Peter Baker is my favorite New York Times political columnist. No one, in my opinion, is more fair minded, less opinionated, and less partisan. It is clear he has values and principles but you don’t know what they are. Donald Trump, who (on the night of August 27, 2020) “Proudly accepted the Republican nomination for President of the United States”, could have had any journalist in the world for the post nomination interview. But he chose Peter Baker.

In a remarkably revealing wide-ranging article, Peter Baker notes, “For a man on the edge of history, President Trump sounded calm and relaxed. If he believes that he is on the verge of losing, he betrayed no sign of it. Instead he trotted out one of his favorite polls, boasted about his popularity with Republican voters, and talked about his convention’s ratings”.

“His presidency, he declared in an interview this week, has produced ‘an incredible result’. The stock markets are ‘pretty amazing’, the Republican National Convention has been ‘very successful’ and he has ‘done a very good job of handling the coronavirus epidemic even though more than 180,000 Americans are dead. At the same time, he said, he has endured ‘terrible things’ by his ‘maniac’ opponents.

“After nearly four years in office Mr. Trump heads into the fall campaign with a striking blend of braggadocio and grievance… he inhabits a world of his own making, sometimes untethered from the reality recognized by others. He has imposed his will on Washington and the world like no one else… Mr. Trump remains the same polarizing dominating force of nature who came, got up four years ago, and asserted that ‘I alone can fix it.’

“In the course of a 40 minute telephone call on Wednesday, Mr. Trump struggled to describe how he has changed. ‘I think I really am a little more circumspect…. I think I’d be similar’, he said. Which is exactly what his supporters want and his opponents fear.”

“Mr. Trump has all but put the pandemic behind him while arguing that he is best suited to rebuild the economy… Four years after his against the odds victory, he has claimed the nomination as the undisputed master of a party that did not want him. Those who stood against him have since been purged or have departed or have defected to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee. It has given Mr. Trump a unified convention and a party remade in his image to the delight of supporters who see him as their champion against an entitled politically correct elite.

“He arrived at the White House in January 2017 as the first President never to have served a day in political office or the military and had little time for business as usual… After a lifetime as a smash-mouth celebrity, he became a smash mouth president. At seventy-four, he turns to the same litany of political tactics he always has, just as he relies on the same vocabulary (‘tremendous’, ‘incredible’, ‘nasty’, ‘believe me’, ‘winning’, ‘loser’, ‘disgusting’, ‘disgrace’).

“Mr. Trump has refused to adapt to the presidency forcing it to adapt to him… he burns through staff faster than any other president… Mr. Trump casts that as a failing of his former aides, not him.

“He has no second thoughts about the most critical decision of his presidency. The pandemic was the fault of China. If he had to do it over again, he would have ensured the country had more medical gear stockpiled… but he offered no regrets for playing down the virus and insisted that his push to reopen society in the spring was the right one despite the cascade of death that followed… ‘I think it was a good decision because look at how our economy is going up’.

“His worst moments since taking office were the day he was impeached — unfairly in his mind — and the night that Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, cast the key vote dooming a Republican effort to revoke President Obama’s health care program…

“Given that… did he ever think about not running for a second term? ‘I never even considered that,’ he said. He said he was ready for four more years. ‘I feel good. I think — I think I feel better than I did four years ago.’”

Can one make sense of the mood swings, the contradictions, the strategic about faces of such a mercurial leader? To his credit, Peter Baker does not try. He is content, as a leading reporter of presidential politics being played at the highest level to masterfully lay out what he sees, and no more. But how does a professional psychotherapist — someone who traffics daily in the ambiguity, irrationality and covert defense mechanisms that characterize much of human behavior and almost all of political behavior — appraise the bizarre crisis our country is undergoing?

First, a caveat: as a licensed mental health professional, I consider it unethical and unprofessional — verging on malpractice to offer a diagnosis; howsoever, characterological (and presumably politically unbiased) on someone I have never met and never interviewed. So, even though as part of my training I conducted and submitted (to the institute director) over 5 thousand preliminary diagnostic reports on prospective patients who were seeking immediate therapeutic intervention from Community Guidance Service — I will offer no clinical diagnosis (not that any are required). Instead I will offer a point of view, part clinical sensibility, part ethnographic, philosophical and psychodynamic exploration: all of it rendered in plain English, that is more than suitable to someone such as Donald Trump (see Alper, The Mad King — Donald Trump, then comes across as an impulse-ridden figure, driven by mercurial mood swings that do not seem to make any apparent sense. He is someone who seems far more interested in flirting with presidential politics than experiencing it. As Peter Baker notes, he is the first president “never to have served a day in political office or the military and had little time for business as usual.”

From a psychological standpoint, he wants to rule but not govern. He is not interested in what has been called a “politics of meaning”. He does not see government as something that can, or should be in the business of solving human problems. He is not interested in an underlying philosophy, certainly not in philosophy of government. If there is such a philosophy, no one is practicing it. Politics at its core as he practices it, is a game, a game of power, of conflicting interests. It is a serious game. It is a transaction. There are no rules, other than the rules of expediency and doing whatever it takes to win. Such a philosophy of life is idiosyncratic because as philosophies of life go, it is barely articulated largely unconscious and certainly unexamined. If it is emblematic of anything, it is the quintessential unexamined life. And though it sometimes defers to the Jamesian notion of a pragmatic basis of truth, it tends to root itself on the slippery shore of emotional preferences (what follows is based on my book: The Selfish Gene Philosophy, first published by Academic Press in 2011):

“What then, might the hypothetical tenets of such an unconscious philosophy be?

“Well, if I could put a voice to it, it might say something no more worldly, surpassing and platitudinous than this:

“It is better to feel good than bad. It is better to feel something than nothing. It is better to be in control than not in control. It is better to win at whatever game you are playing for as Mel Brooks famously put it, ‘Winning is twice as good as losing’. It is better to feel powerful than powerless. To be admired than rejected. To be paid attention to than rejected. Right than wrong. Sure of yourself than anxious. Better to be healthy than sick, rich than poor, to get something for free rather than having to work for it. Better, of course, to be alive than dead, to live in a universe that far from being indifferent, is fine-tuned to human needs and, perhaps most important, better to be gratified and gratified quickly rather than having to rush being frustrated somewhere down the line.”

To my surprise, my profile turned out to be far more prescient than I imagined. Ten years later it fits Donald Trump to a T.

Okay, so much for a snapshot of Trump’s underlying philosophy. What about something far more important — his character? Twenty five years ago, I published an entire book — The Puppeteers: Studies of Obsessive Control — an exhaustive exploration of the volatile psychology of the founder of a cult or the leader of a new political movement.

What are the warning signs of the potentially destructive unchained charismatic personality? They are:

An aura of having a significantly greater energetic drive than other people, which does not necessarily derive from an excess of cheerfulness or mania (the popular misconception) but may be the expression of an angry depression — as is often the case with the incendiary leaders of minority groups.

A sense of a psychic surplus which cannot help overflow upon others. Narcissistic self absorption which can seem unremitting coupled with a self-justifying sanctimonious identification with a greater goal. An ability to draw people to him. For while the charismatic personality is always emitting psychic lines of force, he is also always receiving them and there is the distinct sense, when in the close company of such a person, of occupying a hublike position in a dynamically charged force field. And, as a consequence, the perception that he almost automatically will endeavor to convert whatever group he inhabits into a force field. You might say of the charismatic person, then, that it is his obsession to be not a self but a personality, to be not larger than life, but larger than himself. It is almost as though the normal boundaries of his skin and designated interpersonal space are insufficient to contain a persona so animated, that energy seems to be bursting out of him — and it is understandable that people who come into contact with such an individual often feel they have to get out of the way so as to allow the charismatic personality room to actualize itself. Because of this, there is a fear that to suppress the charismatic person would not only require too much effort, but would unleash a predictably violent counterreaction: something like getting in front of a speeding truck.

For all these reasons, the charismatic person strikes us as an embodiment of an archetype, a folk hero such as an athlete, or on another level, a paradigm of some elemental human force. Because of this greater psychic energy charismatic personalities seem more primitive, and therefore more connected to their own unconscious. It is common upon meeting a charismatic person much more so than with other people, to feel that one has just come into contact with an unconscious personality. And for this reason, even if he is also acknowledged to be brilliant, the cognitive processing is perceived as having correspondingly weaker hold on the more dominant unconscious personality, and to be mainly in the service of channelling an insatiable surge of psychic energy. Instinctively charismatic people instill in us an attitude for them or against them attitude, and it is as though we recognize that their personality needs are so enormous that compromise is out of the question. Part of the attraction, therefore, is the opportunity by identifying with them, to attain a sense of release by merging with their vast unconscious personalities. To disciple who seriously throws in his lot with the leader of a cult like political group, it may seem that the path he is following is one of awakening: perhaps through the process of identification; perhaps through contiguous magic, analogous archetypal fragments in his own unconscious, so stimulated, will for the first time burst through their repressive barriers.

It should be obvious that whatever the charismatic person offers, it is not love, kindness, understanding, nurturing, empathy or intimacy in any fundamental human sense, and if there is the promised enlightenment and guidance — whether political, religious, philosophical, moral or authentic — you can be sure it will be delivered generously and never in a personal way. It is no surprise that people upon first encountering a charismatic individual especially in a one-on-one setting, soon realize that he can never be fulfilled with just one person, and that the relationship he is really looking for can be satisfied by only an audience: and collusively, in an effort to please, they often begin to respond in that way, as though they were members of an invisible expectant susceptible audience, an intersection that is rewarded and instantly reciprocated by their animated partner who only then feels adequately appreciated.

“We can sum up by saying that what the charismatic person exclusively wants is to initiate a group process and therefore feels compelled to convert ordinary (human) interpersonal relationships to those of performing artists and audiences (Alper, 1993)”.

I wrote this almost 30 years ago. Very sadly it is far more relevant today than when it was written. I meet almost no one who is going to vote for Trump in 2020. I do not think (nor want) him to win, but it is quite possible. If he does win will that be the end of democracy as we know it (as many are saying)?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind. Listen to the voices of the children: “You’re not the boss of me (unless you’re my mommy and daddy).”

They’re only five or six, but already the principle of being born free, under the protective care of nurturing elders who respect their inalienable right to (eventually choose the kind of lives they want to lead, had taken hold over two hundred and fifty years the principle of being born free has been baked into the American DNA. Can a charismatic outsider who has been around for only a few years— a political black swan if ever there was one — overturn that?

Not a chance.

Gerald Alper

Is the author of

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient

Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality

His new book is

God and Therapy

What We Believe

When No One is Watching



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