December 31, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Democracy Is the Source of Trump’s Pain
A scared little man is exposed daily for being scared and little.
I was recently on Ian Masters’ radio show. The host of Background Briefing said something that stuck with me. It’s extraordinary, Masters said, that Donald Trump’s first instinct is to lie. He’s much more comfortable lying than he is telling the truth.
That’s one way of looking at it. But I doubt whether the president knows he’s lying. Importantly, I doubt whether he cares. I doubt whether he cares one way or the other, whether a statement is true or false or in-between. The differences just don’t matter.
That they don’t matter to him is something worth exploring. Here’s how I responded to Masters: Normal people like you and me have some degree of respect for the facts. We may have opinions about the fact that it’s raining outside, for example, but we don’t doubt that it’s raining. For people like the president, that’s not how things work.
For people like the president, there is no authority independent of his own ego and self-interest. As a consequence, there can be no deference to the authority of facts. There is literally nothing to defer to. As a consequence of that, there can’t be any such thing as lying. It’s impossible. Whatever he says, true or false, is true by virtue of his saying it. “When the facts do not exist independent of your own ego and your own self-interest, there’s no such thing as a falsehood,” I said, “Everything you say is true.”
When there is no authority independent of your own ego or self-interest, disagreement is intolerable. It’s not possible for there to be differing opinions over the same facts to whose authority each person defers. Au contraire! When there is no authority independent of your own ego and self-interest, disagreement is betrayal. Disagreement is treasonous. Dissent is the enemy. When a president recognizes no authority independent of his own ego and self-interest, even the American people have no authority. “Democracy” is meaningless, because the people are him. To disagree with Trump—whether administration officials or the press—is to betray the country.
If Trump says it’s not raining outside when it’s clearly raining, then it’s not raining. This is true by virtue of the president having said those words. Now imagine what it’s like working with such a person, being related to such a person, or (dear God) being married to such a person. This is an authoritarian politically as well as personally.
The poet and essayist Adrienne Rich once said liars are lonely. They are lonely because they don’t want to be seen. Rich, I think, captures something essential about Donald Trump. Yes, the president wants to be the center of everyone’s attention, but remember what Stephen Colbert once said—we don’t really know him. We don’t know his school grades. We won’t know his real skin color. We don’t know his real hair. Everything about this president is unreal: a front, a presentation, a fraud. And there’s probably a simple reason for that, so simple as to be invisible: He’s a scared little man.
Why doesn’t he want to be seen? Why is he so scared?
Let me digress a bit into the history of psychology. For a long time, for most of my lifetime in fact, social scientists and policy makers pinned many of society’s problems on low self-esteem. The solution was nurturing people’s self-worth. If a boy bullied a playmate, boost his self-esteem. If a man acted violently, he might be lashing out due to low or lack of self-esteem. Such fear explained a panoply of social ills. For a generation and more, the goal was devising methods to combat emotional insecurity.
It turns out everyone was wrong, wrote Roy Baumeister.
Fifteen years ago, the renown sociologist wrote for the LA Times: “It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves. They turn violent toward others who fail to give them the inflated respect they think they deserve. Nor does high self-esteem deter people from becoming bullies, according to most of the studies that have been done; it is simply untrue that beneath the surface of every obnoxious bully is an unhappy, self-hating child in need of sympathy and praise.”
It’s not fear rooted in insecurity. It’s fear root in self-regard, monumental self-regard. When Trump is proven wrong, he’s exposed. The facade crumbles. He is seen. This can be enormously painful, so painful, he’ll turn a democracy on its head, because democracy and its deference to the authority of truth is literally a source of pain.
Someone must be punished for that pain.
That someone is America.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.