Reflecting on Trump’s Teetering Presidency

Trump wants to be the main story, but he's not.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

By most reliable accounts, President Trump appears headed toward the fate he dreads most—losing. This is not shocking. Trump was a long shot to become president in the first place. Sometimes long shots get lucky. When they do, we tend to assign outsized significance to them because irregular events are novel and represent a potential threat, a tear in the fabric of normalcy.

But there’s a reason the house always wins in Vegas. There’s a reason the best NBA team usually becomes champion. Winning against the odds (or the polls, in this case) is a rarity. The polls were wrong last time, but they are usually right.

Moreover, Trump was—by temperament, character, and experience—manifestly ill-fitting for the actual job. With COVID-19, he also got unlucky, having to confront a deadly adversary immune to his grift, one that he could not dismiss, bully, con, co-opt, or talk out of existence. Even before he got exposed to COVID-19, he got exposed by it.

If and when Trump goes, his presidency will generate much post-game analysis, and many lessons can surely be drawn from this episode. Here are three:

1. We often hear that “power corrupts.” This notion contains self-evident truth and is supported by research. But life is complex. As a rule, when two things go together (correlate), it is useful to consider the link between them carefully, lest we stumble into oversimplification.

"Power corrupts," therefore, does not tell the whole truth. A possibility also exists that corruption empowers. To wit: Assume you’re fishing at the pond, and you only manage to catch small fish. You may then conclude that the big fish are smart. But how do you explain this? Well, it could be that they are smart because they’re big. But it’s more likely, given the Darwinian nature of nature, that they got big because they are smart. Likewise, corrupt people may be more likely to get power, particularly in a system that is already compromised and vulnerable, thus lending a "home-court advantage" to corrupt actors.

But wait, that’s not all. When we see that powerful people do corrupt things, it is also possible that their corruption was merely revealed by their power. Research indeed suggests that often, rather than corrupting, power “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies.” In other words, when bad people get power, they do worse things. 

The presidency clearly did not corrupt Trump. His pre-presidency corrupt ways—professionally and personally—are well documented. Moreover, his corruption clearly helped him exploit an already vulnerable political system compromised by dark money and shadowy foreign players. Finally, power has also revealed Trump's corruption and enabled it to spread, thus exposing the biggest risk embodied in the power-corruption equation: Corruption corrupts. Corrupt leaders are both enabled by and further degrade a compromised system, enacting a downward spiral of decay.

2. Trump is known for his lies, confabulations, and flat-out gibberish. But when it comes to Joseph Biden, Trump’s recent appraisals have been accurate in two ways. First, as Trump has noted in a recent speech, Biden is not a great candidate: He lacks energy, charisma, and originality. He’s no one’s idea of a genius, political or otherwise, and is a poor representative of current Democratic aspirations and strengths—diversity, youth, progressivism, and social change. 

Second, Trump was right to see Biden as his biggest threat, big enough to risk impeachment by trying to thwart him with dirty tricks early in the process, long before Biden became the Democratic nominee.

This is curious. Why would Trump fear, and venture so far to neutralize, such an easy, bumbling opponent like Biden? The answer is not political but psychological, stemming in part from Trump’s emotional architecture, which seems, on the evidence of his public behavior, to have been injured early, thus failing to mature properly. 

Trump appears to be psychologically infantile—impulsive and self-centered, lacking introspection and perspective-taking abilities, prone to name-calling and to conflating appearance with reality, utterly dependent on external scaffolding (attention) to uphold his sense of identity, and unable to fully comprehend abstract concepts (such as "justice" or "democracy"). He even speaks of himself as a child would: “I’m, like, really smart; I’m really rich. I have the best words.”

Many psychologically injured children (and adults) develop super-sensitive antennae for detecting certain qualities in others. Con men and bullies don’t pick their victims at random. They are good at sensing certain types of vulnerability.

By the available evidence of his public behavior, Trump’s antennae are super sensitive mainly to two qualities in others: moral decay and social power. Trump persistently attracts and invites into his circle amoral, indecent, and crassly opportunistic people who resemble him. His treatment of them depends on his appraisal of their power. If they’re powerless, he seeks to con them. If they are powerful, he seeks to co-opt them.

Conversely, he appears to register principled, empathetic, and self-reflective individuals as psychologically alien, strange "others." His reaction to them also depends on his appraisal of their power. If he encounters a decent person who is not powerful, Trump will dismiss or bully them. But people who combine basic decency with power cannot be readily dismissed, bullied, or co-opted, leaving Trump helpless and therefore terrified. Biden (as well as Trump's main nemeses, Obama and McCain) happens to be one of those people.

3. Current theorizing about the mind and the brain poses an interesting question. We used to think that brain processes give rise to our experience of the conscious mind. But what if—as some new thinking argues—the mind is something that exists out there—like, say, the world of microbes—and the brain is but the microscope revealing that world to us? What if the brain does not create consciousness but rather channels it?

Such lofty discourse may seem far removed from anything Trump. Yet it’s not. Because one important question to sort out post-Trump concerns the extent to which he either created or channeled the wave of racist, misogynistic, and nationalistic sentiment that marked his presidency.

Many people may view Trump as the creator, arguing that his foul public behavior in effect tutored and modeled such behavior to his followers. There’s probably some truth to that. We learn much of our behavioral repertoire vicariously, through imitation and modeling, and Trump has modeled bullying and vitriolic behavior consistently during his time in office.

Alas, pinning the ugliness that attended Trump’s presidency on him risks falling for the narcissist's ruse—to make everything about him. Rather, looking back on American (and human) history, it is quite clear that Trump did not invent the primary forces that enabled and sustained his presidency. He did not create the darkness he’s unleashed.

Trump’s presidency worked mostly by rendering active and visible some pre-existing toxic sentiments in the American populace: White supremacy, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and cruelty. These sentiments, and not Trump, are the important story here. And they will remain so long after Trump has faded from the scene. The risk is that once they’re dislodged from the corridors of power and retreat back into the shadows, we will be tempted to forget or deny their existence.

If we go that route of denial, then it’s practically guaranteed that the next corrupt demagogue who appears on the scene will find us even more vulnerable. The next demagogue will have had Trump’s experience to learn from and Trump’s cleared path to follow. Moreover, he’s unlikely to be as clumsy, infantile, and inarticulate as Trump, who got in his own way more than did any opposition.

By the time we organize to get rid of such a figure, it may be too late.