When America’s Hero Karl Becker asked the candidates last night what they respected about each other, I noticed something really bizarre. In a night full of weird moments that no Onion writer could even imagine during their smoke sessions (that’s how I assume they run their staff meetings), Secretary Clinton had this to say about the Republican nominee:
“His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.”
And in Trump’s response, he said something that I totally missed when I saw it live the first time. I rewatched it with my friends and caught it. It was really subtle but so revealing, sort of like a microexpression on someone’s face.
“Well, I consider her statement about my children to be a very nice compliment. I don’t know if it was meant to be a compliment…”
The key here is “I don’t know if it was meant to be a compliment”, when Clinton said “I think that says a lot about Donald” — an explicit statement that makes it clear that it’s because of his Donald’s parenting that his children turned out so well. To someone like me, that’s a real compliment, with zero backhandedness or sassiness.
Donald couldn’t grasp that it was a direct positive statement about his parenting. I’ve heard several ideas about this that are all super interesting — one that he didn’t really see it because his ego and self-worth are tied to things like his money, his success, and his abilities… not his relationships with other people. Another was that Clinton flipped the script here — usually women are the ones praised for parenting, so to make it a “good working dad” moment was so clever that it took Trump off guard, especially considering his misogyny.
All are valid, but I think there’s another piece here.
The most interesting part of the election so far has been seeing how these two very different pscyhes interact. Neither candidate, in my experiences, are that unique.
I’ve met and worked with plenty of Hillary Clinton types — really smart mission-driven introverted women who are annoyed by dealing with sexist bullshit their entire lives when they just want to get good work done, employing a persona of non-threatening listening and collaborating to prevent any insecure middle manager from feeling challenged. They’ll take the risk of coming of as guarded and cold because the risk of giving themselves away could mean they could get taken advantage of, which risks them not getting their work done, which is super meaningful to them. Their cynicism from a lifetime of belittlement and other bullshit means that when it comes to whatever’s private and done under-the-radar, they’ll take more risks because they know they live damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t lives and just cannot bring themselves to care when they know just how hypocritical the world is.
It’s obvious that Donald is some sort of narcissist. He has a hard time relating to other people’s worlds without relating it to his own world and vantage point. No compliment comes from him without praising himself too — if someone else did a genuinely good job, he’s instinctively inserts himself, usually his judgement in “choosing” that person.
The point has been raised that Donald is also a sociopath. This interests me the most because I’ve worked with and been friends with sociopaths. I’ve found a lot right and a lot wrong with this assessment.
The sociopaths in my life were really, really effective. Their only interest was their own success, but they knew that in order to succeed, they need to rely on other people to get them there. Recommendations, networking, relationships (romantic and platonic) — all elements that enable someone to succeed in life, that require people trusting and genuinely liking whoever they think you are. They were experts at using other people to get what they wanted because they never made those people feel like they were being used. They’d do favors for other people, give their time and energy to their friends, listen to problems, and act — really, really convincingly — like they’re genuinely interested. Their ability to sell this predicted their success, and their close friends often had no idea that they were means to an end.
You have no idea who in your life is an effective sociopath. You know who sucks at being a sociopath. But it takes some sort of event where people have to act in order to realize if someone’s an effective sociopath — they’ll show you, never tell you.
Donald Trump not immediately registering that Secretary Clinton complimented her complicates my view of his psyche. I’ve always thought he was simply a narcissistic yet ineffective sociopath, who’s never had to be an effective sociopath because of the resources and advantages he had. When you get a million dollar loan in your mid 20s from your wealthy father, you simply don’t have to be as good as someone from a middle-class or upper-middle class background. The effective sociopaths in my life are who they are because of their background — both being raised in the Silicon Valley, where nothing is given to you, and by the fact that their parents couldn’t give them nearly as much as Fred. They’ve had to earn their success, and they’ve had to learn on their own how to use their incredible charm to get what they want.
Trump never had that.
I still think all of that, but I also didn’t realize how lonely he is. A genuine compliment about something that’s not an external validation caught him off guard. I really don’t think he was shocked by the fact that Hillary went for his kids. I think he was shocked by her phrasing (“and that says a lot about Donald”), that she’d actually do something kind for him, for his sake, no matter how small and inconsequential.
I doubt that Donald Trump has ever had a true friend in his life. Every relationship that he had has come with a power dynamic — who’s giving what to who at any point in time. This is obviously his own fault, but last night really showed me how that can damage a human being. His unhappiness, his void that’s coming from not having people that actually give a shit about him for who he is, fuels so much of his aggression and insecurity.
He’s cruel and petty, yes, and he shouldn’t come close to the Oval Office. And he won’t.
But he’s complicated and complex, just like his supporters. And it’s easy for people like me to just criticize him and call him names and write thousands of words on how much he sucks. It’s harder to try to understand the depths of his awfulness. It’s almost impossible to feel any compassion to him or any deplorable.
But when Trump loses, he’s going away, in a sense. The 40 percent of the electorate that want him won’t. They’ll still be in our lives and they’ll still be in our society. I don’t think writing them off is how we make any progress. I’d rather dig deep into who they are in order to best communicate and work with them.
I don’t think we’ll learn anything from their yells and provocations. I think we have a lot to learn from the small, easy-to-miss cracks that come out subconsciously, like last night’s moment.