Malacandra.me

The tantrum presidency

The tantrum presidency

by digby

This piece by David Roberts at Vox really gets to the essence of Trump. It's not "strategy" or "distraction" that makes him do what he does. He's not a genius mastermind. He's better understood as an impulsive child. An excerpt:

Why is it so hard to accept that Trump is acting out of pique, on impulse, because Comey on his TV gave him bad feels?

On Twitter I talked about “theory of mind,” a basic capacity humans develop around the age of 2 or 3 to recognize that other people are independent agents, distinct minds, with their own beliefs, desires, fears, etc. We learn to “read” behaviors as evidence of those internal states.

And because we are relentless pattern seekers, we are constantly developing theories of people, seeking to explain what they do through reference to their beliefs and plans.

This has badly misled us with Trump. Much of the dialogue around him, the journalism and analysis, even the statements of his own surrogates, amounts to a desperate attempt to construct a Theory of Trump, to explain what he does and says through some story about his long-term goals and beliefs.

We badly want to understand Trump, to grasp him. It might give us some sense of control, or at least an ability to predict what he will do next.

But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there? What if our attempts to explain Trump have failed not because we haven’t hit on the right one, but because we are, theory-of-mind-wise, overinterpreting the text?

In short, what if Trump is exactly as he appears: a hopeless narcissist with the attention span of a fruit fly, unable to maintain consistent beliefs or commitments from moment to moment, acting on base instinct, entirely situationally, to bolster his terrifyingly fragile ego.

We’re not really prepared to deal with that.
Trump’s dysfunction

There is clearly something wrong with Trump. But exactly what he is — or, if you prefer to medicalize it, what he has — is a matter of some controversy.

In a recent Rolling Stone article, Alex Morris explores the battle within the field of psychiatry over whether to diagnose Trump at a distance. (Vox’s own Brian Resnick also has a great piece on it.)

The nub of the disagreement comes down to whether Trump has a disorder.

There are nine traits used to identify narcissistic personality disorder (things like “requires excessive admiration” and “has a grandiose sense of self-importance”). Fitting five or more is considered sufficient for diagnosis. All nine describe Trump’s public behavior with eerie accuracy.

But a disorder, by definition, inhibits normal functioning, impedes success. And Trump is inarguably successful. He’s one of the most powerful people in the world. Whatever kind of personality he may have, some psychiatrists argue, he can’t have a disorder. He’s doing well for himself.

Whether you see this as evidence of Trump’s fitness or evidence of the power of inherited wealth in America, I’m not sure it makes much difference from a citizen’s point of view. Whether or not Trump has NPD, he clearly has the NP part.

Like all extreme narcissists, he feels a gnawing sense of inadequacy and thus requires constant adulation, admiration, and reinforcement for his oversize, hypersensitive ego. Like all extreme narcissists, he is exquisitely attuned to offense, to any hint of being the dominated party or the loser, and incredibly vengeful when he feels he’s been crossed (which is frequently).

Like all extreme narcissists, he sees every interaction, every situation, as a zero-sum contest in which there will be winners and losers. Like all extreme narcissists, he is prone to building a fantasy world in which he is always on top, always the winner. And like all extreme narcissists, he sees other people only through the lens of how they reflect or affect him.

But Trump is not merely a narcissist. There are other things going on.

Many narcissists are quite well-regulated. Using other people to one’s advantage takes not only in-the-moment charm but an ability to think ahead, as in a game of chess. Succeeding requires fooling other people, and fooling other people requires an ability to hold a complex social map in one’s head, to sustain a consistent performance over time.

Trump does have some crude cunning to manipulate people in the moment. He can sense what they want and what will elicit their approval.

But he lacks any ability to hold beliefs, commitments, or even deceptions in his head across contexts. (On Twitter, I compared him to a goldfish.) He is utterly unable to step back and put his gut emotions in larger perspective, to see himself as a person among people, in social contexts that demand some adaptation. He is impatient with attempts to influence him to take a larger view — he demands one-page memos, for instance.

Matt Yglesias says that Trump lies all the time. And it’s certainly true that he says false things all the time. But even to say “lie” seems to suggest a certain self-awareness, an ability to distinguish performance from reality, that Trump shows no signs of possessing.

Trump does have consistent attitudes, and that has given his actions some consistency. Above all, he is utterly terrified of, and hostile to, weakness.

Fear of weakness helps explain why Trump mocked John McCain for being taken prisoner, why he mocked a disabled reporter, why he’s been so consistently racist. Somewhere in his reptile brain, he views being captured, disabled, or persecuted as weakness, as being dominated.

It also explains his fondness for autocratic strongmen — the ones who dominate.

But these attitudes, these instincts, do not seem to yield persistent beliefs or principles. Trump is highly attuned to dominance and submission in the moment, but each moment is a new moment, unconstrained by prior commitments, statements, or actions.

Trump defies our theory of mind because he appears to lack a coherent, persistent self or worldview. He is a raging fire of need, protected and shaped by a lifetime of entitlement, with the emotional maturity and attention span of a 6-year-old, utterly unaware of the long-term implications of his actions.

There's more insight at the link about why so many people are eager to attribute something Machiavellian at work. There's a need to create some framework, a narrative, around which to understand him. It's tremendously stressful to think he's just careening around bumping into the furniture because the danger is so much greater that he will accidentally destroy us.
This is an utterly terrifying conclusion. A Machiavellian Trump — one who was merely acting the fool, manipulating the public and media in service of some diabolical long-term agenda — is less frightening than a purely narcissistic and impulsive one.

No agenda guides him, no past commitments or statements restrain him, so no one, not even his closest allies (much less the American public or foreign governments) can trust him, even for a second. He will do what makes him feel dominant and respected, in the moment, with no consideration of anything else, not because he has chosen to reject other considerations, but because he is, by all appearances, incapable of considering them.

This makes him, as many others have noted, extremely vulnerable to being manipulated by whoever happens to talk to him last, whoever butters him up and makes him feel important. (And that includes the TV.)

It’s one thing when that involves a wild Twitter accusation or the firing of a staff member. All Trump’s crises so far have been internal and self-inflicted, more or less.

But what will happen when he gets into a confrontation with North Korea, when Kim Jong Un deliberately provokes him? Will his response be considered and strategic? Will he be able to get information and aid from allies? Will he be able to make and keep commitments during negotiations?

There’s no sign of hope for any of that.

More likely he will prove, as he has in literally every confrontation of the past several years, congenitally unable to back down or deescalate, even if doing so is clearly in everyone’s best interests.

More likely he will be desperate to maintain face and will listen to whatever his security staff whispers in his ear.

More likely he will make rash and fateful decisions with insufficient consultation and no clear plan.

That’s who he is: a disregulated bundle of impulses, being manipulated by a cast of crooks and incompetents, supported by a Republican Party willing to bet the stability of the country against upper-income tax cuts. We need to stop looking for a more complicated story.

That's correct. And we need to figure out how to deal with someone like this. Our institutions are more fragile than we know and it remains to be seen if they are capable of dealing with this unprecedented challenge. If they are to do that we must be clear about what we're dealing with: