During the presidential campaign I often referred to Donald Trump as a congenital liar, but it is possible that in doing so I made a “category mistake.” By definition liars, even chronic ones, belong to a category of people who know that there is truth from which their lies deviate. I am not sure that accurately describes President Trump’s state of mind. Perhaps a more accurate way of describing Trump’s outlook is that it presents as a grandiose delusional disorder.
People with this sort of disorder seem not to be able to discern what is real from what they want to be real. Their beliefs do not have to be bizarre but can appear as persistent misrepresentations that are either false or gross exaggerations. One sort of delusional disorder is called “grandiose.” Here the person has “an over-inflated sense of worth, power, knowledge, or identity.” Trump seems to fit this description.
Here are a few of Trump’s misrepresentations and exaggerations that appear to underpin his alternate reality.
— According to the president, the nation was in deep trouble when he took over. He insists that he inherited “a mess.” No one challenged this description, although it is plainly an exaggeration. In truth the economy (including job production and employment rates) under his predecessor was doing well and no new foreign wars had been launched by Washington. Civil rights were being extended to more and more minority groups. Where there was dissension it was over such things as police violence (which Trump seems not to see as a problem).
To tackle this exaggerated “mess” Trump claims to have put together a “well oiled machine.” This is a misrepresentation. By all evidence his early administration is disorganized, amateurish and plagued by internal dissension. When the situation was reported in the press, Trump got very angry at this challenge to his preferred view of reality and declared that the media is the “enemy of the American people.”
— President Trump claims that a key to the safety of the nation is the imposition of his immigration ban blocking immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations. However, the statistical evidence showing a lack of violence on American soil by such immigrants makes Trump’s claim insupportable. Just so his grossly exaggerated assertion that immigrants generally hurt the economy by taking jobs away from citizens.
— He (along with that other deluded leader Benjamin Netanyahu) describes Iran as the greatest terror state in the world, even though, in practice, Iran has been a discreet ally of the U.S. in the “war on terror.”
— And, of course, Trump continues to insist on his overwhelming popularity, as exemplified by claims for his Electoral College numbers and an alleged record inauguration attendance, despite the fact that each claim can easily be shown to be a misrepresentation of reality. Trump’s real approval rate now hovers around 40%, lower than every other post-World War II president at this point in their term.
To these instances of misrepresentation and exaggeration can be added other evidence, such as the fact that just about all contrary views appearing in the media are now described by Trump as “fake news.” In his own opinion, nothing he says or does is ever wrong or mistaken. If something does go wrong it is because some other person or group has maliciously sabotaged his efforts, while twisting the truth he knows to exist into a maligning falsehood. This is why he can’t work with anyone who has previously criticized him or who is likely to do so to his face.
There is another way to understand what Trump is doing. This is explained in a 2005 book by Harry Frankfurt entitled On Bullshit. Actually, an older and less crude way of describing this is “humbug.” Whatever you call it, this way of relating to the world is, according to Frankfurt, worse than lying because it is “indifferent to the truth.” Those who consistently engage in bullshit “quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.” You do this enough and you lose your capacity to tell what is true and what isn’t. Frankfurt believes that Trump does often lie, but even more often he just bullshits, and he really cares little about what is actually true. Perhaps he has reached the stage where truth is just whatever comes out of his mouth.
The Road to Power
How are we to understand the millions of Americans who respond to Donald Trump with uncritical enthusiasm – as if these large numbers are following a pied piper into a promised world. I think we have to see them as an archaic subset of any population. In the U.S. case, this is a largely white American subgroup which has been obsessively angry since the 1960s over both economic and cultural changes. In other words the progressive political and social reality that most Americans have created beginning with the Civil Rights movement is anathema to them. For these discontented people, the changes happening around them appeared unstoppable until now. However, Trump’s language, his attack on the political system per se, his choice of targets such as immigrants, have given voice and direction to the frustrations of this subgroup. Trump’s alternate reality is one that they are comfortable with. This situation is not unique to the U.S., nor is it unique to our historical period.
Even though there is no eliminating such a class of malcontents entirely, it is to be emphasized that, despite the publicity given emotional Trump rallies and the Tea Party movement, Trump devotees are a minority of the national population. If that is the case, how is it that Donald Trump occupies the White House? We can answer this question by accounting for the outlook of the rest of the adult U.S. population.
First, it is important to understand that a large percentage of American adults (perhaps 40 percent) don’t vote. In my opinion, most of them are just not interested in politics. It is not an important part of their local reality. Thus, they do not show an interest in, much less an understanding of, politically important issues beyond their own immediate locale. This accounts for the chronic low turnout for American elections both national and regional. The default position of this very large number of citizens is one of political passivity.
Second, during the past campaign season a large number of traditionally Democratic Party voters became disaffected. The party was essentially split by the Bernie Sanders challenge. When that proved of no avail against an entrenched leadership mindset more beholden to special interests then to the needs of the ordinary citizen, the party lost millions of votes. Some of these defectors probably became closet Trump supporters. Others voted for third party candidates or simply stayed home on election day.
You put all of this together with other voting variables such as gerrymandered voting districts, the usual barriers to minority group voting, and the distinct lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and the mystery of Trump’s victory gets less mysterious.
Actually, Donald Trump’s delusional worldview, and the reinforcing support given to it by his enthusiastic followers, does not prevent him from occasionally coming out with accurate observations. Unfortunately, these occur almost spontaneously, in what appears to spur-of-the-moment situations. For instance, in an interview with Bill O’Reilly aired just before the Superbowl, Trump responded to the assertion that Vladimir Putin was “a killer” by saying, “we’ve [the U.S.] got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?” This complemented his on-again – off-again desire to reach an accommodation with Moscow. Then, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, Trump questioned the continuing viability of the two-state solution (of course, without contextualizing the statement by pointing a finger at Israeli policies).
Yet these relatively rare public displays of reality-based insight are of little reassurance to the rest of us just because they are intermittent and apparently not characteristic of any disciplined analytical way of thinking. So, we are still left with guy who, for most of his waking hours, lives in his own world of “humbug.”
So what can we expect from this delusional, morally suspect personality who now occupies the White House? My guess is that as things get more contentious, Trump will retreat from the policy business of governing. He will turn that over (if he hasn’t already) to his accomplices: Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Vice President Pence. Having done so he will devote more and more time to his so-called reelection campaign where he can vent his spleen amongst the adoring crowds of supporters who serve, collectively, as a stimulant for the man’s immense ego.