Diagnosing the Donald

Photo by Guido van Nispen | CC BY 2.0

Anyone who still doesn’t realize that Donald Trump’s unfitness for office makes him a clear and present danger is obtuse or perverse or both.

It is pertinent to ask: what’s the matter with them?

A question of more immediate urgency, however, is: what’s the matter with Trump?

Why is he so dead set on making life worse for all but his class brothers and sisters, and why is he so reckless on matters of war and peace – even to the point of pushing the Doomsday Clock right up to the brink of midnight?

There are some who think the problem lies between his ears.   Among them, are those who think that his problem is clinical; narcissistic personality disorder is a widely suggested diagnosis.

However, political commentators ought to leave clinical diagnoses to professionals; especially when patently obvious explanations that require no particular expertise to make are illuminating enough.

It is obvious, for example, that the man is a hapless buffoon with authoritarian leanings that render him temperamentally unsuited to lead a country – especially one with an historically weak state and deeply entrenched, though perpetually embattled, liberal traditions.

It is also obvious that Trump’s ignorance is breathtaking and that he is, as his Secretary of State aptly said, “a fucking moron.”

Large swathes of the electorate already knew that even before the 2016 election season got underway.

Since the inevitable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was popular only with unreconstructed Clintonites (neoliberals, liberal imperialists, chicken hawks), and persons, mainly women of a certain age, who wanted to see a woman president before they died, it is a good bet that most of the support Clinton garnered last November came from lesser evilists voting against Trump.  Even so, she got some three million more votes than he did.

Now that Trump has been in office for ten long months, his popularity has fallen dramatically.  Mainstream Republicans and even a few unreconstructed Tea Party stalwarts have come to understand that the septuagenarian they voted for has the mind of a troubled, willfully ignorant, and dangerously impetuous teenage boy.

Inasmuch as the prospect of nuclear annihilation and of anthropogenic environmental catastrophes concentrate the mind, many of them, including some who thought that, by voting for Trump, they were only extending their middle finger the establishment’s way, have come to realize the error of their ways.  Some of them are even finding it within themselves to turn on the buffoonish mountebank they voted for.

Of course, there are also hardcore Trump supporters who will never turn because, even if they see through Trump’s shams, they don’t care because they identify viscerally with the vileness Trump exudes.  There is nothing that Trump could do that would be too outrageous for them to abide.  Such people can never be dissuaded; only defeated.

Lately, the idea that what mainly moves Trump is anti-Obama animosity has also taken hold.  This diagnosis is consistent with, but not entailed by, diagnoses that focus on mental deficiencies and possible pathologies.

Trump voters did detest Obama – mainly, but not entirely, for the wrong reasons.  What got their goat was not so much his (Clintonite) politics, as his color.  They also didn’t care for the ease with which he moved in “elite” circles.  Trump voters want black people to know their place.

In much the way that the Tea Party did in 2010 and 2012, Trump played the anti-Obama card.  It took him all the way to the White House.

However, he arrived there without a clue about what to do next — beyond turning as much as he could over to compliant family members, sycophants, and business cronies, and letting the GOP’s libertarian and theocratic ideologues have their way.

If ever there was a recipe for a failed presidency, this was it.

He has kept on playing the anti-Obama card.  Why wouldn’t he?  It makes him feel good, and his hardcore fans, now pretty much his only supporters, seem to like it.  Also, more likely than not, he too has problems with persons of color, especially uppity ones.

And so, the story goes: the vile, self-defeating, moronic nonsense he tweets – and acts upon, insofar as he is able without the Republican House and Senate getting with the program – is aimed at turning back the vaunted “Obama legacy.”

If only he would!

Trump has indeed targeted worthwhile things the Obama administration has done: its feeble attempts at stemming the flow of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, for example.  And he plainly does want to undo Obama’s efforts to extend health care coverage to uninsured Americans.  His and his party’s “repeal and replace Obamacare” obsession provides strong evidence supporting the Obama-animosity hypothesis.

Obamacare is, after all, essentially a Republican confection.  Its core ideas were concocted in rightwing think tanks and implemented in much the form Obama proposed them, by Mitt Romney, when he was the Republican Governor of Massachusetts.  It is a program that private insurance companies, Big Pharma, and the for-profit health care industry can live with.  Exactly what Trump et. al. object to, beyond the nominal identification with a president they despise, is therefore hard to tell.

Trump also wants to undermine Obama’s diplomatic initiatives in Iran, Cuba and elsewhere.

But the Obama legacy is not so much about his comparatively worthwhile initiatives as about keeping the American empire up and running in the face of ineluctable pressures, from within and without, pushing it into decline.

The internal pressures stem, ironically, from the neoliberal world order that the United States fostered and continues to superintend.  Formerly, the world’s economic colossus, America is now on its way to becoming just one large national economy among others.

There is a limit to how long a country that is no longer economically “exceptional” in the ways that the United States used to be can continue to dominate the rest of the world.

If enacted, Obama’s proposed trade policies, the Trans Pacific Partnership especially, would have been detrimental to the material wellbeing of most workers in all the affected countries, including the United States, and would have further diminished already negligible democratic controls over capitalist enterprises.  Those who described the TPP as NAFTA on steroids were on to something.

Obama was willing to inflict such miseries upon working people because, as a dedicated imperialist, what he wanted, more than anything else, was to keep the world, especially the part of it that is close to China, tied to the American, not the Chinese, economy.

Insofar as he is capable of entertaining a geopolitical thought, Trump wants that too.  Whatever he may say or tweet, and whatever his marks may think, “America First,” for him, has little to do with job creation or the wellbeing of American workers, and everything to do with enhancing American world domination.  Trump’s bluster may suggest otherwise, but what he is actually doing is following in Obama’s footsteps.

Obama, the Nobel laureate, was not averse to using America’s military might to advance geopolitical objectives.  Trump is not averse either, and being neither thoughtful nor morally circumspect in the ways that Obama was, he is, if anything, even worse.  Obama extended the Bush-Cheney wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the entire Muslim world and beyond.  Trump’s complaint is that he was not aggressive enough.


The Obama administration championed “full spectrum dominance” – on land, sea and air, of course, but also in space and cyber-space.  If Trump in any way objects, he has kept his objections to himself.   To spread the murder and mayhem his policies entailed, Obama relied as best he could on robotic technologies, especially weaponized drones, not “boots on the ground.” Trump is no less a fan of remote control killing.

Even so, it is plain that Trump would like nothing more than to knock Obama down a few notches.  This makes little sense from a logical point of view, but it is just what a moron who is also a racist would do.

Other ways of explaining Trump surface from time to time, but they are usually too parochial or too far-fetched to do much explanatory work.

In the former category are explanations for Trump’s anti-Iranian blather that invoke the influence of the Israeli government and its “lobbies” (agents); and explanations for Trump’s efforts to stall the long overdue rapprochement between the United States and Cuba that the Obama administration began by casting blame on well-connected, old-school counter-revolutionary gusanos. 

Trump is happy to accede to the demands of nefarious domestic lobbies when there is little or no cost to him; and when he stands to benefit financially or politically.

However, nearly all American politicians have been doing much the same for decades.  With serious money at stake, and with electoral exigencies figuring in, how could they not?  Trump’s takes on Israel-Palestine and on Cuba may be more noxious than Obama’s, but they are cut from the same cloth.

In any case, nothing in American domestic politics begins to account for the range and depth of the vileness and stupidity that runs rampant throughout the Trump administration.  Only Trump’s infantilism and racism can explain that.  One or the other or both: chose your poison!

The idea that Trump is somehow a fiendishly clever strategist, and that there is a cunning plan behind his apparent nonsense, simply doesn’t cut it.

It is tempting to believe otherwise, however; and so, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the idea never quite dies.  Its tenacity follows from the fact that it is an illusion in the Freudian sense, an expression of an unconscious wish.

It also helps that the illusion has some basis in real history.  In the republic’s earliest days, it was more possible than it has since become for thoughtful people to believe that the institutions our Constitution put in place would encourage a political climate that would foster and revere excellence.

That expectation has seldom been born out, but for some people, it is almost impossible to dislodge.  This has been the case even in recent decades, as glaring mediocrities have poured into the political class.

It is hard to remember a time when a sensible person could think that things were going well for the vast majority of Americans.  Nevertheless, from our present vantage point, even the past several decades seem like salad days.  It is as if the Donald was put on earth to prove that, in American politics, the scum, not the cream, rises to the top.

But illusions persist, and so there are people who insist that Trump isn’t really a moron; that he is pretending to be infantile and ignorant for some ulterior purpose.

What could that possibly be?

The only remotely plausible explanations have a conspiracy theory flavor.   This does not make them false; conspiracies happen.  But it is a reason to be skeptical.

If there really is some dark force pulling Trump’s strings, it is most likely fueled by the money of a mysterious master of the dark arts of computer science and high finance, a reclusive reactionary named Robert Mercer.  It was Mercer, along with his daughter, Rebekah, who brought Steve Bannon and other similarly nefarious characters into Trump’s orbit.

Mercer is also a backer of Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas whose name is seldom mentioned without the word “loathsome” attached.

What do the Mercers want?  Most likely, just Bannon-style nihilism – either for nihilism’s sake or with a view, ultimately, to installing a new order based on illiberal, nationalist, and white supremacist principles.

Perhaps they think that objective is consistent with the varieties of pernicious libertarianism that Cruz and other leading Republicans champion.  Most billionaires are all for libertianisms that justify the rich getting richer.

It is possible too that the Mercers don’t much care how well their political projects cohere; that their interest is just in owning as many useful movers and shakers as they can.

Trump is tailor made for that; he is just the one to combine authoritarianism and libertarianism – and other ideologies, including religious ones, with ready constituencies on the right.   It all depends on whom he is talking to or tweeting.

The man is a huckster, hell bent only on feathering his own nest.  Principles lie beyond his ken.  In that department, he has, at most, only more or less settled views.

Expediency could, however, lead him to fall into situations in which others are able to use him to further their own ends.  Perhaps this is what the Mercers have in mind.  Perhaps they are already hard at it.

But, although they are plainly many times cleverer than he, their chances of success are slight because, as a bully, Trump is acutely sensitive to anything that could be construed as a slight to the majesty of his person.  He is not someone that others can easily use.

This is why the best, indeed the only credible, accounts of what makes him tick – or, what comes to the same thing, what makes him so dangerous and god awful, depend on nothing more subtle than his own mental and moral failings.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).