I’ve never observed anyone as closely as I’ve studied Donald Trump. Not just because he’s president, but also because I’ve never seen anyone like him, and because Trump poses puzzles I’ve found difficult to solve.
In particular I’ve wondered: how much does Trump consciously lie, and how much does Trump himself believe the incredible things he says?
Clearly he lies, but as I watched him carefully, I became persuaded there’s more to it than that. I concluded, for example, that Trump actually believed that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s – despite the completely clear photographic evidence to the contrary.
I also came to believe that Trump was sincere in all his boasting about how great his performance as president has been – though I have no doubt that history will record his presidency as a disaster and a disgrace from beginning to end.
I would bet that he even believes his boasts about what a great job he’s done handling the coronavirus crisis.
As Trump’s declining poll numbers show, even some of his supporters recognize how terribly he’s botched this pandemic. But I see no sign that Trump has considered even for a moment that tens of thousands of Americans have died needlessly because he’s blown it so badly.
I suspect the remarkable truth about Donald Trump is this: Trump will believe to be true whatever he needs to be true.
The overriding power of those “needs” seem to be a function of the remarkable depth of Trump’s narcissism — a narcissism widely noted in several of its other manifestations, like
• how remarkably intolerant of criticism he is;
• how he claims everything about him is “the best” (best people, best words, claiming to know more than the experts on a couple dozen topics);
• how he consistently deals with everything focused solely on serving his own interests, regardless of the needs of the nation (like Ukraine, like the pandemic).
(The problems stemming from narcissism that beset the world are explored at length in my 1988 book, "Out of Weakness".)
Narcissism implies a troubled relationship with reality, because its essence is a fight against a deeply experienced inner reality. That inner reality is a feeling of worthlessness, and the fight is to maintain the opposite feeling – of superiority, of being “the best.” The deeper the narcissism, the more profound the disconnect with reality.
Here are two clues to the extreme nature and degree of Trump’s narcissism.
The extraordinary ease with which Trump has continually told falsehoods demonstrates clearly that “truth” holds little power in Trump’s mind. When Trump speaks, what’s actually true has never seemed even to be a speed bump to be overcome as he fabricates the picture he wants. (I’d bet Trump could pass a polygraph while lying wantonly.)
Reality virtually disappears in favor of the false picture that Trump uninhibitedly chooses to paint.
That’s been true from the outset of his presidency. Now Trump’s recent statements about the pandemic have brought into even starker relief how little power reality has in Trump’s mind. Trump has repeatedly said – and really seems to believe – that if we did less testing for the virus there would be fewer cases.
Commentators have marveled at what they have imagined to be the stupidity displayed in such statements. But I propose it’s not stupidity, but Trump’s habitual insistence that reality has no existence independent of what we declare it to be. The idea that the virus will do its thing whether we measure it or not runs counter to Trump’s need to be able to deny reality.
Perhaps this explains why the virus has defeated Trump like none of the other crises and scandals he’s survived. The brilliant columnist Paul Krugman has written that the virus is “not a politician you can demonize and give silly nicknames; it’s not an ethnic minority about whom you can fearmonger and which you can beat up … It’s a real problem that demands real solutions.”
So Trump has his people declare that everything’s going great. But even Trump’s followers can’t help but notice that, as Krugman says, “the virus isn’t listening.” And so Trump’s continual evasion of the reality has resulted in the United States – always before the world’s leader in meeting such challenges – leading the world in deaths from the stubbornly real virus.
The pandemic actually handed Trump a great opportunity. All he had to do was follow the advice of experts – as the Republican Governor of Ohio and the Democratic Governor of New York – and his approval ratings would have shot up as theirs have, perhaps assuring his reelection.
But that would have required Trump to respect the realities of the situation – and that runs counter to Trump’s habit of ignoring reality and insisting on his version of things. So Trump stubbornly stuck to his own script for reelection, and just denied the reality of a pandemic that didn’t fit with those plans.
Confronted with a reality that couldn’t be bluffed or bullied, Trump exposed not only his complete selfishness and incompetence but also his fractured connection with reality.