The Little King
“The fake media is trying to silence us, but we will not let them.The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House. But I’m president, and they’re not.”
Last night, at a celebration for veterans and the “faith community,” Trump came closer than he ever has to revealing both his creepy monarchical fantasy of what it means to be president — “L’etat, c’est moi” — and the juvenile emotional life that rules his own behavior. Attaining the presidency, for him, is just a form of playground besting: “Nyah, Nyah, I won and you didn’t. So there.”
Trump can’t stand any suggestion that he is less than king of the neighborhood. It’s why he is so obsessed with proofs that he really won — lying about the size of crowds, voter fraud as the source of Clinton’s 3 million plus popular vote — and why he begins every speech by reminding us of his victory. It’s why he couldn’t bear to have Hillary Clinton describe him in debate as Putin’s “puppet.”
His response then was startling in its intensity and. immaturity : “No, you’re the puppet.” He said it twice. Clinton had, apparently, hit the hot spot of Trump’s vulnerability with the suggestion that he was being pushed around by someone tougher and smarter. She may as well have said “Vlad has got you by the short hairs.” That was unbearable to Trump, and the fact that his response was pathetically off-the-mark (Putin hates Clinton, and did everything he could to see that she was defeated) was lost to him in the immediacy of his need to punch back.
We’ve seen this over and over again, although only occasionally in as transparent form as the puppet moment or the “I’m president and they’re not” remark (which was equally as absurd as his comeback to Clinton — and this time in a prepared speech!) The first time politicians and pundits were startled, during the presidential campaign, by rawness of Trump’s ego was when Gold-star father Khizr Khan offered to lend Trump a copy of the U.S. Constitution (to remind him that religious freedom was a basic tenet of the Founding Fathers) and charged that compared to the loss of a son, Trump had sacrificed “nothing.” Trump’s response was to say that he had sacrificed plenty by running thriving businesses and (nyah, nyah) to insult Khan as being less of a man by talking while his wife was silent.
The Kahn episode had pundits questioning the state of Trump’s mental health. On MSNBC a few days later, Joe Scarborough said he’d “fielded calls all day yesterday, from conservatives, from Republicans, from officials, people that the media would call right-wing bloggers … and everybody was asking about his mental health.” Gene Robinson, of the Washington Post, wrote a column called “Is Donald Trump just plain crazy?” The prime-time talk shows featured psychological experts outlining the characteristics of narcissism and ticking off their application to Trump.
Trump’s response when questioned by Bill O’Reilly about the cruelty of his remarks about the Kahns was telling: “Remember, I was viciously attacked.” Viciously attacked? There was nothing vicious about Kahn’s remarks. But — and this is the key — they were a challenge, to Trump’s manhood, and by a man with more true authority, who had sacrificed a son while Trump had given “nothing.”
At the time, Trump’s “vicious attack” remark got me thinking —and not for the first time — about some comments that Thomas More made about Henry VIII and how easily the most minor slight could turn his warmth into cold, hard revenge. Henry, like Trump, could be expansive, generous, great fun to be around. But it only lasted so long as he felt assured of the admiration and allegiance of those around him. Having fun with the king, as More told a young courtier, was like “having fun with tamed lions — often it is harmless, but just as often there is the fear of harm. Often he roars in rage for no known reason, and suddenly the roar becomes fatal.” As he told his son in law Roper, even when he was favored by the King “more singularly” than any subject in the realm, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” And of course More’s head did eventually go — though not for a castle in France but because More refused to bend to Henry’s voracious will.
Henry VIII, of course, was educated and erudite — very unlike Trump, who can barely put together a grammatical sentence. But like Trump, Henry was a man of many faces, who could be good-natured one moment and cold as stone the next. The combination of informal warmth and lethal self-interest meant that even the closest relationships with him were never on solid ground, always skating on thin ice. And for Henry, as for Trump, disappointment could never be “slight.” All wounds to his authority, his manhood, his trust, were bloody gashes that he could only repair by annihilating (psychologically or literally) the one who inflicted the wound. As Howard Brenton, author of the play Anne Boleyn, put it in an interview with me, “With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead. He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually run everything on his behalf, and then when something went wrong, or a wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.”
That kind of on-off switch was clearly operating in Trump’s relationship with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. At the beginning of Trump’s run for presidency, Joe and Mika indulged him extravagantly, taking nearly daily phone calls, letting him blather on about whatever he wanted to, laughing at his bad jokes, and giving him hours of generously favorable publicity. When they began — quite late in the day, as both of them tend to forget — to criticize his behavior, it was therefore felt as a particular betrayal by Trump. But it was not until Mika publicly humiliated him over his fake Time magazine covers. (“nothing makes a man feel better than having a fake magazine cover made about himself”), referencing his “teensy” hands in a deliberately squeaky voice, that Trump exploded in the tweet that has everyone accusing him of finally “crossing a line.”
The fact is, that line has been crossed many times. We heard virtually the same comments about line-crossing from pundits after the Kahn episode, and when the “Access Hollywood” tapes surfaced, dozens of Republicans were jumping ship. (Then, of course, some well-timed emails were leaked, James Comey made his 11th hour announcement, and everyone was all “never mind.”) That display, like the nasty comments about Mika, used women’s bodies as a platform for assertions of Trump’s own manhood.
A skin so thin and manhood so fragile as to be unable to endure any hints of less-than-perfect potency seems intrinsic to Trump’s personality, and has been evident long before his run for presidency. He wasn’t even able to laugh at the correspondents dinner, when Obama called him out for his birther obsession, but worse, made fun of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
A man who gets psychologically roasted by a roast — and doesn’t even have the ability to hide his upset from the camera — is not the kind of man who can be “strategic” with his middle-of-the-night tweets, as Rachel Maddow and others have argued, suggesting the Mika tweet was deliberately designed to distract us from the serious political trouble his so-called “agenda” is in. This is a new version of the “Trump is brilliant in some ways” theory that I’ve never subscribed to. He may have an instinctive (and at the same time, well-practiced) feel for how to use media. But he is too impulsive and self-indulgent to be strategic with his tweets.
Forget both the psychoanalytic diagnoses and the attributions of cagey strategy. It’s really as simple as this: Trump cannot bear humiliation. And anything short of absolute allegiance, absolute adoration is humiliating to him. It’s a king-complex, but held by a man with the emotional requirements of a dangerously insecure child. The perfect recipe for a bully. Not someone who should be let loose in a playground, let alone the White House.
Susan Bordo is a cultural historian, media critic, and feminist scholar, and the author, most recently, of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton