One peril we face in trying to understand Trump is underestimating him. There is a delicious moment of television during the primary season when Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, warned that Trump might become president and the New York Times reporter, Maggie Hagerman, led out a “vigorous belly laugh.” After Trump’s election some of my liberal friends were convinced that the Republicans were preparing to impeach him to make way for Vice President Mike Pence, who while very conservative, is temperamentally fit to be president. In the same vein, many critics announced that Trump had a narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosis rendered as part of the argument that he was simply unfit to be president. Let me make clear that I oppose the politics of the Trump administration and the Republican congress. The purpose of this post is not to assess his policies, but rather to consider the man in the round, to grasp his talents as well as his limitations, and to assess the conditions under which he might succeed or fail on his own terms. As the great Chinese military master Sun Tzu said, “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
The limits of narcissism as an explanation
Take for example the issue of narcissism. Steve Jobs was a famous narcissist. He bullied people, denied the paternity of his child, cried when his initiatives were blocked, attacked people personally when he felt their work was inadequate, violated antitrust laws by threatening competitors who were hiring Apple employees, and parked in handicapped spaces. Yet we admire him because we know that he brought his rage, ambition and single-mindedness under the control of his impulse to design beautiful, useful and novel tools. Looking beyond his psychology, we see how he was shaped by a wider context; in particular, the entrepreneurial setting of Silicon Valley, the role of the hobbyist culture in developing the personal computer, and the aftershocks of the counterculture. This matrix, shaped by his talent, his setting and his psychology gave rise to what he can call his character. Character as a concept offers up a way of understanding a person in the round. A psychological diagnosis by contrast is one-dimensional.
Consider as well the case of Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the Teamsters (truck-drivers) union, who built it into an economic powerhouse from the 1930s through the 1950s. In a masterful study of character, Abraham Zaleznik highlights his political and organizing genius, as well as the primitive layers of his character. He built the union’s power by identifying the weak points in interstate trucking routes, where a strike at one warehouse could cripple truck traffic between major metropolitan areas. He played off one employer group against another and kept his “file cabinet of data and information all in his head.” His union members loved him. He was schooled by a Marxist and believed that capitalism was doomed. Growing up in the depression, in the home of his single mother, he had a deep sense of injustice. As a young labor organizer he fought physically with anti-labor cops and scabs and valued his toughness. He “had flashes of uncontrollable rage, and although he learned to keep his feelings under control in public, he occasionally resorted to bare fists when aroused. Flaring up viciously at his associates, he undermined the self-respect of those he admired most.” He was close to his children and family and flew home on weekends to be with them. His daughter reported, “He never spanked us.” As Zaleznik makes clear, we would so impoverish our understanding of Hoffa if we reduced him to a psychological diagnosis, for example highlighting his rage and antagonism as expressions of narcissism. Instead, we should see his character in the round; in its roots in the Great Depression, his sense of injustice, his Marxism, in close ties to his struggling mother, his genius for organizing, his physical courage, as well as his primitivity.
Trump’s Dark View
One question this raises is what talents and dispositions does Trump bring to the present moment in American politics. One feature of his success, I suggest, is his dark worldview and its resonance with the experience of many voters. My readers will recall his inaugural address in which he noted that, “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
The reference to “carnage” was a striking metaphor, evoking as it did slaughter and bloodbaths. The address echoed his earlier acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention in which he referenced the “chaos in our communities.” Critics pointed out that these terms were gross exaggerations. But their emotional overtones resonated with precisely those residents in older urban and rural communities where joblessness and drug use are undermining families and communities. One result is “cultural carnage” as men in such settings lose the material basis for their roles as providers and fathers, the hallmarks of their masculinity. This is why they and their wives were sensitized to the discourse of political correctness (PC), which, by attacking “male privilege,” only fanned the flames. This is also why Trump could profit by attacking PC, and why Clinton failed to win the “white woman” vote. They were protecting their men.
It may seem strange that Trump, born into privilege, should win the affections of working class people in decaying industrial towns. But one of Trump’s great strengths is his concreteness. He has led his life in the world of buildings and construction and had an early education in manual labor as an apprentice in his father’s real estate business. Describing his early education in construction, one author notes, “He
In addition, Trump comes to his dark worldview honestly. It is not a conceit or a public relations stance. This is why he can represent it emotionally. Despite his privileged background, he is after all the son of an enormously successful real estate entrepreneur; he sees the world starkly, as a battle for status and as a setting where defeat is always around the corner. An oft-reported vignette is revealing here. Talking to a New York Times reporter in 1980, when he was 24 years old, he described an experience he had upon attending the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York city. “The rain was coming down for hours … In a corner just standing there in the rain, is this man, this 85-year-old engineer who came from Sweden and designed this bridge, who poured his heart into it, and nobody even mentioned his name. I realized then and there, that if you let people treat you how they want, you’ll be made a fool. I realized then and there something I would never forget. I don’t want to be made anybody’s sucker.”
The life and death of his older brother, Fred Jr., was also telling in this regard. The presumed heir apparent of their fathers business, Fred Jr. lacked the interest and temperament for the construction business. He was a gentle and good humored and loved flying, but died of alcoholism in his parents’ home some years after separating from his wife. Reflecting on his brother’s presumed failings, two months after his death, Trump said that he had learned, “
write, “For all of Trump’s salacious chatter on the radio and carefully staged appearances with models and other beautiful women, those who spent lots of time with him through the 1990s described not as an overheated Casanova, but rather a workaholic and something of a homebody, a savvy business operator who was keenly aware of the value of being perceived as a player. Goldberg, the attorney who was often by Trump’s side during those years, said many of his client’s much-ballyhooed associations with famous women and top models were mere moments, staged for the cameras. ‘Give him a Hershey bar and let him watch television.’” (loc 2914)
His relationship to women
Indeed, his relationship to women is more complex than his occasional predatory behavior or his playboy image would suggest. (Though it should be noted that, as happens to many powerful men, women have sent him solicitation letters.) He has mentored women and given them great responsibility in his business. His first wife Ivana, was his business partner. He gave her the role of CEO of the Trump Castle and casino in Atlantic City and put her in charge of doing the interiors for the Commodore Hotel. “Demanding, insistent, hoarse-voiced from screaming so often and so loudly, Ivana worked eighteen-hour days for months on end to be sure that the new hotel would radiate glitz and glamour in every detail.” As she told a reporter in 1988, ‘Donald calls me his twin as a woman.’” (loc 5244)
As her quote suggests, Trump may in fact be most comfortable with women who are masculinized. This may be due in part to his wariness of women’s sexuality. As he told a reporter, “
Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Doubly puzzling was the fact that many voters found these insults funny. After all, in earlier presidential primaries and elections small slipups derailed campaigns; for example, when President Gerald Ford, running in the Republican primary for a second term, was labeled a “klutz” after slipping on the stairs of Air Force One.
One hypothesis is that Trump posed as the great disruptor. Carl Jung proposed that cultures throughout the world shape their mythology by evoking archetypal figures such as the “hero,” the “wise man” or the “explorer.” One such archetype is the “trickster” who “disobeys rules, ignores what is normal or expected and often encourages chaos. He openly questions and mocks convention, and encourages other characters to follow their impulses, to do what is fun or what feels good rather than what is right.”
The biblical patriarch Jacob is certainly a trickster. He tricked his brother into giving up his birthright “for a mess of pottage” (bowl of soup), his father into giving him a deathbed blessing due his older brother, only to be later tricked by his uncle Laban, who gave him the matriarch Leah rather than Rachel, the woman he really loved, after seven years of servitude.
In modern culture, the “Joker,” in the Batman movie “Dark Knight” is a destructive trickster. He lives for chaos, though he retains features of a clown, for example his makeup, his grin, “the upward swoop” of his shoes at the toe, and indeed his name. Bart Simpson, a cartoon character in a long-running television franchise, is a more benign trickster. In the “The Telltale Head,” an episode of the first season, Bart joins a group of juvenile delinquents who shoplift at the “kwik-e-mart” and throw rocks at the statue of “Jebediah Springfield,” a revered town founder. Later, Bart cuts off the head of the statue to impress his delinquent friends. The episode’s title is actually a takeoff on Edgar Alan Poe’s story, A Tell Tale Heart, about a murder. Turning a murder story into a clownish tale is itself an act of trickery, disguising murder as the decapitation of a statute. As Freud said, a tendentious joke is a rebellion against authority; its hostile intent masked by the discharge of pleasure we feel upon laughing at it.
If this line of reasoning is correct, Trump’s mix of hostility and humor resonated because he took up a culturally embedded and readily understood role --the trickster -- as a way of promising that, unbound by convention –after all, he almost always spoke of the cuff -- he would upon his election overturn traditional policies and practices, risking chaos in the process. This is also why he has questioned shibboleths about trade, treaties, nuclear weapons, our relationship with Russia and the two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
One can see why his promise of disruption resonated. After all, Trump’s populism meant that he was borrowing tropes from the left as well as the right. What did the left’s conception of the “neo-liberal order” mean if not that elites had such a lock on resources and opportunities that “left behind” communities, whether in the inner cities or in old industrial towns were on their own to choose their favored route to social decay? What did it mean if not that global commerce favored world cities such as New York, London, and Paris, which by rapidly becoming playgrounds for the rich, made even middle class living standards unsustainable? What did it mean if not that student debt now exceeds credit card debt hobbling young people, starting out on their careers, for many decades to come? How could there be any change without significant disruption? The elites, as Trump implied in his inaugural address, were corrupt. Trump as a symbol of disruption, compared with Clinton as a symbol of continuity and corruption, sealed his victory and her defeat.
Commerce as War
Trump’s preparation for the trickster role was conditioned by his belief and experience that commerce itself is a form of war, which after all abides by few conventions and privileges disruption, surprise and deceit. Indeed it is said that in war, “the first casualty is truth.” In an oft-told tale, Trump was eager to attract Harrah Hotel executives as investors in a hotel he wanted to build in Atlantic City. He owned the site but had limited financing for construction. “To impress the Harrah officials, Trump told a crew to dig up dirt and push the piles around the two-acre lot..to make it look like the most active construction site in the history of the world.. Three weeks later, Harrah’s agreed to invest $50 million up front.” (loc 2222)
My own view is that this conception of commerce as war “In the Sixties, Cohn was indicted four times (the first case ended in a mistrial) and always acquitted. He has suffered several judicial reprimands for unethical conduct, had his wrists slapped in civil cases, and been ordered to make restitution. In the Seventies, he has been indicted for violating Illinois banking laws; the Internal Revenue Service has audited his income tax returns for the last nineteen years and seized some of his assets. He has been the target of criticism and innuendo about his ethics, his finances, his personal life.”
Yet at the peak of his career his clients included, “Newhouse newspapers and Conde Nast magazines; the Catholic Archdiocese of New York; the Ford Model Agency; Studio 54; Potamkin Cadillac, Baron di Portanova; the biggest names in New York real estate, including Lefrak, Helmsley, Trump; Louis Wolfson, owner of Affirmed; Warren Avis, as in rent a car; Peter Widener and his sister Tootie, a Main Line Pennsylvania family with coal, rail, and racetrack interests; Jerry Finkelstein, a New York businessman; John Schlesinger, a British investor in South Africa; Carmine "Lilo" Galante, the reputed boss of bosses; "Fat Tony" Salerno; Nicholas "Cockeyed Nick" Rattenni; Thomas and Joseph Gambino, sons of the late Carlo; and a string of hoods; Nathan's Famous; Luca Buccellati, the jeweler; Congressman Mario Biaggi; Mrs. Charles Allen Jr., wife of the chairman of Allen & Company, He has counseled his friend George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees. As a favor to his friend Halston, Roy advised Bianca how to handle Mick.”
As another journalist wrote after Cohn’s death, “Large slices of the upper crust of New York and Washington snuggled up to him, laughed and entertained one another with stories about his crimes as though they were choice insiders' jokes, and wrestled for the privilege of partying with Cohn and his crooked and perverse friends.”
The puzzling question is why Cohn should have such social standing. One hypothesis is that many people of wealth and privilege, particularly if their status is not secured, such as first generation entrepreneurs, believe that competitors, ex-spouses, new spouses (who sign prenuptials), tax authorities, politicians on the take, gangsters, banks that hold their debts, recreational drug dealers, and fair-weather friends are out to bankrupt them. Cohn in this sense was their pit-bull, whose dirty tactics and litigiousness, made it costly for his clients’ enemies to go after them. I suggest that this social milieu, where the struggle for money and status is never ending, shaped Trump’s conception of commerce as war by other means.
There is a striking dialogue in Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, about the relationship between truth telling, winning and what it takes to compete in his milieu. Recall that The Apprentice was a show in which contestants formed teams and competed to complete real tasks like creating and promoting a workout class for a gym, or designing a promotional character for a new brand of ice cream. Many of the tasks were trivial but the team dynamics were serious. Trump and his staff judged how project managers responsible for a particular task took up their roles and how team members collaborated to accomplish the tasks. In the end the “best performer” won a job in Trump’s organization.
My readers familiar with group dynamics will readily recognize the tension in the show’s design. To win, contestants had to stand out, to excel. But should they fail to collaborate with others, and subordinate appropriately to the project manager, they would lose. Similarly, project managers had to take up a leadership role. But should they fail to mobilize their team members’ best efforts, for example by being authoritarian, they would lose. In the “boardroom” scenes Trump and his advisors would interrogate team members about their process and performance. Taking counsel, Trump would decide which team members to “fire” based both on their task performance and the way in which they took up their roles in the boardroom itself.
At one board meeting Trump is querying a project manager, Ted, who apparently okayed a decision to give out gift bags with nothing in them. A woman named Summer is on his team.
Trump: You know Ted these people are laughing at you. I am starting to laugh at you.
Summer: (Interrupting). I am sorry, you know. Let me,.. I must say something really quick.
Trump: Why should your interrupt me, when I am knocking the hell out of him?
Trump: By interrupting me when I am knocking him, what are you doing to yourself?
Summer: Because I am being truthful and will always be truthful.
Trump: How stupid is that? Right?
Summer: It is not stupid.
(A teammate, whispering, counsels Summer to say, “Sorry.”)
Trump. I am getting ready to almost fire him for being a horrible leader and you interrupt me?
Summer: If I stay, I want to stay on the truth..
Trump: (To Summer) And you had no great strengths yourself. You did a lousy job, here I am getting ready to practically fire this guy and you keep interrupting me and stopping me from doing it, and in the end what Carolyn (Trump’s advisor) said is true.
Summer: I want him to be fired with the truth ..
Trump: She (Carolyn) said what have you done, and you couldn’t answer it. You know what Summer, you’re fired.
Trump Go, thank you (to whole team)
Trump: (to Ted): You did not make it by much, I want to tell you. You know she saved your ass with her own stupidity. She saved your ass.
This is a harsh interchange, underlining the entertainment value of the show. But Summer’s “stupidity” is salient on the scale of values that Trump abides by; whether or not participants on the show are tough enough and competitive enough to survive in his world of commerce. In a telling moment in another episode, Felicia, the project manager and Ala are at loggerheads, with Ala “browbeating” Felicia, (Trump’s term), for her poor leadership. At the end of their argument we have the following dialogue.
Trump: Felicia do you really believe you are tough enough to work in New York?
Felicia: Absolutely I do.
Trump: By the way Ala, I have no doubt about it. You are tough enough. But Felicia you are not strong enough to be here. You’re just not strong enough. You’re lovely, you’re smart, you have so many things going, but you’re not strong enough for this city. Felicia, you're fired.
From Campaigning to Governing
There can be little doubt that Trump was a brilliant campaigner, upending many traditions and practices, while melding his spontaneity, skills in self-promotion, and his capacity for publicity, to what turned out to be a very sophisticated polling and outreach operation. He currently dominates the news. But it is very reasonable to ask if he has the capacity to govern, or at least the ability to learn how. In some degree, people asked the same question about Barack Obama, who after all came into the role with no executive experience and limited exposure to the rough and tumble of politics. His rhetorical gifts as well as the promise he represented for a post-racial society carried him a long way. In retrospect, his failure to build a stronger Democratic party in the wake of his two presidential campaign victories was a grievous one.
It is seriously wrong to imagine that Trump’s relative lack of education; he has a business degree and was an indifferent student, signals any lack of intelligence. A developer, Jack walker, who worked with him for a decade, noted that he could retain a “remarkable amount of detailed information in his head.” (loc 6024) I have reviewed only selected videos of his shows, The Apprentice and later, The Celebrity Apprentice. They are hard to find online. But a colleague of mine, a psychiatrist and management professor whose judgment I trust deeply, reports teaching management and leadership skills using these videos. He was struck by Trump’s ability to incorporate a great deal of second-hand data about team members’ performances --he did not observe them in their work -- and then integrate this information with his assessment of a person’s character based on his or her boardroom behavior. As my colleague wrote, “He blocked out the noise and picked up the signal,” a salient skill when making decisions situations rife with uncertainty and complexity.
Trump has great interpersonal strengths and the habit of command. However, his capacity for abstraction may be limited. By this I mean his understanding of how power is institutionalized, how the contest for influence is governed by rules and conventions rooted in culture, and how the levers for exercising power are widely distributed. President Lyndon Johnson understood these power dynamics and used them successfully to build a coalition that supported the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the U.S. Congress. The abject failure of Trump’s immigration order, a two-page document rendered without careful vetting, and his subsequent attack on the character of the judge who ruled against him, reflects this lack of understanding. He acted as if power was based on interpersonal exchange and the competition for dominance, rather than on the interplay of institutions.
To some degree, he comes by these limitations honestly but they may prove costly. As an entrepreneur running a family business he never faced the dilemma of balancing interest groups. His subordinates were unquestionably loyal, his children I imagine were deeply grateful for the opportunities he gave them. The pressing issue is whether he can learn to rely on advisors who can make up for his limitations.
A signature idea?
There is no doubt that Trump is relying for the moment on the Republican Party’s traditional program of deregulation, low taxes and privatization. This is a turn away from Obama’s priorities, but it is not a moment of social or economic disruption. My hunch is that this will not satisfy Trump’s restlessness, his impulse to disrupt and his habit of command. Nor is it likely to create jobs in the communities who so strongly supported him and are hoping, after all, for improvements in their living conditions. Economists agree that jobs are created when new small businesses are established. It is unlikely that small business owners would commit time and money to an enterprise located in a depressed city, even if taxes were lower and regulations less onerous.
Trump had one signature idea in his campaign; the trillion-dollar infrastructure program for rebuilding bridges, roads, tunnels and airports. This idea emerged organically I believe from Trump’s own experience. He is after all a builder, and “decaying” bridges and roads instantiate the idea of “carnage,” physically and concretely. The idea also has the merit of being simple in conception, focused in its execution with the likelihood that it could provide construction jobs as well as work for people whose employers sell construction materials and equipment. A “buy American” proviso would amplify its impact and solidify his support among unions. As is the case with defense spending, the dollars could be spent widely so that voters in a wide array of congressional districts would see benefits in their neighborhoods. Should there emerge local shortages of skilled or semi-skilled workers, cities, counties and states would have an incentive to fund community college and other vocational training programs. Were Trump clever, he would negotiate with construction unions for their commitment to scaling up minority apprenticeship programs. Many Democratic congressmen would support the program.
But the plan at least as it has been discussed to date, is designed to avoid federal deficit spending, the most ready source of dollars for spending on such projects. Instead it relies on private spending and lending stimulated by tax credits. The Cato institute, a conservative think tank has registered its skepticism. For example, private companies or public agencies, like electricity producers, may simply use the credit to finance their current spending plans rather than increase spending. In addition, much infrastructure, like local roads, is not profitable. Even if investors get a tax credit for funding such projects, they can’t expect to recoup any profits from them.
Deficit spending is anathema to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But should Trump presume that he has no leverage over them, particularly after he has advanced their agenda on so many other fronts? My hunch is that this is the kind of dilemma that is likely to engage him fully. It lands him in his sweet spot of negotiating multi-party deals, a skill he honed in his years as a developer. It focuses his attention on issues he has mastered in an arena where the resources and objectives are concrete and visible. Most importantly, it provides direct material support to the people who voted for him. There are of course many reasons to be skeptical. But as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, we should not underestimate Trump.
*loc refers to the location in the amazon kindle version of the book.