Donald Trump is not happy unless he’s running the show and the past few months, let alone the past few days, have not been good for that scenario. The pandemic is nowhere under control, tens of millions of Americans are out of work, Minneapolis is in flames, Colorado is the new Charlottesville, he had a lovers’ spat with his beloved Twitter, and a protester in D.C. began scaling the wall of a building so he could paint, “Fuck Trump” on the wall in red Friday night. On these facts, Trump doesn’t appear to be on top of events, rather events appear to be crushing him, or at the very least minimizing him — and for him, that’s death. He has to rule the roost at all times. Tony Schwartz, Medium:
The third trait that most characterizes Trump is his need for dominance, and the evident pleasure he takes in exercising it. “I love getting even when I get screwed by someone,” he explains in his book Think Big and Kick Ass. “Always get even. When you are in business you need to get even with people who screw you. You need to screw them back 15 times harder.” In the absence of a conscience to shape and limit his behavior, Trump defaults to a more primitive and predatory impulse. Life for him is a zero-sum game. He either wins or he loses, dominates or submits. This explains why Trump felt no compunction about lashing out this week at a frequent critic, Joe Scarborough, by falsely accusing him of murder, even in the absence of a shred of evidence to support his claim. Cruelty is second nature to Trump.
Tony Schwartz doesn’t see things changing as we get closer to the election, except to get worse. He uses the word “Armegeddon” because Trump, it goes without saying, is going to lie about everything, and attempt to muscle everything to go in his favor, up until the bitter end. We’ve seen that already. He’s not going to change his spots, they’re only going to begin to glow in neon.
In the end, Trump does what he does because he is who he is, immutably. The research now strongly suggests that the absence of conscience has a strong hereditary basis, even as it may also be activated by adverse childhood experiences. The genetic abnormality itself manifests in the limbic system, the set of brain structures involved in the processing of emotions. People without a conscience, it turns out, often have an undersized or under-active amygdala and less gray matter in the limbic area of the brain.
For four years, along with millions of other Trump critics, I have wrestled with the best way to respond to a president who is incapable of shame or empathy and cares only about his self-interest. There is no effective treatment for a person with these traits, and Trump wouldn’t seek one if there was, because he genuinely doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with him. The horrifying truth is that it’s precisely what he’s missing that gives him a permanent advantage over the vast majority of us who are guided by a conscience and concern for others.
Trump revels in attention, domination, and cruelty. “The sociopath wants to manipulate and control you,” explains Martha Stout, “and so you are rewarding and encouraging him each and every time you allow him to see your anger, confusion or your hurt.” Even so, in order to protect our democracy and our shared humanity, it’s critical to push back, calmly and persistently, against every single lie Trump tells, and every legal and moral boundary he violates. We must resist what Hanna Arendt has called “the banality of evil” — the numbness and normalizing that so easily sets in when unconscionable acts become commonplace. “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply,” Arendt has written, “but some people will not.”
We are indeed in an era where unconscionable acts have become commonplace. America is literally in meltdown right now and we have only the semblance of a functioning federal government. Both chambers of congress are functioning and the courts are still in session but the executive branch is to all intents and purposes dormant. That’s why response times to crises have been way different than in other administrations. The titular commander in chief is drinking a Diet Coke and watching cable news at any given moment in time, until Stephen Miller or his son-in-law tell him that something needs to be addressed and then a commentary of some sort is cobbled together for Trump to tweet or read in front of a teleprompter.
That’s what happened just yesterday with “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a quote from a racist cop in 1967 which was immediately credited to Stephen Miller, Trump’s speechwriter. Miller writes the rhetoric and Jared Kushner has been referred to more than once as the “de facto president,” meaning he’s the one to call if you actually want to get anything done. So, consider that, as you look at your television set tonight or out your window at flames, National Guard troops, or your neighbors demonstrating — or rioting — in the streets. Tear gas canisters, dogs, violence and a nation’s tears. This is America in the third year of Trump. And we cry alone, because we have no leader. Trump is not exactly the fatherly type, even to his own kids.
Trump rarely speaks with affection about Melania, his third wife, or any of his children — with the exception of Ivanka — or his grandchildren. “I know friends who leave their businesses so they can spend more time with their children, and I say “Gimme a break,” Trump once explained. “My children couldn’t love me more if I spent 15 times more time with them.” But his children have sometimes described a different experience of their father. In 2004, Donald Jr. told a reporter that “My father is a very hardworking guy, and that’s his focus in life, so I got a lot of the paternal attention that a boy wants and needs from my grandfather.” In 2006, Trump’s younger son Eric mused that he was largely raised by his older brother. “My father, I love and appreciate,” he said, “but he always worked 24 hours a day.”
Junior raising Eric is truly the blind leading the blind, but it explains a lot. And he wasn’t “working” 24 hours a day, Eric. He was just gone. There’s a big difference. To this day, Trump and his sycophants claim that he works “18 hours a day.” No. Twitter and TV are not work. Trump is not there, not for Americans at large, certainly, and not even for his august base, who supposedly stand by him no matter what. The lights at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are on, but nobody’s home.