The Meaning of Trump
In 1986 or thereabouts I wrote an unpublished book titled The Name is Trump which satirized Donald Trump’s penchant for shamelessly placing his name on his diverse entities. I was inspired by Dr. Sues and Shel Silverstein, so I styled it as a fun rhyming narrative. It was very clever and made more so by the illustrations of a long-since deceased cartoonist named Malcolm Hancock, better known for his Playboy and New Yorker drawings as Mal. When Trump launched his bid for the 2016 Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency, I hunted for the manuscript but couldn’t find it anywhere. When his popularity soared I launched another search. Again I came up empty. A shame because I believe it could have been dusted off, updated and sold very profitably. I know myself well enough to accept that I could never write it again so I wrote this essay instead. It was adapted from a 1988 op-ed piece written by George Will (another egomaniac in my humble opinion) about another upstart candidacy, that of Texan billionaire Ross Perot. So due credit goes out to Mr. Will.
The Swiss psychiatrist Herman Rorschach devised a method for gauging his patients’ mental states by what they saw in a series of inkblots. Donald Trump, an egomaniac if there ever was one, is America’s 2016 political Rorschach test. His inexplicable rise in popularity suggests the dangerous cult of presidential leadership.
Trump’s popularity is fresh and meaningful evidence that the American public suffers from what psychiatry calls “cognitive dissonance,” an incongruity between attitudes and behavior. Another way of describing it is the emotional turmoil experienced by a failure to act in accordance with one’s core beliefs. Evidence of its onset is typically occurs when one espouses incompatible beliefs but fails to understand the psychological and behavioral consequences it can cause. The result is a cognitive imbalance at leads to incomprehensible and unpredictable results.
The American public apparently wants Trump to put an end to what public demand has produced. And while the public claims to want more modesty from politicians, a disturbing large swath of it flirts with Trump, a real estate-cum-politician of stupendous vanity. Sigmund Freud, no stranger to vanity himself, believed that no social scientist prior to him ever understood anything. Sound
familiar? Trump, like Freud, apparently believes his insights are indispensible and sufficient to understanding everything. Yet I have never heard him utter an intelligent or insightful thought but that doesn’t seem to bother an awfully large proportion of the Republican electorate. Like so many others who stand in disbelief, I keep expecting him to self-destruct any minute now. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet is worrisome indeed.
But Trump’s political arrogance is truly impressive. He seems to believe America has problems that can only be solved by his willfulness. He seems to believe that every other candidate lacks wisdom and determination, courage and common sense. That his opinions are writ from high and nobody else can match his leadership skills or his independence from special interest politics. The astonishing thing is that he has lots of intelligent people believing him. And if he is as cynical as I presume him to be, I imagine he is a lot less so today because the approbation he receives at his campaign rallies serves to confirm his bloated opinion of himself. This has transformed his belief in himself from utter confidence to utter hubris. This is scary. But isn’t that what leadership really means?
Unlike other candidates who seek out what the public wants, Trump tells us what we need. The government we have under Barack Obama, Trump believes, is unresponsive to the true problems America faces. On issue after issue, Trump says we have it all wrong and only he understands this. The convenient corollary of this belief is that only he can deliver it. That’s a political vanity of the highest and most gross dimension. But like the emperor’s new clothes, nobody seems to notice his nakedness.
The core principal of our republic is that the people, not its leaders, decide the things that matter most. But since it is impractical to run a government by consensus, we elect representatives at all
levels to execute our collective will. This applies to chief executives too, whether they are mayors or presidents. A strong executive is always a popular notion but in the context of a deliberative democracy characterized by the vacillations of public opinion, it almost never works out well, except perhaps during wartime or national emergency.
The strange thing about Trump is that he is actually mimicking a long gone non-politician’s views against the Founder Father’s conception of a deliberative democracy. I don’t mean Jefferson or Jackson. I mean Woodrow Wilson the university professor and president who was drafted into politics by New Jersey’s Democrat party bosses anxious for a victory. It didn’t hurt that Wilson’s bid for the presidency occurred while the Republican vote was divided between the incumbent President Taft and the third party bid by former President Roosevelt in the election of 1912. Wilson was a good man but he had decidedly unorthodox view about governance, race and politics.
The Trump phenomenon is a consequence of Wilson’s deliberate mystification of the presidency. His theory of government makes the president central catalyst of mass opinion. More than a decade before he was elected to the presidency, Wilson, a political scientist by training, wrote the following:
“A nation is led by a man…in whose ears the voices of the nation…sound…like the united voices of a chorus whose meanings, spoken by melodic tongues unite in his understanding in a single meaning and reveal to him a single vision, so that he can speak what no man else knows, the common meaning of the common voice.”
So, a Wilsonian president knows “what no man else knows” and his mystical “understanding” and “single vision” supplants all
constitutional constructs and becomes the sole engine of government. A cult of leadership was in the air here (Teddy Roosevelt, the extraordinarily popular ex-president) and abroad (emperors of Germany, Austria and Russia) in Wilson’s day. In his 1913 inaugural address, Wilson reiterated his lofty view of an imperial presidency: “At last a vision has been vouchsafed s of our life as a whole. We know our task to be no small task of mere politics.” In other words, a truly inspired leader is more in the nature of a choral director whose mission is to conduct the public into a “melodious” chorus. It’s a role that Trump is unwittingly bumbling into. But nobody seems to recognize it. Or care.
The Founders’ idea of democracy centers on the deliberation of many representatives has been replaced with the idea of presidential “interpretation,” as Wilson described it. The leader knows and interprets what is hidden in the depths of the hearts of the masses. Trump consistently says he’s “tapped into” this unquantifiable quality, that he represents the majority of the nation’s electorate and that they know it. He has a sage’s vision and he boldly proclaims it. But what he doesn’t realize is that a restless public is also a fickle public. It will turn against him as quickly as it turned toward him. Trump is no political genius but he’s stumbling into the dangerous territory that tyrants who cultivated a cult of personality claimed. He’s an inkblot and we, the unknowing and admiring public are seeing in him everything we want. Cognitive dissonance; remember that phrase.