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