Both liberal and conservative writers express amazement over Donald Trump’s consistent inconsistencies – even incoherencies – regarding the positions he voices. But in fact there are no contradictions at all – once you realize there’s a larger theme, connecting them. It’s an overall, consistent mentality.
To explain, let’s look at the apparent discrepancies. One that’s particularly baffling is a seeming disconnect within Trump’s attitudes and behavior towards women. A recent New York Times story highlighted this. It described blatant, sexist objectification of women in his private relationships, relating to them as objects to seduce and possess as romantic conquests — until he becomes tired of them. And yet, he’s also promoted women to positions of management and responsibility in his business entities. So on the one hand, Trump looks like a conventional, though somewhat exaggerated, sexist skirt-chaser. But on the other hand, a modern, equality-promoting executive.
More broadly confounding are Trump’s multiple, ever-changing positions on policies, both domestic and foreign. They, too, appear incomprehensibly inconsistent from one moment to the next. Now you could explain that incoherency as the behavior of a more extremely bombastic, highly narcissistic politician. One who often expresses unanchored, off-the-cuff thinking. After all, narcissism is almost a job requirement for politicians, as Harold Lasswell described decades ago in his seminal book, Power and Personality.
But most narcissistic, power-seeking politicians want to garner enough broad support to get elected. Typically, they do that through charisma, crafted positions and calculated posturing for maximum appeal. That’s what doesn’t mesh with Trump’s emotionally unregulated — and ultimately self-undermining — indiscriminate attacks on others. Including needed allies or potential supporters, even. That latter, destructive mentality is more reminiscent of one of Gore Vidal’s bon mots: “It’s not enough that I succeed; others must fail.“
So on the surface, Trump’s attitudes and behavior don’t appear to reconcile, whether about women in particular or his political aims. But they really do. There’s an overriding theme that ties them all together: An overall mentality – an emotional and mental perspective and attitude. It’s that of an unbridled, unquestioned sense of personal greatness; of total power to control, possess and dominate as one wishes; for whatever purpose desired, at any moment.
It forms a caricature of a Conquistador, set in 21st Century USA. It’s an authoritarian who can do whatever he wants as it pleases him or serves his interest at the moment, or given a particular situation. It reflects high intelligence and savvy about finding the right vulnerability of others in order to exploit them for one’s benefit. It embodies unquestioned belief in one’s entitlement to take all for oneself; and destroy any who are in the way or who oppose you.
So: promoting or seducing women? It’s all the same, really: “You’re my possession, and if you do what I want you do to, whatever it is, I’m good to you, will take care of you. But if you don’t; or you cross me, I’ll destroy you.”
And incoherent inconsistencies about policies? No problem: “I change my mind in any direction I choose, and I will make it happen. My unbridled sense of greatness, power and control makes that possible. It’s all good. It will be great.”
A recent TV interview of Shark Tank star and successful real estate entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran described the essence of this mentality from the inside: Both she and Trump started out in the business during their 20s, and she’s known him through the decades since. She describes him as a master salesman — for himself.
According to Corcoran, Trump “… hasn’t changed one inch… he’s your best advocate when you’re on his side (but) if you ever differ with him, he was your worst nightmare. Traits like fairness, fair play, no bullying don’t exist. You can’t believe in anything he says, that he will actually do it…”
Is The Trump Mentality A Mental Disorder?
Psychologically, this Trump mentality of a modern-day conquistador is the connecting thread throughout all his apparent inconsistencies of positions and attitudes. I’ve been asked, does this warrant a psychiatric diagnosis? One could go there, but I think doing so narrows and limits our understanding. That is, any innate tendencies we have can be shaped and strengthened – for better or for worse – by the social and cultural forces we experience. In my view, a broader understanding is important, given that we’re in the process of choosing the next President. Of course, the sources of the Trump mentality and the reasons for its emotional appeal are complex; they warrant another discussion. But two are worth highlighting:
One reflects a more extreme version of behavior displayed by many men who face steady erosion of traditional male power and status in society, a position which has rewarded them handsomely. They are so self-identified with it that they respond with vigorous efforts to hold on to their power and perks – even increasing it as much as possible, through whatever means necessary. Corrupt behavior, outright lying; whatever “works.” Their attempts to preserve that sense of malehood – essentially extreme self-interest – is a form of psychological denial. They can’t believe that the world could ever cease to be as it’s always been for them.
A current, sad example of this is visible in the Houdini-like contortions many Republican politicians leaders are now going through – voicing support for Trump’s election, while also rejecting his racist, bigoted views and dog-whistle appeals to the GOP’s base.
No surprise, really: We know from research that an increase of power tends to diminish your empathy towards others. And, that embracing high status and material success are linked with attitudes of entitlement and narcissism. But the inconvenient truth is that societal transitions require letting go of rigid attachment to things for the self, and supporting only the privileged few – whether in the form of money, power, or material acquisitions. That means relinquishing some of that self-interest to provide support for the common good. The latter is the basis for increased wellbeing, security and enhancement for all lives in today’s world.
Another source of the Trump Syndrome and its emotional appeal stems from pervasive social and political shifts, demographic and economic. They have unleashed fears, insecurity and anger among many Republican voters, and towards the Republican establishment. The GOP has long-sought their support via direct or indirect appeals to racism, bigotry, fears of gays, dislike of abortions and fears that guns will be taken away; arguing that the future those voters desire lies with keeping the Republicans in office. But many realize they’ve been duped. They got nothing in return, while the GOP establishment continued to profit, for themselves.
That’s fueled resentment. And it creates receptivity to someone who can express and exploit their anger about their situation. Someone who can direct it towards the establishment. And, who can confidently claim to be able to fix everything through sheer personal power. Hence, the emotional appeal of an authoritarian conquistador: He’s going to solve everything through the strength of his power and authority. Many are now acknowledging the role of the GOP in “creating” the Trump mentality, especially the former Reagan and George H. W. Bush senior official, Bruce Bartlett, a vociferous critic of what’s now the Republican Party.
There’s also a larger backdrop to both the erosion of traditional male power and status, and the GOP strategy that’s come home to roost: The rise of unpredictability and continuous uncertainty about what will happen next in the world at large. Trump’s erratic and incoherent positions look like an increasing norm. In the past, events could be unpredictable, but relatively stable in the sense that you could anticipate that things would return to “normal;” to some kind of familiar equilibrium. But today, we live in a non-equilibrium world. There’s no previous, stable state to return to.
In effect, we’re becoming more numb to erratic, unpredictable and frightening change. The columnist Walter Shapiro recently described this in Roll Call: “In a sense, the incoherence of the world — when Americans can’t decide whether to worry more about Iran, China, Russia or North Korea — protects Trump from the incoherence of his policy prescriptions. If no one has figured out a way to eliminate terrorism, then maybe, voters might figure, Trump has a point when he suggests committing war crimes against the families of ISIS fighters.”
The upshot of the Trump mentality is this: Effective leadership requires collaborative relationship skills, openness, curiosity, interest in learning from others… and expanding one’s self-awareness. The Trump mentality of the Conquistador has no interest in any of that. If he’s a highly skilled salesman he can take advantage of the new normal, the current social conditions, and the desire to maintain or restore traditional male power. He can create an enticing emotional appeal to others, as the lone solution, which enables his rise to power. And he can serve his own wish for self-preservation at the same time. That conquistador mentality is the making of a tyrant. Could it work in 2016 America? Stay tuned.
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