Some Thoughts on Donald Trump’s Self-Perception

In a speech last Friday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Given his longstanding flirtation with the belief that Obama was born in Kenya, it marked a surprising reversal. Some observers believe it reflects a tendency of his to take a position on an issue and subsequently modify, abandon, or even reverse it. However one assesses the consistency of his policy positions, there has been at least one constant in his campaign: unwavering self-confidence. Indeed, the defining element of Mr. Trump’s candidacy is not his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or impose a steep tariff on Chinese imports; it is, instead, his conviction that he — and he alone — is capable of solving America’s challenges and bringing order to an increasingly chaotic world.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention this July, he argued that the “problems we face now — poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad — will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them.” Later in that address, he contended that no one understands America’s political system better than he does, “which is why I alone can fix it.” Last March, when announcing that he was forming an exploratory committee to determine whether he would run for the presidency, he declared: “I am the only one who can make America truly great again!” He was even more self-assured this February: “I am the only person who will make America great again.” This April, when discussing the loss of American jobs to overseas competitors, he contended: “I am the only person running for the presidency who understands this problem and knows how to fix it.” He expresses comparable conviction on a range of other issues. This March, for example, regarding terrorism by the Taliban in Pakistan, he assured voters: “I alone can solve.” This July, he said he is “the only one that can fix” illegal immigration from Mexico, and thusly grappled with inflation in the United States: “Only I can solve!”

While his language sometimes varies — last August, for example, he maintained that he “will take care of women like nobody else can” — Mr. Trump’s underlying message is consistent: he is uniquely powerful. It is a message, moreover, that predates his current campaign: in June 2013, for example, he observed that America’s “going to hell, and…I know the reasons why. I know how to fix them….very rarely would you find anybody that would know how to fix it.”

Based on his statements to date, one can deduce two reasons why Mr. Trump thinks voters should agree: he is unusually intelligent, and the challenges confronting the United States from within and without are not all that difficult (he typically does not specify what his solutions would entail in practice; if they are indeed as self-evident as he suggests, though, perhaps such explanation would be superfluous).

This March, when asked to name his foreign policy consultants, he replied that he has “a very good brain,” so “my primary consultant is myself.” Last July, he called himself “a really smart person,” adding that if he were running as a Democrat instead of a Republican, people would regard him as “one of the smartest people anywhere in the world.” In a May 8, 2013 rebuttal to unspecified “losers and haters,” he contended that his “IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it.” In April 2011, after telling an interviewer that “[n]obody [could] do the job that I [could] do” as president, he added: “I am a really smart guy. I was a great student at the best school.” Eleven years earlier, when he was mulling a run for the presidency, he noted that he “went to the Wharton School of Finance, which is the No. 1 school. I’m intelligent. Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.”

Then there is the alleged simplicity of the challenges in America’s inbox. Last June, he claimed to possess “a way of beating ISIS so easily, so quickly, so effectively, and it would be so nice.” Last July, he explained that building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border “is not even a difficult project if you know what you’re doing.” Last August, criticizing the amount of time it took the international community to negotiate a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, he lamented that he “could’ve done it so easy.” Last September, when asked how he might change China’s strategic calculus relative to North Korea, he intoned: “I would make China respect us.” He elaborated: “They’re going to listen to me.” This May, when asked how he would respond if Russian fighter jets harassed U.S. vessels, he said he would call Vladimir Putin and tell him “don’t do it again.” This June, he claimed that stopping China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property “is very easy, this is so easy.” Last month, he ventured that accelerating America’s economic growth “won’t even be that hard.” Earlier this month, pledging that he would mandate major companies such as Apple to manufacture their products in the United States, he declared that it is “so easy to stop the globalists.”

One could dismiss occasional quips in this vein as the kind of exaggerated rhetoric one often hears in an election season. But when one considers the number of such statements Mr. Trump has issued, the length of time over which he has made them, and the range of issues for which he believes only he possesses solutions, it becomes difficult to question the sincerity of his conviction. One who minimizes the complexities of public policy and depicts oneself as nearly omnipotent should not be praised for confidence, but faulted for hubris. America’s next president must appreciate the limits not only of U.S. power, but also of his or her own agency. In a world of ever-growing strategic complexity, humility is not a constraint on prudent policy, but rather, one of the essential preconditions.

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