December 26, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Is Donald Trump the Loneliest Man in America? Yes, and It Matters
Don't pity him. The president lives in a box of his own making.
The Huffington Post’s Molly Redden wrote a story Christmas Day worth pondering a bit. It was a roundup of news articles since 2017 focusing on Donald Trump as a “lonely” president. With the title “Donald Trump Is The Loneliest Man In America,” Redden’s intent wasn’t sympathy. (Outraged Twitter readers made that mistake.) It was pointing out reporting tropes seeming to convey important information but don’t. At root, Redden said, correctly, these are “rinse-and-repeat stories of palace intrigue.”
At first blush, Redden’s was a throw-away story fit for the slowest news day of the year. But I think it has more value than that. At the very least, it’s an occasion for us to think about why any president is lonely but especially this one. I happen to find the claim entirely believable, however thin the sourcing typically is for these kinds of stories.
Adrienne Rich: someone who lies is someone who does not want to be seen.
Donald Trump resides in a multiverse of lies that separates him inexorably from the human community. Moreover, he doesn’t value the opinions of the people he’s lying to. What he wants is something he can never have: respect from people who know the difference between obvious truth and obvious falsehood. What he wants is to dominate the people whom he can never dominate. And he can never dominate them, because they give deference to the authority of facts and morality more than they do to him.
Trump lives in a box of his own making.
The box may be his television. It should be no surprise one of the most perceptive observers of the Trump presidency has been a TV critic. In Audience of One, the Times’ James Poniewozik wrote Trump isn’t so much a human being as the rough outline of a human being, someone who has evolved into his own televised representation, a living avatar. He has, Poniewozik said, “achieved symbiosis with the medium. Its impulses were his impulses; its appetites were his appetites; its mentality was his mentality.”
Before he started his victory speech [late on November 8, 2016], he searched one more time, over the heads of the crowd, for the red light of the TV-news camera, the one thing on Earth that was most like him. It never slept. It was always hungry. It ate and ate and ate, and when it had eaten the entire world, it was still empty.
Trump has always understood what he can do with his fabricated virtual self. That it is flat, two-dimensional and bloodless obscures its potential political power. We don’t talk about this anymore, but during the 2016 campaign reporters spoke often of Trump’s habit of watching himself on TV with the sound off. One takeaway is the televised representation surpassed all other considerations. What he actually said was secondary, if it mattered at all. What mattered was how he said it, and especially how he looked on TV while saying it. This, to my thinking, is how he can still project an image of presidential strength while being, empirically, the weakest president in our history.
Stephen Colbert: For a guy who likes to always have a camera pointed at him and always talk about himself, there’s very little we can say about him with certainty.
That the president has achieved symbiosis with the TV medium may be why so many Americans believe they know him—why so many Americans believe they are like him and thus share his feelings of victimhood—without our knowing much about him. Stephen Colbert, another perceptive observer, said in August that’s the odd thing:
We actually know nothing about him. … We don’t know his school grades. We don’t know his actual skin color. We don’t know what his actual hair is like. We don’t know what he’s worth. We don’t know anything about his conversations with other world leaders. We don’t know anything about him. That’s the odd part. For a guy who likes to always have a camera pointed at him and always talk about himself, there’s very little we can say about him with certainty.
Knowing little about him is to the president’s advantage. But knowing little about him must take a psychological toll. The poet Adrienne Rich once said in 1975’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence that someone who lies is someone who does not want to be seen. “The liar lives in fear of losing control,” she said. “She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control. The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness” (my italics).
The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious. To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.
Why doesn’t Trump want to be seen? That’s for later, I suppose. For now, Trump is empty. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might have said. There is no man. Only rough outline of a man. He is adored by millions. He respects none of them.
Is Trump the loneliest man in America?
I think so.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.