The Psychological Mastery of Donald Trump
Years of experience as an entertainer, pathological liar, and keen observer have led the man known as Donald Drumpf to a level of success that keeps surprising liberals and conservatives alike. It shouldn’t; it’s very predictable.
The first mistake that people everywhere make is assuming that Trump’s support is because of the content of his platform. It’s not about his platform. There is barely any content to begin with in his empty platform. Trump supporters are voting for the packaging.
People have endured years of politicians making hollow promises. Then here comes a candidate who calls the establishment out on those hollow promises. The people refuse to believe that this candidate himself is just making hollow promises (let alone that his are the emptiest of them all).
Donald Trump doesn’t believe a single word he says for longer than five seconds. His platform is his brand, something John Oliver briefly pointed out in his video watched over 50 million times already. Trump has spent his entire life associating the “Trump” name with success and fulfilled promises, a series of claims that does not hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. Donald Trump is a serial liar and a con man. He’s taken his acumen as a sales man and turned it into being a straight-up con man. Perhaps, frighteningly enough, Trump is the world’s greatest con man.
Reality is a set of psychological manipulation puzzles to Trump, because he is a master manipulator. He sees reality as a game he plays with himself while using everyone in America as his pawns. And I don’t just mean his supporters; even smart, liberal journalists are constantly falling for his tricks, helping him along ever further.
Right now, this article itself is playing into Donald Trump’s hands. I could write something like “Donald Trump is a cancer destroying America” and it would still help him. Why?
Because I’m talking about him, and that’s his winning move.
Donald Trump is a cancer destroying America
Let’s be clear: I don’t want Donald Trump to win anything, even though I just said that writing that heading is helping him. But it’s true: as far as analogies go, Donald Trump quite simply is a cancer systematically attacking the mostly-healthy body of America. To a point of constant degeneration and rapid decay, Trump is poisoning America.
Without delving too much into Overton Window politics, what Trump does is to constantly set a new norm: he chooses his actions very carefully and intentionally, and then lets the media fight it out over whether his actions were deplorable, condemnable, outrageous, unacceptable. (But let’s not actually do anything to follow through on any of those claims, like refusing to give him any further coverage, or writing dismissively about his actions).
Every time he does this, his actions result in cancerous harm against the people he vilifies. When it’s other politicians, it’s a lot more fair game—those folks are protected by the Secret Service, by being public figures, etc. But when he vilifies Mexicans, it very actively reinforces harmful stereotypes that lead to violence against Mexicans. When he vilifies Muslims, it very actively reinforces the violence against 1.6 billion Muslim people. Note that 99.9999% of Muslims are peaceful citizens around the country and the world; peaceful citizens who would never try to harm America. (Also, the even-more-innocent bystanders who get caught up in that violence are non-Muslim Sikh people.)
Instances of xenophobic violence are on the rise around Trump rallies. These changes are eroding and undermining years of this country’s social and economic progress. What Donald Trump does is actively harming, poisoning, the very fabric of present-day American society. And he does this all the while constantly and obsessively spinning his spiel about how he’ll supposedly make things better. But Trump only makes things worse.
An example of Trump’s Game
Donald Trump knows that David Duke and the KKK are terrible, awful people. People who should be condemned and disavowed by anyone remotely interested in a civil society. He called David Duke “a bigot, a racist” in the past when it was beneficial for him to do so. Now he’s pretending not to know anything about David Duke because it’s beneficial for him to do that.
How is it beneficial for him to not disavow the KKK?
Because it has media talking about him not disavowing the KKK, which helps him in in two ways: first, that by itself is sending the signal all around the country that it’s maybe an okay thing to choose not to disavow the KKK. (Aside: no one dares to suggest that we throw Donald Trump in jail for his implicit KKK-sympathizing, sure, but neither does anyone in the media dare to do their jobs and unequivocally state how his actions are utterly destructive and unacceptable. How his actions are an attack on American civil liberties.) That is a genuinely terrible thing to do; what Trump does erodes the fabric of American society. But Trump succeeds in unstable environments because of his domineering, abusive nature. He’s had lots of practice, and he could fall back on hundreds of millions of dollars of inheritance. He also genuinely doesn’t care that his rhetoric contributes to innocent citizens being murdered, because they’re all citizens that would never vote for him.
Second, it makes him win at his game, because people are talking about him.
The rules of Trump’s Game are very simple:
“What action will get me the most attention in the media? Okay, do that.”
If Trump had instantly disavowed David Duke and the KKK, then there would not have been a double news cycle about his doing so, and we’d be talking about some asinine thing Cruz or Rubio said instead. If Trump had disavowed, it would have been perfectly normal and no one would have argued with him on that. In fact, not even the most racist people at Fox News would have caused a fuss if he had disavowed the KKK.
Instead, we have perfectly moderate Republican former-candidate Mitt Romney calling Trump out on his implicit support for the KKK. Followed by conservative pundits attacking Romney for being such a decent citizen:
This is Trump’s Game. He just put Fox News into the position of openly siding with the KKK. On an issue Trump doesn’t even give two shits about. Well, maybe he does, given his father’s ties to the KKK and his own lawsuits around the topic.
All of this is dangerous and terrifying because it legitimizes the idea of siding with the KKK—an organization whose sole purpose of existence boils down to racist bigotry so intense it leads people to want to commit genocide. Yes, Trump consciously legitimizes people who want to commit genocide.
Trump said he “doesn’t know anything about white supremacy or white supremacists”—except he is a white supremacist, and he knows he is a white supremacist. However, unlike other white supremacists, Trump doesn’t actually care enough about it to do anything actively for white supremacy. He only cares when he can maneuver it as a topic into a news cycle. A news cycle that puts his face on millions of people’s TV screens. Again.
Aside: his later disavowing means he can push back on people who question him on this in future interviews, but it came after he benefited from the news cycle. As did him giving a different white supremacist press credentials at his rally.
When people call him out on it or press him for an answer, he’ll just maneuver away. He’s very skilled at maneuvering away. He maneuvers away constantly:
This is a completely empty answer to a question about his platform. It is followed by a deflection away from answering it altogether, and then he circles back to making himself look good. To making his brand look good. And his brand is his platform.
In responding to a citizen’s serious question, Trump provides no answer. But what he does—very purposefully and strategically, at that—is simply reinforce the idea that “the American Dream is dead” or in trouble, and that he’s the one to fix it. How will he fix it? “Look at that man in the beautiful hat with my name on it!”
The moment he is challenged, Trump is a coward who maneuvers away.
Trump uses layers of psychological mastery on top of everything. Layers upon layers upon layers of psychological maneuvering that deliberately manipulate people into thinking what he wants them to think. He very cogently abuses language to help his cause. He does this every single time he answers a question. You may also notice that he always mentions other people supporting and agreeing with him, an appeal to authority, even though there’s an infinitely greater number of people categorically calling him out for lying. They’re calling him out for deceiving the American citizens. They’re calling him out for being a terrible businessman. Trump ignores the existence of the millions of citizens calling him out.
He is such a strong (and dangerous) case study in narcissism that even therapists and psychologists call him out for it. Despite it being against their ethical agreements not to openly diagnose public figures. They are that worried about having such an extremely narcissistic, pathological liar in office.
Trump strategically associates negative topics with his opponents, even when he pretends to disavow the attack:
This is a known as apophasis. First he directly quotes (not RT’s; this is intentional) a couple of other people calling Megyn Kelly a bimbo. Eventually he “disavows” from such an attack by repeating the comparison, firmly planting the association in people’s minds some more, while absolving himself from further accusations against him. If people call him out on it, he can just point to the last tweet as a deflection. But more likely he’ll just ignore it and let his supporters, who he treats as pawns, do that for him. What you remember is “Megyn Kelly is a bimbo” and “Trump is not saying this” — both of which are lies.
Trump is a quintessential demagogue. He is someone who operates by the play books of history’s most genocidal dictators. All he changed was adding some entertainment, comedy, and new media savvy on top of their totalitarian strategies. Trump even has his own army of supporters who harass and threaten his critics into silence.
Trump long ago realized that the candidate people vote for is largely the candidate people talk about. Because it’s the candidate people know about. He knows that the majority of people don’t make decisions (including voting) based on intellectual reasoning. He knows they make decisions based on emotions. So what does Trump do, over and over again? He panders to his audience’s emotions. He gives them promises that make them feel like he hears their frustration. He makes them feel like he shares it, and will deliver solutions that change things around the country:
“I will rebuild our military; it will be so powerful and so great that we’ll never have to use it. Nobody’s gonna mess with us, folks.”
This is not an intelligent or rational statement; it’s vapid. The American military is already more well-funded and equipped than the next ten nations’ militaries combined. There is nothing for Trump to do other than waste an even greater percentage of the nation’s budget. Donald Trump wants to waste taxpayer money at a time of economic crisis.
But the crowds cheer when he blusters and postures about “making America great again.” America already is pretty great. It has serious problems, but Trump is more responsible for causing some of those problems. He has hardly ever solved any problems for other people.
Making Trump lose at his own Game
In Donald Trump’s game, losing is caused solely and exclusively by people not talking about him. If others are not talking about him, they’re talking about someone else. And that threatens him.
So far, not the GOP, the Democratic establishment, or the entire media world — save for John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight — have figured this out yet. It doesn’t matter when Ezra Klein writes a detailed piece about why everything Trump stands for is terrifyingly dangerous to American society (and the economy); he’s talking about Trump, and that makes Trump win. Similarly, it doesn’t matter when the highest praise the Financial Times has for him is that he might not be just like Hitler; they’re talking about him.
It truly doesn’t matter to Trump what the media are saying about him, as long as they’re talking about him. With one exception: he gets incredibly aggressive if you put “Donald Trump is a rapist” in a headline, because he knows that will damage him, and he will sue for billions. He knows it’ll stick because he almost certainly did rape a woman. Meaning, if it gets enough traction in the public eye, it’ll become a serious topic of investigation, dominating the news cycles with something that is very sticky and negative. Or rather, something that by far most people agree on is negative.
Being a massively xenophobic bigot? To his audience he’s just being American, and you’re terrible for saying that.
The trick to beating Trump at his game is to stop him from cheating. Trump is a cheat. He cheats in the game of politics with endless psychological manipulation. He has practiced this for so long, he doesn’t know how to stop being such a con man. About 80% of his statements are false, and he often contradicts himself on the remaining 20%.
Call him out for manipulating Americans. Expose the game he’s been playing for what it is. It’s not to see what he does, it’s to help raise awareness of his schemes among American citizens. It’s okay if they want to vote for him, as long as they are fully aware that he’s psychologically manipulating them into it. And that his promises are hollow.
Yawn at his tactics. Mock them. Mock him. Get under his skin. He has a shorter temper than the character of Yosemite Sam. Trump is quicker to explode into red hot fury than the fictional character created to be the epitome of a short-fused temper. It would be funny if he wasn’t such a con man.
Force him to make clear policy statements. Ask him why he advocates for war crimes. Ask him why he advocates things that would land him in international tribunals. Ask him why he would risk alienating America’s allies. Ask him why he would risk jeopardizing international trade agreements. Ask him why he would risk tanking our economy. Ask him whether he would actually commit those war crimes he advocates for.
But only do that when you’re absolutely forced to talk about him at all. It’s better to talk about something constructive. Someone who gives people hope. Someone who inspires people into constructive behavior.
America is better than Trump
Americans are better people than Donald Trump. They are understandably frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. A gridlock in Washington that’s caused by the GOP refusing to do their jobs. The very GOP Trump is the frontrunner of.
Trump is not anti-establishment. He’s front-running the establishment. He just comically bullies everyone around him who says anything negative about him. His behavior is destructive and divisive.
Barack Obama was elected on the inspiration of hope and change he advocated for. Barack Obama was elected on the platform of returning respect for America in the eyes of the world. Barack Obama overwhelmingly succeeded at returning respect for America. World leaders love Obama. He’s cool. He’s classy. He’s respectful (to a fault). He understands that most of the developed world is significantly more liberal and stable as a society, compared to the USA, and he enacts policy changes and laws as best as possible to bring it up to par with other nations.
American citizens love Obama. They love Obamacare. Obamacare is great; it’s an incredibly successful program that has brought health insurance to millions of previously uninsured American citizens. Obamacare has saved countless lives already. And it was a detailed part of Obama’s platform when he ran for office.
Hillary Clinton’s policies are almost indistinguishable from Barack Obama’s at this point. It means she would continue to drive greater respect for America in the eyes of the world. It means she would drive improved care for American citizens. It would also mean we’d have a fresh new perspective on running this nation that it’s never had before.
Bernie Sanders’ policies are more progressive and socially insightful than Clinton’s. It means he would mesh well with America’s (genuine) allies around the world, all of which are democratic socialist countries. It means he would tackle head-on the wealth inequality that causes much of the overall instability of this nation.
What both of these candidates offer is a platform with actual content. A platform with actual strategies they can explain to you. And sure, they still engage in political maneuvering, just like any other candidate. But they do it for the care of the American people. They do it for the LGBTQ community. They do it for the African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Muslim, Atheist, Disabled, and immigrant people that live here. That work here. That have families here. That pay taxes. That contribute to society. That help one another succeed. That make America great.
Will Sanders or Clinton do it absolutely perfectly? No. But neither did Obama. And Obama is still doing a fantastic job, despite the GOP roadblocking him at every step.
Trump is the most self-serving con man on the planet. The American people deserve a lot better than that.