Even in the age of big data, politics will always be more art than science. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan understood and embodied the art of politics. And so do legions of natural politicians whose names and deeds are only known to their constituents.
But leaders who have neither the gift nor the passion for the art of politics only have contempt for it. Anti-politics is their only mode of problem-solving, which isn’t problem-solving at all. It’s just ideological posturing. Or worse, bullying.
Still, the audience for anti-politics is huge. And growing. And they are pissed.
So, what do the pissed need and the rest of us want? More politics as compromise, deliberation and fairness so that everyone gets something but no one gets everything? Or politics as something else, something distinctly undemocratic but much more effective for those who bludgeon or steamroll their way to whatever looks like winning?
And the most broad and meaningful brush stroke that the political artist has is a simple phrase:
“It’s not about me.”
Every politician will say it when the lights and cameras are on and the microphones are hot. And the naturals act and speak in ways that make us believe it.
Perhaps his fans love him for not being one, but Donald Trump is not a natural.
Listen to his extemporaneous speech—the one-syllable words, the simple sentence structure, the phrase repetitions—and notice how many times he comes back to his favorite subject: himself.
When the subject of his sentence fragments is “I,” everything is positive and pro-active:
“I will build a wall.”
“I will bring jobs back.”
“I will make America great again.”
In response to the March 28th terrorist bombing in Lahore, Pakistan that ultimately killed over 75 people and injured at least 340, Trump tweeted:
Another radical Islamic attack, this time in Pakistan, targeting Christian women & children. At least 67 dead,400 injured. I alone can solve
One can only convey so much in 140 characters. Still, sympathy shouldn’t be difficult. Yet, in the aftermath of this tragedy, the only feeling Trump expresses is about his ability to “solve” terrorism, as if his solutions are anything more than “bombing the shit out of them.” In other words, more cowbell.
Soon after this tweet, came:
“@VictorConkle: #WIPrimary @realDonaldTrump will defeat ISIS and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain https://twitter.com/wsj/status/714242249857609728 …”
Of course, he never tells us when America was great. It’s good enough that only he knows that it is no longer. His Republican National Convention acceptance speech focused on the darkness in which America wallows under Obama, and the only ray of light that could possibly it better—TRUMP:
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders – he never had a chance.”
Notice how the references to himself (4) evoke strength, while references to the rest of us (3) evoke helplessness.
However blunt an assessment of Trump’s effect on the electoral process, this is a more refined form of anti-politics, a pathological sort in which governance is not much more than the leader who has all the answers and the rest of us who are surely lost without him. It has failed too many times to count in human history and is an existential threat to the sort of leadership that a liberal democracy needs.
A different kind of politician would replace Trump’s megalomaniacal “I” with the democratic “we” and “us.” And a truly natural politician would shift from the first to the second and third person as a way of connecting his agenda with our dreams, as in:
“If you help me with your vote, we’ll grow America’s greatness together!”
This is the politics of the handshake. Of the eye-to-eye connection. Of trust and empathy. And of a social contract that gives representative government its legitimacy. Trump doesn’t get it. He’s not even interested in it. Instead, his is anti-politics, the politics of the autograph, the private jet, and the middle finger. His is the language of the narcissist—someone more interested in being a savior who destroys than a servant who builds, as when he says things like, “Our trade deals are awful.”
We can’t solve our problems without him. He doesn’t get his strength from us. Rather, we’ll restore our greatness because of him. Indeed, by Trump’s lights, America lost its greatness because someone like him was not at the helm.
Of the deep egocentricity that’s played out in Trump’s speech, Dan P. McAdams in “The Mind Of Donald Trump” writes,
“Self-references pervade Trump’s speeches and conversations, too. 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. As Gwenda Blair writes in her three-generation biography of the Trump family, The Trumps, ‘the first-person singular pronouns, the I and me and my, eclipsed the he and his. Where others spoke of their memories of Fred Trump, [Donald] spoke of Fred Trump’s endorsement.’”
So, other than votes, what does he need us for?
He needs us to laud and worship him. He needs us to give him credit. Were he to become president, one can imagine him expecting us to thank him for the favor.
Thus it’s no surprise that even the most amateur psychologist can see signs of deeper pathologies highlighted by McAdams. Historian and neoconservative luminary Robert Kagan takes aim at these defects in his latest Trump hit piece, “There Is Something Very Wrong With Donald Trump”:
“The fact that Trump could not help himself, that he clearly did, as he said, want to “hit” everyone who spoke against him at the Democratic convention, suggests that there really is something wrong with the man. It is not just that he is incapable of empathy. It is not just that he feels he must respond to every criticism he receives by attacking and denigrating the critic, no matter how small or inconsequential the criticism. If you are a Republican, the real problem, and the thing that ought to keep you up nights as we head into the final 100 days of this campaign, is that the man cannot control himself. He cannot hold back even when it is manifestly in his interest to do so. What’s more, his psychological pathologies are ultimately self-destructive.”
After Trump’s awful week following the Democratic National Convention, some wondered aloud if he were neurologically unbalanced. The Morning Joe crew even wondered if he might be a sociopath. This echoed Michael Bloomberg’s call at the convention for electing a “sane, competent person.” Lawrence O’Donnell disqualified Trump on the grounds of “mental health.”
The Trump spectacle has been ratings gold for news channels. But beyond the daily sideshow lay a deeper narrative explaining his media dominance in terms other than ratings. It’s source is a theory that Marco Rubio proposed back in February when Trump still looked beatable to him:
“The media’s pumping him up as some sort of unstoppable force. Donald Trump has portrayed himself now consistently as fighting for the working people. And he has a record of sticking it to working people for 35 years. If any other candidate in this race had his record, there would be nonstop reporting on it. Unfortunately he’s being pumped up because many in the media with a bias know that he’ll be easy to beat in a general election.”
“So we’re gonna put a stop to it now. There’s no way we’re going to allow a con artist to take over the conservative movement.”
Greg Sargent of The Washington Post responded:
“There’s little question that the press has lavished far too much attention on Trump, and that this might have helped him get to where he is today. But the notion that Rubio would accuse the media of deliberately inflating his opponent’s chances in order to prevent the more viable GOP general election candidate (himself, naturally) from winning the nomination, after Rubio himself has arguably enjoyed more media hyping of his political chances than anyone else in the race, is remarkable.”
However, Rubio’s analysis has turned out to be true. If not by intention, then certainly by circumstance.
The major TV and print news outlets gave the Trump campaign as much as $2 billion in “unearned” media, an amount that dwarfed other candidates and was surely instrumental in its ability to dispatch 16 others on a relatively meager budget. Then, once it became clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, media coverage shifted in tone such that his strengths became weaknesses, and whatever made him seem “authentic” suddenly rendered him cartoonish. Or crazy. Or a fascist.
His poll numbers began trending downwards until he was behind Hillary Clinton in some polls by as many as ten points. Republican leaders and policy heavyweights announced they could not support him. And his constant claim that his losing would prove how “rigged the system is” began to sound like excuse making in advance.
Trump’s strengths and weaknesses as both candidate and person made him quintessentially well-adapted and primed for how mainstream and corporate media would turn it all around on him.
However, whether “The Donald” is actually unhinged or a severe narcissist is now less important than the deepest irony of the Trump phenomenon thus far—that for all this time, it was much less about the psychology of the man talking. Rather, it’s been much more about the mindset of the audience listening.
“The Trump Demographic” is as inoculated by its own beliefs, values, fears, and prejudices against anti-Trump forces (media, the establishment, elites, Black Lives Matter, political correctness, immigrants, etc.) as their standard bearer is.
They are hardly swayed by how wrong he’s been on several issues or how offensive in several statements, much like parents who believe that their children are better off without vaccinations. As to why this is the case, David Ignatius in “Why Facts Don’t Matter To Trump’s Supporters” writes:
“The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.”
This is known as confirmation bias, the tendency to accept propositions that conform to (sets of) beliefs that one already affirms, despite even overwhelming evidence that they are false or unjustified. Confirmation bias explains why some people, instead of changing their minds in the face of new, credible evidence, will dig in their heels and end up even more confident about their wrong beliefs.
Trump’s supporters confirmation bias fuels his narcissism that he alone can make America great again, just as his narcissism validates his supporters’ confirmation bias in the face of the realities of globalization, immigration and political correctness.
In spite of, or perhaps because of his narcissism, Trump understood how locked-in to him his supporters are when he said:
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
This was true in the past. But since Trump became the nominee, not so much. Polls since Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech have trended towards what was once unthinkable—speculations that Trump could lose in a landslide, while large swaths of his party desert him, many for Hillary Clinton.
Oddly, Trump doesn’t seem to care. He could get abandoned by a Republican Party in panic mode to save its down-ballot candidates, and then stomped by Clinton; but afterwards he would spin some conspiracy theory then go on a “nice long vacation.” Such narcissism as his will do anything to deflect attention from self-inflicted failure.
Would this even include throwing his own supporters under the bus? After the rise and wane of Sarah Palin, then the rise and co-opting of the Tea Party, who gives substance and meaning to their hopes and frustrations if the man who built a generation of buildings could also be the man who demolishes the faith of a generation of voters?
Image Source: Donald Trump Caricature by DonkeyHotey
NOTES: The original version of this post appeared at thinkdeadly.net on 4/6/16