Just Who Is Trump Anyway?

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The strange, orange man giving a prime time speech tonight has been described in many ways. To his fans, he’s a brilliant businessman, a winner, a smart negotiator, a populist, “one of us”. To most other people he’s a bigot, a misogynist, a fraud, a charlatan, a pathological narcissist, a sociopath. You can guess where my sympathies lie. But as a novelist, I find myself wondering who Trump is to Trump. How and why did he build this persona for himself? What need does it serve?

We all construct personas for ourselves. They don’t necessarily feel like the real us, but as far as whatever people we’re dealing with at the moment are concerned, they are. We put on personas when we go to work. If our jobs involve a lot of interaction with people, we put the friendly, helpful, social version of ourselves (the introverts among us find this horribly draining, but we do it if we have to). If we have to project strength and authority as part of our work, we create that version of ourselves. In unfamiliar situations, when we’re nervous, we find a persona that won’t expose our fear to people who could exploit it. Our brains are, among other things, persona manufacturing machines, sticking on us whatever masks seem appropriate to our moments. Underneath this, we imagine we’re in control of these personas–and to some extent we are. That’s why we can speak of putting on our game faces. But persona selection, even when done consciously, still arises from and reflects emotional states, wounds, and pathologies we don’t control.

Let’s think about Trump’s persona. This is the Trump that we see on television and read in interviews. It’s also the Trump that Trump’s ghostwriters are instructed to replicate on the page.

 

  1. Trump is smart. He’s the shrewdest man in the room. If you shake his hand, he will almost certainly relieve you of some of your fingers. His perspicacity in all matters–financial, personal, governmental–isn’t open to question. Trump’s is the first and last word on any subject, and if you’re lucky enough to be in his presence, don’t talk. Just listen and learn.
  2. Trump is strong. He dominates every room he’s in. Every situation is a chance for him to humiliate the weak. Women, in his view, want nothing more than to abase themselves before his powerful presence. Men aspire, as men, to be more like him.
  3. Trump is immaculate. Around Trump there is no filth, no ugliness. Everything is clean and golden and shiny and luxurious. Everything he owns is the biggest, the classiest, the best. Imperfection? Intolerable.

There’s more we could add to this list, but I think this summarizes how Trump wants to be seen and how he’d like to view himself. We don’t have to guess that he wants to be seen this way. Twenty years ago, he assumed a fake identity just to tell people these things about himself. And I can understand wanting to see oneself in such Zarathustrian terms. Who wouldn’t?  But the reality of Trump doesn’t come close to living up to it. Far from a shrewd businessman, his ventures and investments have underperformed their markets while taking on far too much risk. (If Trump were your investment advisor, you would have long ago screamed at/fired/cuckolded/defenestrated him.) Far from an Übermensch, Donald Trump was thoroughly dominated, just last night, by none other than the man he defeated in the primaries, Ted Cruz, whose speech Trump and his staff never even bothered to read. A strong person, you’d think, would be able to shake off the sting of criticism, but you can still needle Trump by pointing out his stubby fingers, which will elicit from him a tirade about an article written about him 25 years ago in a magazine that no longer exists. As for being immaculate, it is true that Trump is a germaphobe who won’t even touch the ground floor button in elevators because too many dirty people have pushed it, but he’s far from a connoisseur. Trump’s tastes tend toward the garish and vulgar. Even his fine art purchases are more about the price tag than the canvas:

I was prepared to like him as I boarded his black 727 at La Guardia for the flight to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home—prepared to discover that his over-the-top public persona was a clever pose. That underneath was an ironic wit, an ordinary but clever guy. But no. With Trump, what you see is what you get. His behavior was cringe-worthy. He showed off the gilded interior of his plane—calling me over to inspect a Renoir on its walls, beckoning me to lean in closely to see . . . what? The luminosity of the brush strokes? The masterly use of color? No. The signature. “Worth $10 million,” he told me. Time after time the stories he told me didn’t check out, from Michael Jackson’s romantic weekend at Mar-a-Lago with his then wife Lisa Marie Presley (they stayed at opposite ends of the estate) to the rug in one bedroom he said was designed by Walt Disney when he was 18 (it wasn’t) to the strength of his marriage to Maples (they would split months later).

It was hard to watch the way he treated those around him, issuing peremptory orders—“Polish this, Tony. Today.” He met with the lady who selected his drapery for the Florida estate—“The best! The best! She’s a genius!”—who had selected a sampling of fabrics for him to choose from, all different shades of gold. He left the choice to her, saying only, “I want it really rich. Rich, rich, elegant, incredible.” Then, “Don’t disappoint me.” It was a pattern. Trump did not make decisions. He surrounded himself with “geniuses” and delegated. So long as you did not “disappoint” him—and it was never clear how to avoid doing so—you were gold.

In a healthier person, the cognitive dissonance between how Trump presents himself and how he is would occasion some reflection, and possibly an adjustment of the persona to align more with reality. This has not happened. Instead, Trump’s version of himself has become, if anything, more cartoonish with the passage of time, as he’s doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on the lies needed to keep his image spotless. This seems like a lot of effort to go through, and it seems likely to leave Trump open to one enormous crash, probably this November. So why does he think the game worth the candle?

When I think of this question, I think of my grandmother, who died of Christian Science in 1988. Toward the end she was firing left and right Christian Science practitioners who urged her to seek “alternative help” (CS French for medical assistance). When I asked my Dad why she was continuing to follow this nonsensical faith-healing treatment method even though it was obviously killing her, my Dad told me she’d “spent too much time in”. Her beliefs had hurt her children, lost her a husband and a brother, and to abandon them now would mean abandoning the sense of self she’d built up over a lifetime. For her to give up Mary Baker Eddy would be like me giving up writing fiction, or Trump giving up his strong, smart, immaculate persona.

Trump really needs to believe that the persona he’s created to face the public is him. He probably needs it because the inner Trump, who I imagine is a perpetually perplexed, terrified entity, a mass of insecurities and phobias formed in childhood about dirt, women, people of color, and any part of the world not under his direct control. He’s built this public persona to stand on the battlements that separate this scared inner Trump from the forces of chaos that have laid siege outside, eager to tear him to pieces. To admit that his persona isn’t real would be to leave this inner Trump naked against those who would annihilate him. So the Trump persona must be maintained, updated, caparisoned in the newest and shiniest and classiest armor. For outside there be dragons. Dragons with cooties.

I wonder what losing in November will do to this man. His persona is based on being smarter and stronger than everyone else. To lose, particularly to lose to a woman…how will the little boy in the big wig come to terms with that? I picture him in his offices in Trump Tower, like Hitler in the bunker, barking out orders to underlings to rally nonexistent volunteers and uninterested donors.  Or I picture him like late stage Howard Hughes, with fingernails longer than his fingers and surrounded by jars of his own urine. The one way I don’t picture him coming out is totally fine, relaxed, and himself. No rubber duck is that unsinkable.

(If this wasn’t enough of a preview of coming attractions, you might want to spend a day or two reading the OSS’s psychological profile of Hitler, which contains some helpful parallels to Trump.)

Update: 7/25

Scientific American takes a look at Trump’s psychology and comes to similar conclusions.

In At Least One Universe, Sulu is Gay

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In at least one of Star Trek‘s universes–the one controlled by J.J. Abrams, helmsman Sulu has been (or will be) revealed as gay, with a husband and child. Apparently, this was meant as a tribute to George Takei, portrayer of Sulu Prime. However, Mr. Takei’s emotions about this seem mixed:

“I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”

Takei explains that Roddenberry was exhaustive in conceiving his Star Trek characters. (The name Sulu, for example, was based on the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines, so as to render his Asian nationality indeterminate.) And Roddenberry had always envisioned Sulu as heterosexual.

My feelings are mixed too. Pegg’s response, that this Sulu is an alternate timeline Sulu whose history we know less about, is fair enough. In the Spock-with-a-beard universe, Sulu has an enormous scar, is compared with a Gestapo agent, and sexually harasses Uhura in Roger Ailes-esque fashion. So sure. There can be more than one Sulu and more than one demeanor and orientation for him. And while Gene Roddenberry’s vision is worthy of respect, but it’s hardly sacrosanct.  Some deviations, particularly those coming from Nicholas Meyer and Ronald D. Moore, added greatly to the series.

Yet I’d be the last to tell George Takei how he ought to feel, and I think he has a point that doing this kind of reveal with Sulu is, in a way, bringing him out of the closet. And since Mr. Takei lived with the pain of the closet for decades, this, well, I’ll let him say it:

Takei first learned of Sulu’s recent same-sex leanings last year, when Cho called him to reveal the big news. Takei tried to convince him to make a new character gay instead. “I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.'” (Takei had enough negative experiences inside the Hollywood closet, he says, and strongly feels a character who came of age in the 23rd century would never find his way inside one.)

To this concern I’d add that Sulu in the rebooted film series hasn’t had much of a role. I remember him doing a bit of swordplay in the first one. My record of not watching Star Trek Into Darkness remains unbroken, but since nothing I’ve read goes on about the amazing Sulu arc, I’m assuming not much was done there either. If all they’re going to do in Beyond is show him in a quick shot with his husband and kid before sending him off for two hours of “Aye, Captain” and explosions, I’m not sure they’ve accomplished much by making Sulu gay. Firsts in Star Trek that mattered, the first captain of color in DS9, the first female captain in Voyager, carried great weight. Even the first interracial kiss, forced though it was on the protagonists, had some dramatic purpose to it to go with its cultural significance. And science fiction and fantasy television is no stranger to gay characters, so Trek doesn’t deserve credit for a first here. But they could try for something better and more lasting. If Star Trek wants to advance LGBT characters in science fiction, they might try presenting an LGBT character who’s integral to the story and who doesn’t end up dying or watching his or her partner die just to serve as a plot point. That would be fresh, new, and different, and would be a more fitting tribute to George Takei.

Somehow, I don’t think Star Trek Beyond will go that route, but we’ll see.

Which Movie Character Would Trump Be?

It’s been a miserable 24 hours, so to cheer up a bit, but only a bit, I started thinking about which movie character best represents Trump. I mean, sure, there’s this guy from a 1930s German film…

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But he’s not a character, exactly.

Who to pick? Who to pick? I think whoever it is has to meet several criteria. This character must be vain, boorish, asinine, prone to saying howling stupid/awful things, and utterly immune to criticism. This leaves out whole classes of movie villains, including almost all of the ones from the Star Trek, Batman, Star Wars, and James Bond franchises.

Well, not all the Star Trek villains, but Harry Mudd was TV, not film.
Well, not all the Star Trek villains, but Harry Mudd was TV, not movies.

Let’s see. There’s Lex Luthor from the 1978 Superman

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He’s got the look right. He’s also ostensibly rich, bald (though with a more convincing rug), obsessed with real estate, and eager to destroy all things good in the world. But I have to ask myself: could Donald Trump devise and execute a plan to redirect two nuclear missiles to destroy California and Hackensack, NJ and have it come within a Kryptonian superhero of working? Even if Donald Trump dreamed up such a scheme, he’d somehow botch it so bad that both missiles end up destroying him. I certainly don’t believe Trump has the brain power to figure out what kryptonite is or how to locate the Fortress of Solitude. So, no. Next.

Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (and the sequel which nobody needed).

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Okay. Our case. He’s rich. He’s a New Yorker. He’s ruthless. He says horrible things and people still, for some reason, like him. But he’s got the same problem as Luthor. Gekko’s much smarter than Donald Trump. My guess is that if Gordon Gekko invested in casinos, he’d make money. (Honestly, Donald Trump and Bugsy Siegel are pretty much the only guys who found ways to be The House and lose. Ah, well, at least The Donald’s eyes are, to date, bullet free.) Also, since Gekko trades in inside information, there’s no way his investments would underperform their indices by 48%. Moving on.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

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Okay. The case is strong. He’s got money, most of which he inherited but some of which he gets from a job that seems to require little of him. He hates women, the poor, and immigrants. He went to Harvard, but he shows few signs of being especially bright. He is the very personification of entitlement and greed. Yet I still can’t choose him. Why not? Because he does feel obliged to express concern, however insincere, about the social problems of his time, and he does tell a table mate at lunch too cool it with his antisemitic remarks. Trump would’ve egged him on. Forward ho!

Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride.

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Hmm. Yes. He’s rich, entitled, hateful, willing to sacrifice his bride to start a war, happy to torture, and he says out loud and without irony that he’s never wrong. This wouldn’t be a bad choice, honestly. But there is one I like better.

Otto from A Fish Called Wanda.

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Otto has all of the negative qualities these other characters (except the being a serial killer one). He’s arrogant, greedy, cruel, entitled. He’s not rich, but he does have three qualities that, on top of all the others, are essential for a Trump comparison: he’s galactically stupid, believes himself to be brilliant, and is utterly unable to stop himself from saying and doing disastrous things. All of the other characters I’ve mentioned have a modicum of self control, but not Otto. In any situation, he will–nay, he must–make an ass of himself. Witness this famous clip:

Otto, in this clip, is Trump to me. I’ll bet if you ask him, he will say that The London Underground is a political movement. Go ahead. Ask him. Just have my money when you come back.
If you think Trump is a different movie character, make your case in comments.