Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Thursday, January 12, 2017

We're All Not in It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 13

13: Trump, the exceptional common man

“I alone can fix it.”
-- Donald Trump

As you know if you have been reading this essay series, its unifying theme has been the linkage between narcissism in our society (which I think is rampant) and delusion (which I think has also become epidemic). Hence, what better way to end this journey to the “heart of darkness” (which started at the beginning of a crazy election cycle that is now concluding), than by talking about Trump?

It’s October and, though some people have been saying that Trump has been going “off the rails” since September, he now appears to be certifiably, publicly mad.

But to that in a minute. First, I want to bring back a quote I used in an earlier essay, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

As I did when I quoted this earlier, I’m italicizing the last sentence because I think this insight about American culture, written way back in the early 19th Century, encapsulates a common problem in the American psyche, and a critical issue in what we sometimes wryly call “the American Experiment” of governance. American democracy, because of our concept of the primacy of the individual and because of a natural egotism in human consciousness, tends to result in an atomized society.

It’s a uniquely American tendency, I think, to forget others; to forget the larger realities of our communities; to forget the social complexities implicit in our powerful and wealthy country; to forget the world and the global context; to forget history; and to forget obvious features of reality itself…  in favor of desire and despair-driven narratives of our own vain desires and specific individual needs, our own imaginations, our own disconnected selves. It’s easy in our culture to find ourselves “confin(ed) entirely within the solitude of (our) own heart(s).” The political question though is how do you run a country when so many are driven to delusion by their own solitude and narcissism?

Though this question sounds rhetorical, I’m actually not being polemical-- at the moment, we seem to be on the terrifying verge of actually trying to deal with just such a surreal situation.  Donald Trump himself has emerged as an almost “textbook example” of the kind of deluded narcissistic personality that I have been talking about… and I’m by no means alone in saying this.  His past public persona is almost a cartoon caricature – the spoiled, egoistic rich boy who is unashamed of following his own pure self-interest and succeeding by climbing over the ruins of other lives to greater wealth and personal gain – ex-wives, business associates, “little people,” minorities, women. It’s all in the tabloid press record. He played a public role of being the playboy and non-stop narcissist in the NY tabloids… which is obviously what got him the gig in reality TV on “The Apprentice,”  where he was cast as the generally cruel and demanding “monster boss,” who’s signature line is “you’re fired!.”

This penchant for raw narcissistic ruthlessness and pretty pure childish amorality is apparently what won him the Republican nomination, which I found kind of like watching a cage fight between Alien and Predator, with the idea being that the winner would be ideally suited to be “our” monster for the GOP in the general election.

I find this somewhat hysterical description of him by the political writer Andrew Sullivan in in his apocalyptic New York magazine article “America and the Abyss”,  to be, in fact, alarmingly true and accurate, despite its extreme tone:

This is what we now know. Donald Trump is the first candidate for president who seems to have little understanding of or reverence for constitutional democracy and presents himself as a future strongman. This begins with his character — if that word could possibly be ascribed to his disturbed, unstable, and uncontrollable psyche. He has revealed himself incapable of treating other people as anything but instruments to his will. He seems to have no close friends, because he can tolerate no equals. He never appears to laugh, because that would cede a recognition to another’s fleeting power over him. He treats his wives and his children as mere extensions of his power, and those who have resisted the patriarch have been exiled, humiliated, or bought off. 

His relationship to men — from his school days to the primary campaign — is rooted entirely in dominance and mastery, through bullying, intimidation, and, if necessary, humiliation. His relationship to women is entirely a function of his relationship to men: Women are solely a means to demonstrate his superiority in the alpha-male struggle. Women are to be pursued, captured, used, assaulted, or merely displayed to other men as an indication of his superiority. His response to any difficult relationship is to end it, usually by firing or humiliating or ruining someone. His core, motivating idea is the punishment or mockery of the weak and reverence for the strong. He cannot apologize or accept responsibility for failure. He has long treated the truth as entirely instrumental to his momentary personal interests. Setbacks of any kind can only be assuaged by vindictive, manic revenge.

He has no concept of a non-zero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace. (This is one reason why he cannot understand the entire idea of free trade or, indeed, NATO, or the separation of powers.) In any conflict, he cannot ever back down; he must continue to up the ante until the danger to everyone around him is so great as to demand their surrender. From his feckless business deals and billion-dollar debts to his utter indifference to the damage he has done to those institutions unfortunate enough to engage him, he has shown no concern for the interests of other human beings. Just ask the countless people he has casually fired, or the political party he has effectively destroyed. He has violated and eroded the core norms that make liberal democracy possible — because such norms were designed precisely to guard against the kind of tyrannical impulses and pathological narcissism he personifies.

On this, I more or less rest my case. Trump is presented as obvious an example of sick narcissism – whether you want to connect it to sociopathy, schizophrenia or some other form of psychological malfunction is up to you – but it’s all out there in vivid, cartoonish illustration. The state of his delusion is such, that he himself is probably oblivious to how insane he looks from the outside. Recently, he has been openly casting himself as The Messiah, which is generally a behavior that we only see in people who we have institutionalized, or who wander around on the streets, unwashed and unshaven, shouting and mumbling:
“It’s a global power structure,” he said. Trump went on to describe himself as a populist martyr — “I take all of these slings and arrows gladly for you” — and posited: “This is not simply another four-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.” (Washington Post, Oct. 16)
It’s a bizarre public spectacle for many of us, both fascinating and horrifying, but it also begs this really stark question: Why is he still a candidate for the highest office in the land, why, dear God, why are so many people still supporting him??

Initially,  much of the leadership in the GOP and a significant portion of the party faithful did openly reject Trump because of this startling, obvious, “disqualifying” bizarreness of character, yet  he retained a ferociously loyal base through the nomination and beyond. These people remained completely unfazed despite a daily string of nutty, counter-factual statements, despite antisocial talk, despite anti-American opinions and policy suggestions (pro-Russian, anti-NATO, anti-establishment, pro-apocalyptic…), despite unsavory evidence of criminal business and sexual behavior. They love Trump and he loves them back for it:  "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," Trump said proudly, publicly, with complete candor and accuracy… And, in the end, as we all now have seen, most of the conservatives who rejected him have said “oh, well” and come back to him, despite earlier claims that they had totally rejected all this evil. You and I all have friends that fall in this category. Dear readers, I strongly suspect some of you fall in this category.

And that, of course, really disturbs me and others like me and leaves us wondering endlessly whywhywhywhywhywhy… As a sane American, brought up in the fairly sane and decent traditions of this country, the common political assumptions on both sides of the political spectrum, this doesn’t seem possible to me now, and I know it would seem outlandish to almost all of us if we could go back, say, two years in time. How have we gotten here?

There has been no dearth of sensible explanations for what can only be described as an episode of mass public delusion, surreal and bordering on hallucination. By far, the most popular of these has been that a good chunk of the mainstream electorate is angry and aggrieved, feeling forgotten, under attack and abused by decades of social and economic change – in particular white, working class and/or rural, under-educated and economically displaced people. These people, the narrative goes, have watched their communities lose industries and jobs; have had their heartland towns plagued by poverty, hopelessness and rampant drug addiction; have watched in alarm as dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking, foreign-acting, Allah-worshipping people invade America, taking jobs and changing customs; have been betrayed and screwed by the political establishment, educated elites and urbanites who look down on them for their traditional prejudices and instead side with foreigners, minorities, gay people, atheists, giving everything to those people and nothing to them.

It’s hard to deny the validity of this explanation… except for a fair number of data points that don’t quite agree. Point one: the famous, “yugely” popular Trump rallies, packed with his most fervent supporters. Yes, the people showing up at these are overwhelmingly white, are certainly angry, and also certainly cite all the reasons given in the paragraph above for their extreme anger. But when they are interviewed – and the press loves to interview them – things don’t quite add up. There will be a white man or woman, wearing an “Make America Great Again” cap and/or wearing a “Hang the Bitch” tshirt, and they will talk effusively about Trump and how he “gets it” when he talks about bringing back jobs and building a wall… but when questioned about the veracity of this or that extreme claim that Trump has just made or some nutty idea about discriminating against Hispanics or Muslims, they will say, “well, I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says,” and when asked if their own circumstances are as bad as those he claims exist out there, they will admit that they are actually employed and doing quite well, and no, they don’t have a lot of Muslims or Mexicans living in their community. In other words, their reasons for why they like him don’t quite make sense, at least in terms of the actual world they live in. But they still love him.

A recently published article in Tablet Magazine notes the same thing:
the median household income of a Trump primary voter is a healthy $72,000 a year, well above the $62,000 national average and higher than the median incomes of those who supported both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, 44 percent of Trump voters have college degrees, far more than the 29 percent of the general adult population. According to a Gallup working paper based upon interviews with some 87,000 Trump supporters over the past year, the most exhaustive statistical analysis of the Trump phenomenon completed thus far, “There appears to be no link whatsoever between exposure to trade competition and support for nationalist policies in America, as embodied by the Trump campaign.” The same study also found “little clear evidence that economic hardship predicts support for Trump, in that higher household incomes tend to predict higher Trump support.”
What is also telling for me about Trump supporters is they really, really don’t care at all about the facts. Trump lies to them constantly and outrageously and they eat it up. The polls are rigged (unless they are good for him, in which case they are brilliant and honest), the media is corrupt and dishonest (ditto), and so are fact checkers. You might conclude from this that Trump supporters are just really ignorant and gullible, but interviews show that they aren’t. They understand that they are being lied to but they are not bothered by his lies. They like being lied to because they like his lies.

I think a really telling detail emerged at very early interviews at Trump rallies. When asked about how people felt while Trump was spewing what amounted to racist hate at Hispanics and Muslims, avid Trump supporters came back to interviewers that they liked Trump because he “is not PC.” They certainly acknowledge that the world around them may be against racism, and will insist mightily that “I am NOT a racist,” but they think it’s great to speak thoughts that are racist because they think the same thoughts. But they don’t call them racist, so they are not. People are too sensitive. Again and again, they appreciate that Trump “speaks his mind,” “tells it like it is” and nuts to anyone who wants to find fault in what comes out. These are just “elitist” others that look down on them, the “real” people. It does not occur to them that the people who they are insulting or attacking are “real” people too, with perhaps real reasons for feeling oppressed and insulted by them.

Telling it like it is. For him. And for them.

It’s clearly because this stuff goes on in their heads and they would like to be able to be “free” and say what they think too. And not get analyzed and labeled “racist,” because that is supposedly a bad thing and that’s not what they really feel like they are. So they’re not. Case closed.

Recognize this? People like Trump, not because he supports issues they care about and they really think he will fix things for them, but because he reminds them of themselves – self-serving narcissists who get to define reality their own way, just the way Frank Sinatra sang: “I did it my way.”

If you objectively look at the example of Trump as a leader, nothing else really makes sense. Trump is admired for his out-there tone, not his substance – he is not an objective example of an admirable leader, a “champion of the common man.” He argues that he’s a business genius, and, as such, is uniquely skilled to fix government. Never mind that government is not the hotel development business, not remotely, and never mind all his bankruptcies and business failures. He is honest, next to “crooked Hillary,” nevermind the daily string of baldfaced lies, nevermind the fraudulent business scams, nevermind the contractors he’s cheated, nevermind the obvious tax fraud. Trump is a “man of the people,” nevermind that he’s a billionaire, living in mansions and highrise palaces, born into wealth, educated at elite universities.

It would seem that Americans supporting Trump, particularly the less-educated white working class supporters, are all really gullible chumps… except it’s also clear that they are perfectly aware of all these disconnects. More than that, they are also aware that nonsense, a freewheeling batch of insincere lies. Day after day, he promises that he will “make America great again,” and that only he can (somehow magically, since he never offers details) do it. He says he will cancel trade deals and bring back industry to America, despite the fact that everyone in his audience understands that this would mean more expensive manufactured goods that would have no real market. He promises people in coal country that he will “bring back coal,” despite the fact that they all know coal can’t compete against cheaper natural gas. I guess it feels good to scream approval at hearing these claims, but it’s a lot like adults screaming approval at claims that Santa will bring them all a sleigh full of toys, when they know full well that there’s no such person.

The point is that they like the way he talks and yells – they don’t really care what he says so long as it humors their feelings, they don’t care what he really is, so long as he sounds in tune with them. After the election, much was made about the enormous slew of “fake news” that Trump supporters read, approved of and shared. A lot of it was wildly improbable, but a lot of otherwise discernable adults liked it and shared it anyway, while dismissing real news, produced by professional journalists as suspect, “biased” and “unreliable.” Interviews with some of the people who produced this propaganda (a lot of them in Russia or Eastern Europe) have again and again shown that the authors were simply writing the kind of stories that they knew their audience wanted to hear – kind of the way pornographers or romance writers write improbable things for audiences interested in those kinds of fantasies. Somewhere in this is the sense that the improbable stories are better than the real stories, because they tell you what you want to hear, and real information – truth – doesn’t really matter anymore. Leaders that sound good to you are better than leaders that will actually work with real issues and lead, because leaders don’t matter anymore.

Presidential -- not. But who cares?
This again is the essence of narcissism – your internal landscape, not the outside reality, is what really matters. And also, no one cares about whether their actions, acting on this internal reality, have real consequences. Gratifying the self is the only thing that has real significance.

After the election, there was a flood of admonition from the right that complaining about Trump supporters (including calling them racist or misinformed or misled or anything besides “right” or “victorious”) was wrong or “unfair,” despite all the beyond-obvious disconnects in their campaign behavior. Suddenly, they were the victims who had been slighted and mistreated… not the people they had been slandering, threatening, yelling at on the street. They feel “looked down on” by bullies on the left who comment on how stupid and misguided they are. How unpleasant to have reality thrown in your face by people who think that they are so smart. The unreality of it is striking. Having been admonished by friends, many of whom have dear friends and relatives who are Trump supporters, to be more kind and understanding to “the other side,” I’ve done a certain amount of soul-searching, but I’ve decided that there really isn’t another position to take here than to cry delusion. I mean, if you know someone who has a mental illness, you might be kind and understanding to them, but if they are hearing voices, you don’t say “OK, I hear them too” – that would enable the illness. You try to help them see that they have a problem and need treatment, though they certainly won’t like hearing that. This is not really that different, though we are all showing some symptoms.

… And so I’ll end this piece here, though it feels unfinished… because it is. I started it in the middle of the campaign, wrote more of it after the election, and right now it’s on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. God knows what’s going to happen.

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