Since the rise of The Donald, journalists and analysts have been racing to keep up with the tumult in his wake – from the already breathless hype of the 24-hour news cycle, which may perversely see him as something of a boon, to the somber head-scratching of some of the more thoughtful commentators. Without wanting to add to the noise, there is one thing my mind keeps coming back to, one glaring thing that much of the dissection of words and actions and the puzzling over motives seems to be missing.
The reason I’ve grown baffled by the bafflement is that I’ve long since come to see everything the man does through the lens of narcissism.
I hasten to add that I do not mean this in a clinical sense. Armchair diagnoses in general are all too rife, and it would be all the more presumptuous to attempt one on someone one has never met. That said, one really doesn’t have to look far to see the naked self-aggrandizement behind pretty much every move he makes, and it makes a disturbing amount of sense of a disturbing amount of things.
Paradoxically, even the self-contradictions, even the nonsense makes some sense once one realizes that he is being nonsensical by design. Remember, he ran a successful campaign by playing to all sides – those who believed he meant the things he said and those who played them down as mere campaign rhetoric, those genuinely enthused by his brashness craftily marketed as sincerity and those willing to put up with his more unsavory traits to make a gamble on him – and he is still trying to do so. It’s a game as skewed now as during the campaign, and if you think he cares about your interests, you’re being played. This is why the nonstop parsing troubles me: all the confusion about what he really means may still just be playing into his own interests.
The one thing I’m unsure of is to what extent he knows what he’s doing. He may be, as David Brooks has suggested, just a big child, an incompetent brat with an immature thought process. That, to my mind, is the less scary possibility. The other is that he may be a kind of perverse genius, his every move shrewdly calculated to maximize his own personal gain. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between, or some bizarre combination of both. Is he more like Kim Jong Un or Rodrigo Duterte? It’s a chilling comparison either way, and all the more so when he shows more interest in the strong-arm governance of such likes than in democratic leadership, even if his tactics don’t approach their level of brutality.
Fortunately for the rest of us, he is stuck within the constraints of the democratic process. But we can be sure he’ll keep doing whatever he can for as long as he can to work the system to his advantage, as the wheels of justice within that process turn painfully slowly. It still remains to be seen whether he has done anything technically illegal or just kept to the realm of the immoral, but given his complete lack of hesitation in crossing moral lines, I wouldn’t put it past him to skirt the limits of the law, to whatever extent he believed he could get away with.
Meanwhile, as the longsuffering men and women on the airwaves keep dutifully trying to take this man seriously, I roll my eyes and gesticulate and pray this madness doesn’t last too much longer. I have no illusions that a Pence presidency would solve all the country’s problems, and it would certainly leave us with much the same urgency in the moral imperative to stand up for all vulnerable human beings – which remains true no matter who is in office. But at least Mike Pence is qualified for public office, and presumably holds some values beyond personal (or family) profit. Which shows just how low the bar has fallen.