“Let Trump be Trump his aides has always insisted. And let his convention serve as an unapologetic tribute to his singular, erratic, untamed persona. ‘I want,’ the candidate has often said, ‘to be myself.’” (“In Trump’s Voice, It’s a New Nixon,” Michael Barbaro and Alexander Burns NY Times, July 19.) But who is that myself? If one looks to his political identity in the views that he has expressed over the years, one is baffled by their contradictions, incoherence and vacuous expression, unless, that is, one sees them as symptoms of a mental condition.
In the very same issue of the newspaper I’ve just cited, two other articles converge to provide a diagnosis of that condition. In “How to Recognize a Narcissist,” Jane E. Brody, without naming Trump, presents a list of attributes of a narcissistic personality disorder, derived from a book by the clinical psychologist, Joseph Burgo, “The Narcissist You Know,” that perfectly describes Trump’s condition. 1.“Highly competitive in virtually all aspects of his life… [he] portrays himself a winner and all others as losers. 2. Shames or humiliates those who disagree with him, and goes on the attack when hurt or frustrated, often exploding with rage. 3. Arrogant, vain and haughty and exaggerates his accomplishments, bullies others who get in his way. 4. Lies or distorts the truth for personal gain, blames others or makes excuses for his mistakes, ignores or rewrites the facts that challenge his self-image, and won’t listen to arguments based on the truth.” As Brody notes, “nearly all of us possess one or more narcissistic trait[s] without crossing the line of a diagnosable disorder.” Trump, possessing all these traits, has clearly crossed the line—and in the space of greatest danger to his fellow men and women. He is competing to occupy the commanding heights of the political world.
The second article in the Times by the Op Ed columnist David Brooks reflects on the symptomatic character of Trump’s speech. “He doesn’t really speak in sentences or paragraphs. His speeches are punctuated by five- or six-word jabs that are sort of strung together by connections that can only be understood through chaos theory: ‘They want the wall…I dominated with the evangelicals…I won in a landslide…We can’t be the stupid people anymore.’ Occasionally Trump will attempt a sentence longer than eight words, but no matter what subject he starts the sentence with, by the end he has been pulled over to the subject of himself. Here’s an example from the Mike Pence announcement speech: ‘So one of the primary reasons I chose Mike was I looked at Indiana, and I won big.’ There’s sort of a gravitational narcissistic pull that takes command whenever he attempts to utter a compound thought.” The inescapable subject of almost every utterance is Trump himself.
Perhaps the most revealing of portraits of Trump comes from Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, the book that made Trump a celebrity. In an article in The New Yorker, Schwartz is reported to have confessed to “a deep sense of remorse” for having collaborated with Trump. Having intimately worked together with Trump for 18 months, he is convinced that a Trump presidency “may lead to the end of civilization.” Schwartz focuses on Trump’s “short attention span.” “It’s impossible to keep him focused on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes. If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time.” The Art of the Deal, Schwartz suggests, should be retitled The Sociopath. Commentators do say that Trump is not a normal candidate. The judgment generally refers to his status as an outsider with unpredictable views. The truth is that he is not normal in the sense of being intellectually subnormal for a public figure and perhaps clinically abnormal.
Comedians may be disappointed in their expectation that the Trump candidacy and possible election will turn out to be a field day for satire. Trump is no gift to comedians. He has usurped their role. Who can improve upon the absurdity of Trump’s own performances? Trump’s own performance exceeds the satiric imagination of comedians. He is his own unwitting self-satirist. On occasion he presents himself as someone capable of humor—as when he says that an outrageous statement he has uttered was sarcasm or a joke, for instance, that Obama and Clinton are co-founders of ISIS, showing himself as someone utterly lacking in a sense of humor. Unhappy about the apparent imploding of his campaign and the bad press he was getting, Trump declared that he would take his gloves off and no longer be Mr. Nice Guy. Was this a joke at his own expense? Does he know the apocryphal story about Hitler surviving World War II, flying to Argentina to meet up with fellow Nazi survivors of the war in order to tell them that he would again lead them, but this time “no more Mr. Nice Guy”? Trump rages against the media, “the lowest form of life,” for treating him unfairly. He might have a case against the media as well as the comedians that they are abusing a person with a disability.
Repeatedly the choice, as formulated by the media, is between change (represented by Trump) and the status quo (Clinton). “Change” is an honorific term; it appeals to those who feel disenfranchised, left behind, frustrated and angry. What is rarely addressed, however, is what change means in the case of Trump and, similarly, what status quo means in the case of Clinton. The clear intelligible changes that would occur under a Trump Administration, if he is to be believed, is the building of a wall on our Mexican border, the deportation of the 11 million illegal aliens and the banning of Muslim visitors to our country. (He has fudged so often on these and other promises that there is every reason for skepticism—apart from the practical question of how these things could be accomplished constitutionally by executive action.) The result, Trump contends, would be the end of terrorism, the restoration of law and order and more jobs for the white working class. In foreign affairs, Trump, again if he is to be believed, will possibly withdraw from NATO unless its other members pay their fair share. Affirming America First, he would be less interventionist in international crises. He would however make an exception of our role in the Middle East and “bomb the shit out of Isis.” Perhaps more importantly, the great disruptive change would be “the greatest country on earth,” being led by an erratic, incoherent, pathological narcissist, who believes that he alone can fix the nation’s problems.
And what to make of Hillary Clinton as an agent of “the status quo”? She would for the most part continue in the direction of Obama’s effort to widen health care coverage by including a “public option” in the Affordable Health Care Act, increase taxes on the wealthy in order make available funds for improving infrastructure, pre-k and public higher education. These are a few of the long list of changes that Clinton proposes, but they are dismissed as more of the same not only by her Republican opponents, but the media, because they continue in the spirit of the change-fraught transformational presidency of Obama.
The false binary that the race is between change (Trump) and the status quo (Clinton), promoted by the media, is belied by reality. Every plank in the Democratic platform specifies significant changes in existing programs (e.g. the public option in healthcare) as well as new programs (e.g. tuition free public higher education for families earning less than $125,000 a year). There is nothing in the Republican agenda or the Trump agenda (if one can speak of his having one) that proposes productive change. The proposed changes are regressive (e.g. a return to an earlier time when rigorous anti-immigration laws were in place). Why doesn’t the media represent this difference as objective fact? 24/7 has been a blur of repetition of “balanced” statements that obfuscate rather than illuminate political reality.
The Establishment (a negative) versus anti-Establishment (a positive) is another misleading binary that the media passes off without critical scrutiny. If the existing demonized Establishment were to disappear, what we would have in place is either another Establishment or anarchy and chaos. An outsider who attacks the Establishment and succeeds in replacing it inescapably becomes the Establishment. One needs then to distinguish between Establishments, between their virtues and vices. Clinton represents one Establishment, Trump the anti-(another) Establishment. Do I have to say what the rational choice is? “Establishment” is a neutral term for governance. There is good governance and bad governance. (This distinction does not hold for radical libertarians, who mistrust all governance.) The frustration and anger of the white working class (Trump’s main constituency) should be directed against the Republican establishment and anti-Establishment (the Tea Party) that have obstructed legislation to fund, for example, infrastructure, a source of more jobs and a boon to the economy and a higher minimum wage.
The media (a collective noun for my purposes) insists that the electorate wants change, and the evidence is in the polls that register a substantial majority view that the country is going in the wrong direction. What the polls fail to tell us is what that wrong direction is and its causes, and what a right direction might look like. If Trump and Republican Party represent the change that the electorate desires, how to account for Obama’s 51% approval rating and the abysmal single digit approval rating of both Trump and the Republican-led Congress. Almost forgotten in all the recent reporting and punditry is the Congressional gridlock that makes productive change impossible. And the gridlock is largely the work of the party that has nominated Trump. The supporters of Trump do not see it that way, for which the media has responsibility to the extent that it fails to point this out. To do so would not violate the journalists’ code of objectivity. It would, on the contrary, exemplify it.
Trump’s bigotry, lack of empathy, narcissism, incoherence (the list is long) makes the prospect of his presidency dangerous, as has been widely noted even by many who do not support the candidacy of his opponent. Even if he loses, the effect of his campaign may haunt the presidency of the winner. Repeatedly speaking of the election as rigged and appealing to the opponents of gun control legislation to act, he is inciting violence. The danger is particularly acute if Trump loses. Instead of giving a gracious concession speech, the longstanding ritual of our elections, Trump could very well attribute his loss to a rigged election and provoke the gun crazies to take the law into their own hands.
What has not been duly noted in the revelation by WikiLeaks of bias against the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic National Committee is the full extent of Trump’s egregious response. Inviting the Russians to hack into the computers of the DNC in order to recover lost Clinton emails, he is in effect encouraging an activity similar to the Watergate break-in into Democratic headquarters during the Nixon Administration. In saying that he is only joking, he is compounding the crime by covering it up. As president, Trump would probably replace Nixon in pre-eminence as a violator of the law.
Fearful of reflecting an elitest and unobjective bias against the portion of the afflicted white working class that adores him, the media fails to call out the folly of his supporters. Nothing that he says or does can dissuade them that he is their man. They are, we are told, the poorly educated who apparently cannot see that Trump offers nothing to address their afflictions and grievances—except scapegoats. Do they deserve our sympathy? Do the unhappy many who supported Hitler’s rise to power merit sympathetic understanding? I think in a political situation as grave as the one we are now in commentators who dominate the airways have a moral obligation to speak out critically and forcefully against the mindlessness of the support. Not to do so is to write off “the poorly educated” as incapable of being educated.
Finally, what are we to make of the enlightened citizen, Ralph Nader, for example, who speaks of the two candidates as terrible, undeserving of support. In a recent book, Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, Nader declares a willingness to work with the likes of Pat Buchanan and Grover Norquist on specific anti-corporatist issues about which he and they are in agreement and yet seems incapable of making a fundamental distinction between the rational and progressive agenda of Hillary Clinton with all her flaws and the dangerous and pathological candidacy of Donald Trump. Nader has apparently learned nothing from history, from his own history.