With the Muslim Ban being enacted overnight, we perhaps begin to see how the Trump Presidency operates. And what we see is profoundly disturbing. In Trump’s first week as Chief Executive, with great fanfare, he signed a series of executive orders that begin the process of rolling out his extreme right-wing agenda for America. These executive orders were evidently written by his advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller without consultation from legal and policy experts. Beyond the ban, the orders include calls for action to impede implementation of Obamacare, reinstitute and expand the gag order on foreign aid that involves family planning services, build the wall on the southern border, and other actions. There already have been mass demonstrations and legal action against the Muslim ban, while opposition to the other actions have continued to mount. The country seems to be coming apart.
Throughout it all, Trump has acted in his grand style as the head of his yet-to-be-relinquished business where he did not report to any board of directors. Alternatively, he followed suit as that celebrity television personality who played himself as that sole decision-maker of his private business. He has been accustomed to acting unilaterally. And now he sits at his Oval Office desk brandishing his felt-tipped signatures for the cameras and issuing outrageous pronouncements, lies, and deceptions. It all is so staged. The felt-tip is the tip-off. It’s just like the intentionally misleading publicity photo of Trump with that felt-tipped pen posing as if he really was writing his inaugural speech. That speech was also written by Bannon and Miller. The executive orders, like inaugural address, were part of Trump’s “theatricality of power” that is intentionally designed to symbolize that the President is all powerful.
The executive orders, however, are of questionable value. When they are not patently unconstitutional like the Muslim Ban, they are hollow symbolic gestures like his authorizing the wall without any funding. Now that the President of Mexico has made it clear that it will stick with its refusal to pay for the wall, Trump needs Congress to appropriate the money. Yet, it is by no means guaranteed that Congress will fall into line with most Americans opposing the wall. It might; but the executive order by itself is not enough.
Trump clearly revels in the theatrics that help dramatize his image as all powerful; enabling him to appear to be acting consistent with his outrageous, if constantly repeated, claim that he alone can solve our problems. Yet, even with all the posturing, it is not at all clear that Trump is best understood as some sort of Machiavellian genius who knows how to play the public like a fine-tuned fiddle. Instead, he is more likely just the pathological, narcissistic self-absorbed man-child people have suggested he really is. He loves the stage not because it sets the table for substantive action, but how it helps him feel loved. He is more emotion than reason.
A good example of how emotion wins over reason is Trump’s persistent lying about voter fraud. He has harped on this issue for some time, most recently claiming he would have won the popular vote if not for 3-5 million illegal votes that went to his opponent Hillary Clinton. Like with other lies about illegal immigration or inner city crime rates, Trump seems to have a get-tough hidden agenda that will be served by his persistent lying. Linguist George Lakoff has effectively highlighted how such lying is part of a larger strategy to distract and deceive people while the hidden agenda gets legitimated and enacted.
As a linguist, Lakoff focuses on how Trump is using language to serve propagandistic purposes. From this perspective, he looks to be the master manipulator much like Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. In fact, Orwell’s 1949 classic is now a sold-out best seller once again as people rush to read it to understand Trump’s deceptions.
Lakoff and others hypothesize that Trump’s lying is part of a grand strategy serving some dark ulterior motive. Lying about something as trivial as crowd size is, according to this theory, designed to enlist people in supporting lies about more weighty matters — i.e., if you support him about the most obvious lies, you are implicated in his deceit and vulnerable to having to go along on other matters. Lying about non-existent voter fraud conceivably lays the groundwork for a campaign of voter suppression to secure re-election in 2020.
I do not dispute that Trump is a dangerous demagogue who is moving the U.S. political system toward autocracy. But the role of Trump’s lies in all that is, in my judgment, less by design than by petulance. There is a lot of evidence Trump is not lying as part of a nefarious grand plan or even to deviously laying the ground work for his preferred get-tough policies. Instead, he is lying more for personal, emotional reasons. He lies because that is what you do when you are a narcissistic, thinned-skinned man-child who will say and do anything to make yourself seem great. You especially lie to cover up personal deficiencies. You lie if anything makes you look less than totally loved, as in coming up short in the popular vote.
It’s become obvious that Trump needs treatment from mental health professionals (for our good as well as his). He makes it obvious when he goes on television and guilelessly displays his pathology to a national audience, as he did in his first network television interview on ABC with John Muir. He defended his lie about his inauguration crowd size, which he said was the largest ever (it wasn’t) reaching upwards of 1-1.5 million (when estimated to be more like 250,000). He also doubled down without evidence on his claim about 3-5 million illegal votes in the election that denied him a popular vote victory (contrary to the report he cites on out-of-date election systems that does not show any fraud).
He then demonstrated how intensely these statistical misstatements are related to his need to be loved, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his being so insecure about his personal deficiencies. He took Muir to see a picture of his crowd size and then as way of trying to explain why he is being misunderstood, he said this: “Nobody sees that. You don’t see that in the pictures. But when you look at this tremendous sea of love — I call it a sea of love. It’s really something special.”
Trump’s illusory sea of love is not part of some grand strategy; it’s an artifact of his emotional state. He lies to puff himself up. The sea of love references that oceanic feeling Sigmund Freud discussed in Civilization and Its Discontents, where an infantile desire to remain connected to the whole of existence pre-dates the development of a healthy independent self (p. 4). Writing during that ominous time of rising Nazism, Freud saw the oceanic feeling associated particularly with religious belief. He went on to note that when the illusion of oceanic feeling cannot be maintained, the disappointed self can be in denial and, failing that, ultimately turn vengeful. In the extreme, the pathological narcissist acts like a congenital liar with devastating consequences for himself and others.
Freud may be more important than Orwell in understanding Trump’s lying. It is true that Trump might end up providing cover for others to suppress the vote; but if he does, it will be due to his inability to repress his id.