As part of this continuing series, it’s important to take a step back and establish why mobilization of a new kind and on a new scale is necessary. Maybe, we’d like to hope, Donald Trump will not be the disaster some observers fear. We might be tempted to think that Donald Trump’s excesses on the campaign trail were simply “politics,” as Chris Christie has already said about Trump’s oft-made promise to appoint a special prosecutor to look further into Hillary Clinton’s emails. We might be lulled by Trump’s gracious acceptance speech, or his cordial meeting with Barack Obama in the White House. We should not be so fooled.
But what if Trump’s election is truly a pivotal event in his life, a come-to-Jesus moment? Let me give two counter-arguments. First, as we know from the structure of such narratives of redemption, those instances come at nadirs, rather than zeniths. The result of Trump’s patterns of behavior on the campaign trail, and, over the course of his life, is that rather than being humbled by setbacks, he has been rewarded with the presidency of the United States. Secondly, there’s considerable research that while trauma has the power to reshape personality, positive developments are unlikely to spur any more than superficial behavioral pattern differences. Or, as was articulated in a presciently relevant article from 2012 in Psychology Today,
You cannot turn a sociopath into a saint or crush the ego of a narcissist–Nigel Barber, 2012.
Even if there were a short-term positive change, we can expect that president Donald Trump will be the same man as developer and candidate Donald Trump. And that’s someone who has the intent and the means to do irreparable harm to people’s lives and to the world in which we live.
So in our reasonable predictions of how Trump will behave as president, we are left with the principle that guides pretty much all of the most systematic forms of evaluating what people will do: that the best indicator of future performance is previous performance. It doesn’t mean that the past is destiny. But it’s the least bad indicator we’ve got. There’s a reason why college admission offices look at students’ GPAs, why hiring offices look at prospective employees’ resumes, and professional sports teams look at players’ statistics. Indeed, much of the recent revolution in how professional sports teams are run, including the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs’ breaking of their long championship droughts, comes from the phenomenon popularized by Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, in which teams started better using data on past performance to judge which players they should sign rather than relying heavily on the “eye test,” that is, signing guys who simply physically looked like ballplayers, or had a good game on the day that scouts happened to visit. (Note: that is just one element of the new thinking, including the use of more advanced metrics and the consideration of temperament in player evaluation, but you get the point).
We should do the same with Donald Trump, look beyond the campaign to what he’s done over the course of his 70-year life; that’s quite a record, and there’s been ample reporting on the subject, so there’s no need to rehearse it too much here. We can read about his documented, well-established, long-term patterns of racism, patterns of sexism and sexual assault, and patterns of disregard for the law. We can read about his vapidity and inability to concentrate on anything detailed. Of his mendacity, even under oath. Of his stinginess. Of his needs for vengeance. It’s telling that Trump’s mentor as a young man was Roy Cohn, one of the more despicable humans in 20th-century American politics. The main difference between the two men is that Cohn disdained everyone, including himself. By contrast, as we have seen over the course of this campaign and as David Remnick aptly put it, Trump’s “level of egotism is rarely exhibited outside of a clinical environment.”
You might object, saying that I am merely being hysterical, like those who bought guns in the run-up to the election, convinced by the gun industry’s marketing and lobbying arm (i.e. NRA) that Hillary Clinton was coming to take everyone’s firearms. The difference is this: besides a regrettable but understandable penchant for secrecy, there is no pattern or behavior or statement on Clinton’s part that suggests she would have confiscated anyone’s guns.
Or you might excuse Trump’s pre-election behavior, as one psychologist has, by comparing it to Andrew Jackson’s pre-election behavior, and say, more or less, “see, things turned out fine,” that is, unless you also choose to ignore, as that writer did, Jackson’s commitment to the expansion of slavery, his Indian removal policies, his disastrous dismantling of the national bank that led to the Panic of 1837 (one of our nation’s worst depressions, the result of speculation not unlike our recent bubbles prompted by deregulation), and his willingness to flout the Supreme Court. In short, not a model for emulation.
In my next post, I’ll explain why Trump’s long-time behaviors must be taken into account when we consider what he will try to do as president, and, following that, a post on why we cannot depend upon American institutions to restrain Trump’s worst impulses.