Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Devouring

I am ego, hear me roar!

Donald Trump is actually quite a simple person.  All he cares about is his ego.  He knows he’s just so amazingly awesome!  And he has the garish wealth and the hot babes to prove it.  Is there another way to measure a person’s value?  To him the world is only raw material waiting to be consumed, just a collection of objects to be possessed and people to be dominated.  And anyone who declines is an enemy to be crushed, a small person who can only be motivated by petty spite and envy, a loser.  This simplicity is sometimes lost in the blizzard of his abusive and blustering speech, but it’s always his essential motivation, his bottom line.  Everyone must worship him as he worships himself.

And that leads to his defining feature as a public figure: his utter disregard for anything else.  The demands of his ravenous monster-ego are so overwhelming that he literally can’t stop to consider any other principle, including civility, or reason, or truth.  And this gives him a kind of grotesque transparency.  He seems to have no ability to censor himself, to control his impulses, to consider the consequences of his actions.  All that matters is that his ego be sated, which, of course, it never can be.  But his comprehensive irresponsibility also gives him an advantage in any confrontation with critics, since words utterly unconstrained by meaning or consequence are tough weapons to fight against.  It’s hard to argue with someone who doesn’t care about anything but winning.

Let’s consider some of the things he doesn’t he care about.  He quite obviously feels no responsibility to civility.  He crudely denigrates Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people, etc.  He brags about how beautiful women are toys created for his pleasure, and how less attractive ones rightly earn his scorn.  Their feelings, their hardships, their dignity – those matter nothing.  Trump has even encouraged violence among his followers.  He doesn’t understand that civility matters because society cannot function if we don’t respect each other, even when we vigorously disagree.  That’s ridiculously obvious, yes.  Well, to you it is.

He feels no responsibility to the Republican Party.  When that tape appeared in which he makes dehumanizing comments about women and brags about sexually assaulting them, party leaders urged him to do everything he could to control the damage.  They begged him – in his own interests and those of down-ballot candidates – to fully apologize, to drop the issue, and to not dredge up similar actions by Bill Clinton.  Instead he doubled down, holding a press conference with Bill’s accusers from the 90’s and before, even giving them seats in the audience at the second debate.  In response, many of those party leaders, notably House Speaker Paul Ryan, have publicly distanced themselves, out of varying degrees of self-interest and moral revulsion.  But Trump’s responses throughout were never in doubt: he went on the crude offensive, first against Bill Clinton, then against those unhappy party bosses, attacking them as weak, pathetic, disloyal non-leaders.  This is an egotism so overwhelming that it can’t even get out of its own way!  A shrewder nominee would have conceded some small amount of stature by being conciliatory with his fellow party members.  But Trump can’t do that, even though it would help him win the presidency.  His narcissism is so short-sighted that it even subverts itself!

And that’s a recurring theme. There was, for instance, absolutely no electoral advantage in deliberately and repeatedly denigrating the Hispanic judge in his fraud trial, or an overweight Hispanic beauty queen from the 1990’s, or the father of a slain Muslim American soldier.  Indeed, in each of these three feuds he came off as bullying a sympathetic figure, and in each case he persisted in his attacks, thereby keeping the story alive in the public mind long after it would otherwise have died.  In each case he was incapable of doing the smart thing: ignoring the criticism and moving on.  And that almost certainly lost him votes with minorities, and probably with moderate whites as well.  But that just wasn’t as important as protecting his vanity.  His ego simply would not let him back down or let it go.

And there’s another recurring theme, his inability to apologize, to consider that he’s done anything wrong.  That is, he feels no responsibility to morality.   Right and wrong are for suckers, they are only distractions from winning.  Consider his leading part in the birther conspiracy.  For years he spread vicious rumors based on flimsy non-evidence that Barack Obama was not born in America, and was therefore unqualified to be president.  He continued to do so long after Obama released his long-form birth certificate proving he was born in Hawaii.  And when in this election year the pressure to recant grew too great, he made a mealy-mouthed non-apology in which he falsely blamed the 2008 Hillary campaign for starting the rumors and took credit for finally laying them to rest.  He took no responsibility for the damage he had done to race relations and to our political discourse more broadly.  He just blithely acted as if none of that had ever happened.

And this may be the worst of all: he feels no responsibility to the truth.  To Trump words need not correspond to reality; they’re only tools for achieving whatever his goal is at that moment (and it’s ultimately always the one goal).  Consider his remarks last August in which he called Obama and Hillary “founders” of ISIS.  When interviewing Trump, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who understood it made no sense to take Trump’s bizarre locution at face value, tried to prompt him to be a little more circumspect in his word choice:

Hewitt: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Trump: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

He doesn’t care.  And why should he care about trivialities like meaning? He casually contradicts what he said last month, or yesterday, or five minutes ago, or even earlier in the same sentence.  He contains multitudes!  He emits his unacquainted-with-reality verbiage and smirks at the camera defiantly, as if sneering at the truth, “You can’t make me care.”

We could go on like this all day and all night and all day and all night tomorrow.  Consider: By telling Hillary he will put her in jail if he’s elected, and by inviting an unfriendly foreign despot to interfere in the election, he shows he doesn’t care about democracy. By repeatedly promoting false crime statistics that wildly overstate black-on-white violence he shows he doesn’t care about racial harmony.  By celebrating waterboarding for its punitive value, and advocating the summary killing of the innocent wives and children of terrorists, he shows he doesn’t care about humanitarianism or justice.  By pre-emptively warning that he can only lose if the Democrats cheat, he shows he doesn’t care about public trust.  By refusing to prepare for the debates, and by stubbornly maintaining ignorance on even the most basic subjects, he shows he doesn’t care about expertise or competence.  Everything he says and does shows he feels no respect or responsibility for anything.

Except maybe the forgotten white working class, and their understanding of America. Trump at times seems to genuinely care about these people and the way conservative economic dogma and liberal cultural disdain have wounded them.  He sees them the way they see themselves, as hard-working people fighting a system that’s working against them, and in his dismissal of all the normal considerations of politics he is their defiance, and their denial.  His supporters are mostly good people wronged by their own elites, and in those moments when he champions them he rises a little above his own squalid vanity.  He comforts them with the same fairy tale he tells himself, that his amazing awesomeness will conquer all.  He extends to them his own irresponsibility, licensing their bitter refusal to face up to the realities of modern America, and to their part in our continuing racial discord.  His ego devours them, too!  And when push comes to shove and his concern for them conflicts with the demands of that implacable ego, he casually hurts their cause by undermining his own electoral chances.  Ultimately he doesn’t really care about them, at least not enough to deserve their support.

And in the end he doesn’t even really care about being president.  Does anyone actually believe he’d like to hold all that responsibility?  He would love the power and adulation, of course.  But he would be incapable of evaluating heavy decisions, or making concessions to unfriendly realities, or controlling his impulses when his buttons are pushed.  That is, he can’t really be the President, and he knows it.  He seems to have decided to run for president partly to avenge Obama’s insults against him over his birther-ism, maybe even on a dare.  If his ego trumps even his own self-interest, is there any reason to think it won’t trump American interests as well?  This is not someone who should be let within a hundred miles of the presidency.

Obviously, anyone whose policy preferences run conservative would find it hard or impossible to vote for Hillary, even in the grim face of Trump’s blithering unfitness.  On policy, Hillary is a fairly standard professional-class liberal, with all the knee-jerk cosmopolitanism, acquiescence to inequality, and condescension toward working whites that that implies.  She’s more slippery than the average politician, but that makes her less so than a constant dissembler like Trump, just as being more corrupt than the typical politician makes her less corrupt than a dirty Manhattan real-estate developer.  And she is capable of controlling herself, of considering the consequences of her actions, of understanding her own motivations, of learning and growing, of weighing multiple considerations, of compromise, of conciliation, and of responsibility.  She is an adult; he is a screaming baby.  The choice for an honest conservative must be hard, and that conservative can only choose Trump over Hillary if he believes her policies will be so harmful to the country that they out-weigh Trump’s monumental and destructive foolishness, immaturity and irresponsibility.  And that’s a hard argument to make.

It’s not clear how Trump became the genuinely toxic character he is.  It seems likely he was born with narcissist tendencies and 70 years of yes-man sycophancy and moneyed unaccountability have drilled that narcissism deep down into the bedrock of his psyche.  But he is, in a strange way, to be pitied, like a compulsive psychopath, or a Kardashian.  He’s the bellhop of the world’s most superficial and tyrannical ego.  He’s a lost little boy at the mercy of a reality-devouring monster, and whatever was once human or touching about him is long, long gone.  There is no hope for the little Donald, his ruthless ego enslaves him and ruins him.  But it’s quite easy to keep it from ruining us.  Don’t vote for it.

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