:
- Another Trump rally to be scheduled before the end of August to help him regain his adoring crowds.
- There will be claims of rigging the polls as his popularity drops toward 30%.
- He will punish Congress emphasizing that they failed on healthcare by not funding the subsidies.
- He will look for a way to punish the members of the business councils. (Oops, by the time this was published, he had already disbanded the councils depriving the members of his attention. I count this one as satisfied!)