Family and friends. We all have them, or at least most of the time we want them. In colloquial terms, family and friends offer support, love, and joy. They constitute a sphere of personal intimacy that makes a life more meaningful. The support of family and friends helps us to do the things in the world that we wish to do.

And yet there is something deeply disturbing, personally and politically, about the picture of family closeness provided by the Trump family. The kleptocratic dimensions of this are important, and have rightly received much attention. For it is clear that the Trump White House will involve conflicts of interest, “pay for play,” and brazen efforts to monetize “the Trump brand” beyond anything our country has ever seen. But what most disturbs me about the Trump family is something even deeper, that goes to the heart of what is wrong with Donald Trump as a political leader — his profound insularity, imperiousness, and lack of respect for his fellow citizens, linked to his pathological need to be surrounded at all times by underlings.

In a previous post, written months ago, I commented on the disturbing way that the Trump children have been presented to the world as if they had no mothers, and had been birthed by Trump himself. This, it still seems to me, has much to do with the misogyny at the heart of Trump’s character and his public persona. I really thought this would damage him politically in his contest with Hillary Clinton. I was wrong.

Hillary is now gone. I propose that we put this question of Trump’s personal misogyny aside, for but a moment, and reflect on what remains — the handful of people who constitute President-elect Trump’s inner circle, and who will likely influence his actions as President: Donald, Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump, Trump’s children; Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s principal adviser; and Rance Preibus, Trump’s new chief of staff. This, by all appearances, constitutes Trump’s inner circle of family and friends. (Poor Tiffany, Melania, Mike Pence, and even Kellyanne Conway already know this.)

What does this circle tell us about the man who will be the next President of the United States?

First, the children.

It is a wonderful thing to have adult children that you love and can truly be proud of. I speak from personal experience. My children, ages 30 and 25, bring me joy. I rely on them, and confide in them — within healthy limits. I trust them deeply. And they are independent adults, each with their own lives, tastes, and political convictions. They are with me sometimes, but mainly they are in their own lives, with their own friends, careers, passions. And I love this! I hold a responsible job, and I sometimes make complicated and consequential decisions. I sometimes talk with my children about these things, and sometimes they even give me advice. But they are not my advisers; they are my children (and their mother’s children too)! My children are fine young people. And they are young people, who have grown up under my tutelage, and who now are fashioning their own lives. They lack my experience and, quite frankly, they spent their formative years in my shadow. What would it say about me if I surrounded myself with them, kept them always within arm’s length, and treated them as my primary source of wisdom? What does it say about Donald Trump that he maintains such an emotionally incestuous relationship with his children? That these are the people — the people long subjected to his paternal support, and training, and supervision, and absorption into “the Trump family business” — who he regards as his closest confidants and advisers? Can his children, young people shaped by years of strong patriarchal discipline, who have spent their entire lives in the orbit of Big Daddy, be real sources of independent and mature judgment? Can they inspire confidence in anyone other than their overbearing and insecure daddy?

But the children are not alone in the inner circle. There is also son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is a family member by marriage and a clear protégé (a protégé, by conventional definition, is “a person who is guided and supported by an older and more experienced and influential person”). There is Reince Priebus, the sycophantic former head of the Republican National Committee, who Trump disparaged repeatedly and viciously during the campaign, and has now decided to use for his own purposes. And there is, finally, Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of the white Supremacist, racist, xenophobic and sexist media outlet Breitbart News, who Trump brought late into his campaign (after firing or letting go his first two campaign heads, Corey Levandowski and Paul Manafort).

As a 59-year-old man with a career, when I am called upon to make important decisions, I do not turn to my children or their significant others. I turn to my friends: my professional friends, close colleagues with whom I collaborate regularly, who I regard as peers — equals — whose opinions and accomplishments I admire, and who I can trust to share with me their perspectives, which are not my perspective; and my personal friends, adults with whom I have shared years of experience, ups and downs, and honest conversations, people who are fellow travelers in life.

Who are Donald Trump’s professional and personal friends?

It is a rather interesting thing that in all of the media coverage of Trump, there has been no discussion of his friends and colleagues. It has all been about his children, his properties, and the women he has treated as his properties.

Who are Donald Trump’s long time personal friends? Who are those peers in the business world with whom he has collaborated and maintained long-term personal relationships of trust?

We do not know.

We do know this: that by all accounts, from all of the profiles and even from his own words, Trump is a hypercompetitive individual who regards others as obstacles or means to his own personal triumphs; that he has a history of seeking always to be the top dog, of being very mean to people, of firing people who have for a time been close to him, of disparaging anyone who falls out of his favor, and of being vindictive and litigious with anyone who questions him.

It does not appear that Donald Trump has many if any friends at all in a proper sense.

Indeed, among his inner circle, there is only one person who can plausibly be considered a friend rather than a protégé or lackey: Stephen Bannon. Only Bannon can be considered a person of substance who stands on his own two feet, and came to Trump from his own position of power and affinity. Bannon alone is not indebted to Trump, and indeed in some very important ways Bannon might be the only person to whom Trump himself is indebted.

There is an intellectual tradition, going back to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, of viewing philia, or friendship, as central to political life. On this view, citizenship in the broadest sense is a kind of sharing of responsibility among equals who are by virtue of this collaboration “friends.” To be in politics is to have “friends” with whom one regularly interacts, friends who are similar to you and friends who are different, friends with whom you typically agree and friends with whom you typically disagree. Citizenship in a modern constitutional democracy rests on a version of this idea. Donald Trump does not seem to understand this idea at all.

There is another intellectual tradition, of more recent vintage, according to which the defining feature of politics is not collaborating with “friends” but doing battle with “enemies.” This tradition is associated with many totalitarian thinkers of the interwar period between WWI and WWII, and especially with the proponents of fascism. The most famous of them was the Nazi-affiliated philosopher Carl Schmitt, who said that “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” This is the political tradition from whence Stephen Bannon comes. Here is the glowing headline of the November 19, 2016, lead piece on Breitbart News: “The Wall Street Journal: Steve Bannon on Politics as War.”  Bannon has long been a crusader of “war” against liberalism, “the establishment,” racial, gender, and sexual equality, and human rights, things that he considers threatening to the “white nationalism” for which he speaks. Bannon is a political pugilist, a bully and a mobilizer of hate. In him Trump has found an ideological soulmate.

Donald Trump has virtually no friends in a proper sense.

He surrounds himself with his children and their friends, and with sycophants. This is because he distrusts everyone who does not reflect himself and repeat himself. He is a megalomaniac who has no real respect for peers. He is a narcissist for whom every public issue is about him. And he is a sociopath, who really does not seem capable of appreciating any opinion or deed or object that is not his, or of respecting any person that he does not regard as an extension of himself. He lacks a sense of empathy with others, and curiosity about the world, and appreciation for the complexity of human affairs. He sees himself and hears only himself. He is enclosed, with others branded “Trump,” in a gigantic glass tower that bears his name and that hovers over the city in which he lives and the people with whom he shares this city, pawns in his real-life game of Monopoly.

This angry and defensive lone wolf who has no peers and must always be on top is the man who will be the next President of the US and Commander in Chief of the US military.

This is disturbing, right?

But consider this. He may have one friend: Stephen K. Bannon.

Are you feeling any better now?

11 thoughts on “Family and Friends

  1. I understand your anti-Trump passion, and I would love to read your policy solutions to specific problems and issues.

    I suspect that you haven’t done extensive research on Trump’s family, friends and inner circle. I’m more interested in the people that he is interviewing, and with whom he is meeting during the transition.

    Personally, I am reluctant to make judgments about Trump’s family. I haven’t done the research. I do wonder about the characterization so. For instance, Kushner is impressive to me for his organizational capabilities. Ivanka could probably have made a speech at the Democratic Convention, and is an accomplished business woman. Her business is being boycotted by some, in my view, not for very good reasons. These types of boycotts always hurt people who have done absolutely wrong, including retailers, their employees and the artisans who create her offerings.

    You cited an abbreviated article on Breitbart about an interview that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The actual article is much more informative. Here is a link to it. Bannon and his career is much more nuanced than many characterizations of them. Emotionally charged categorizations shut down discourse rather than enhancing knowledge.

    I would like to see a sociological study of Bannon and Breitbart done rather than just using the commonly applied labels.

    I know how difficult it is to manage, large, complex processes, institutions and businesses; and I have done it. In the private sector, seriously flawed people rarely are successful over time.

    Personally, I think it is time to move on to issues.

    1. I agree with the idea that we should not let ourselves be distracted; we should focus on policy and ignore the tweets. But we all keep returning to Trump’s character, and I think we are doing it because we don’t think it can be sidelined or separated from his policies. And because it makes us deeply uncomfortable and so we try to articulate why and to make some sense of it. Personally, I keep returning to the issue of trust. We have to put a lot of trust in the people who represent and lead us. We will never know, for example, all that a president knows when he (still a he) makes decisions. So we have to trust that the person in charge is a mature human being with the ability to manage complexity in the world and the complexity (and doomed to be incomplete and unsatisfactory) of decision making on our behalf. In this way we are like children and Trump is our father. And that makes me extremely nervous, from how he will handle negotiations around the world, leaders in other countries who will exploit his ignorance and vanity, and the list goes on. We can still discuss policy and issues but to try to separate issues from the person in charge, or the family in charge, is not going to work either. Cause, you know, Bannon is one of them and how he thinks and what he has done will impact policy.

      1. If the objective is to influence what happens, then it seems to me the most effective way is to focus on policy alternatives, legislation, regulations, executive actions, and legal cases. Character is an interesting factor, however, I think it is a distraction in part because the fact bases used in political campaigns by all sides are questionable. Charactrrizations are largely the product of operations research efforts. The result for all the candidates are the creation of simulacrum built from selective data, some real and some imagined. Then, all the discussion centers around competing simulacrum which we take for real. Personally, I don’t trust the character assessments of any of the candidates that ran for President. I don’t want to defend the character of any politician because I simply don’t think the databases are very reliable. The law of small numbers suggests that the use of small datasets may not be adequate to characterize what is bring studied. A focus on policy alternatives, legislation, regulations, executive actions, and legal cases helps avoid being side tracked in debates that will never be adequately resolved, and ultimately may influence what is done, and future actions.

        1. I am not entirely in disagreement with you BUT I am saying something else, which I think got lost. We (thinkers, journalists, etc.) keep saying we need to focus on policy but there is something so disturbing about Trump that we keep coming back to his character to try to articulate the nature of what disturbs us. I think we feel compelled to do this– that we not really able to look away from it yet (maybe we never will, I don’t know). But if so many of us keep coming back to what smells funny about Trump, there is a reason and perhaps we should continue to try to articulate it. J Isaac does it here in terms of nepotism and the unhealthy relationships Trump has to his children and his bizarre lack of friends. I am saying that the way I posed the question to myself of what is so off about Trump was in terms of trust. I trust him with nothing and he is in charge and that is terrifying. I am not analyzing anything here social scientifically.

          1. These are some personal and what I think are practical observations from someone has been through contentious situations my entire adult life. Few things ever get resolved when they are emotionally charged. When things heat up, it helps to cool things down. In combat, those who are emotionally invested are usually the first casualties. I’ve crudely adopted an adaptation of phenomenological reduction, epoche, and bracket to most situations that I have been charged with resolving. This ultimately leaders to better understanding, interpretation and explanation. In a negotiating sense, it is about getting to yes by the parties involved. It is amazing what can happen when this approach is used. This may be counterintuitive, and is different from many forms of activism. Many issues and causes never get resolved until the emotional temperature is reduced, and while highly charged can alienate more people than are pursuaded. Satisfactory resolution is the goal, and getting there usually isn’t easy, but can be done.

          2. yes I see your point and I think that we can do both. We can have highly charged conversations with people who share our reaction and we can negotiate in a less charged space. We will likely move in and out of, and negotiate, these two spaces of activism for four years, if not longer. Like grief, we don’t move through phases linearly. And understanding what is off about Trump may help us as we dispassionately negotiate with him and his team. The kind of negotiation you discuss may also be best facilitated by a third party. Also, we will always be dealing with a child having a tantrum who has no desire for a satisfactory resolution, he just wants what he wants, so we have to consider how to deal with someone of that temperament, we have to understand his temperament.

          3. I am also concerned that any conventional or reasonable approach taken with Trump won’t work. He will kick in your face. Thus far Republicans in congress are also refusing any kind of compromise, or undermining the process, as they have done for eight years. In other words, if Trump and his posse have no interest in resolving conflict, you can keep a cool head when bargaining all you want, but he and they won’t budge so the activism may have to take this into account.

    2. Well this is my problem with social media and the sectarian left. I don’t know you and you don’t know me. What I said was small– we can conduct sociological investigations in the strictest terms at the same time that we investigate and write about what smells funny about Trump appointing his family, his CHILDREN, as advisors. Your answer is that I am not adequately informed or I would agree with you. This is not a serious engagement with what I said. If you want to fully understand the appeal of Beritbart and Bannon, you have to get the intersection of where Honey Boo-Boo meets Goldman Sachs and this is in part visceral. That is all I am saying– the two approaches enhance each other and don’t cancel each other out–mine and your’s and Bannon’s and Honey’s. Honey Boo -Boo does not give a shit because no party really serves her and Goldman Sachs folks know it— if you don’t go there you won’t get the grip that the Republicans have on anyone left out of the electorate. Thanks, Lisa

      1. Trump has not articulated a single policy past building a wall. If you think uber-rational approaches will defeat this, well, I cannot say more than reason matters but it is not enough.

Leave a Reply