Inside Trump's Paranoid Style of Politics
Ever since he got pushed around at that military academy, Trump has been all about shame—avoiding it himself, and inflicting it on others.
Always deeply psychological endeavors, presidential campaigns reveal, in remarkably accurate ways, the hearts and minds of the candidates. The sweating and resentful Richard Nixon of 1960 became the disgraced president driven from office 1974. The cool and efficient Barack Obama of 2008 was the no-drama president of 2011, who authorized the mission that saw Osama bin Laden killed and then knocked ’em dead with his jokes at the White House correspondent’s dinner while the raid was in progress.
In 2016, with Donald Trump, we have a candidate who has spewed anger and bigotry and lurched from one controversy to the next. More performance art than stump speeches, his campaign appearances are such florid emotional displays that it’s difficult to keep track of the message he wants to deliver. But if you pay attention to his style, and the unique themes he returns to again and again, you start to recognize a pattern.
From the day he declared his candidacy, Trump has repeatedly talked about competitors who “beat” America in trade and how very smart foreign leaders secretly denigrate the United States. He’s especially upset about Mexico. “They beat us all the time,” said Trump during the Trump Tower speech. “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They are laughing at us, at our stupidity.”
Superficially, the problem that torments Trump, is trade. But his language -- they “beat” us and “laugh” at us -- provokes the emotional power of shame. Almost nothing hurts us more than this feeling, which fills us with the sense that others see as weak, ineffective, and unworthy. Inevitably, then, shame is followed by anger, as we burn at the injustice of being diminished and yearn to recover our dignity.
Trump, who told me in 2014 that he sees life as an endless struggle to win and avoid losing, recognizes that the pain of humiliation can be an extraordinary motivator. He felt it himself, when he lost his Trump Airline and the Plaza Hotel and became a symbol of failure in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Out of this defeat he fashioned a comeback that saw him become richer and more famous than ever. Now, when he says “every country” is “beating us,” he wants us to experience the sting of being identified as losers and then feel motivated to back him as the hero who will restore our honor.
Trump is not the first political leader to declare America imperiled and offer himself as a protector. In the 1950s Sen. Joseph McCarthy practiced the same trick with his investigation of so-called Communists in the U.S. government. McCarthy’s hearings in the United States Senate became pageants of fear, intimidation, and shame. But McCarthy and Trump share more than the techniques of fear mongering and self-promotion. McCarthy added an element of sexual innuendo to his terror campaign, alleging that some of his targets were secretly homosexual and, according to the law at the time, ineligible for government service. Trump doesn’t engage in the same kind of baiting, but he does evoke fears of sexual violence with fairly frequent use of the word “rape.”
In his announcement speech Trump said the undocumented Mexican immigrants are, among other terrible things, “rapists. Weeks later, in an interview on CNN, he pushed back against criticism by saying, “somebody’s doing the raping.” Next came his lawyer, Michael Cohen, arguing, falsely that under the law, “You cannot rape your spouse.” In May Trump said, in reference to trade, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” He’s also said backers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty “want to rape our country.”
When has a presidential candidate for a major political party ever before used the word rape, even once, let alone in the varied ways Trump has used it? It’s possible that some have offered words of comfort to victims of sexual assault or advocated support for services to them. But my own thorough search has turned up no previous examples of a modern candidate speaking of America being subject to even metaphorical rape or of classes of people – undocumented Mexican immigrants for example – as “rapists.” This kind of talk is so unusual that, when combined with his complaints about those who beat us and laugh at us, it begs to be analyzed.
To understand how referencing rape can amplify the theme of shame it helps to acknowledge that sexual violence is often accompanied by feelings of humiliation. Victims of rape often overcome their shame in order to bring charges and help prosecutors. Similarly, a man’s failure to protect a partner from violence, especially sexual violence, is regarded in many cultures as especially shameful. The use of the word rape to suggest a humiliation on a geopolitical scale has a long history. In centuries past Britannia was portrayed as a woman being rapes by France. More recently, far-right agitator Jean Marie Le Pen has talked about France being raped by immigrants with syphilis. Whatever the era, throwing the word rape into a political speech is reliably inflammatory.
Rape can also be evoked to create racial panic, which is why the specter of black men raping white women was so commonly used in the past by racists eager to whip up bigotry. It seems no coincidence that in 2016, it is again nonwhite people, from Mexico and China, who are being accused. In the arena of trade the United States sometimes struggles to compete against European competitors in various industries like precision machinery, fashion, and even wine. But Trump doesn’t talk about those countries “raping” America, or people from those countries who overstay visas and commit sexual assaults. Instead it’s “Chinese” and Mexicans” who are to be feared.
Outside of politics, Trump has often used ridicule to shame people who were his critics or rivals. Women like Arianna Huffington and Rose O’Donnell were dismissed by Trump on the basis of their appearance. As a young man he even shamed his older brother Fred Trump Jr., telling him that his work as an airline pilot was comparable to driving a bus. In his 1993 biography of Trump, writer Harry Hurt recounted an episode in which Trump excoriated his other brother Robert in front of other executives. Trump’s sister Maryanne Barry has told a story about how a grown-up Donald took a young nephew out for a game of catch and tried to overwhelm him with fast-and-faster throws. He was going to prove who was stronger, and shame the boy in the process.
Trump’s life is filled with so many examples of his effort to humiliate others as “losers” (one of his favorite words) or” dummies,” or “ugly,” that it becomes clear that the concept of shame is always lurking in his psyche and ready to be flung at anyone who comes near. Displeased with his campaign staff, he recently chose to humiliate them in a conference call with his network of surrogates. According to Bloomberg news, Trump said he had contacted his prominent backers “because you guys are getting sometimes stupid information from people who are not that smart.”
The supply of shame inside Trump is so great and near the surface that it comes bubbling up in his campaign that we naturally look for its source. As his biographer, I see it in his struggle to satisfy a strict and demanding father and his banishment, at age 13, to a military academy in Upstate New York where, Trump has said, he was subject to violence at the hands of Army veterans who staffed the school. Trump was sent away by his father Fred Sr. because of bad behavior. Could Fred have found a more effective way to shame his son than sending him away to be brutalized by grown men holding make-believe ranks in a pretend military environment?
In his early adulthood Trump adopted the notorious New York lawyer and political fixer Roy Cohn as his mentor. A Jew and a closeted gay man who spewed anti-Semitic and anti-gay remarks, Cohn had been Joe McCarthy’s chief aide during his witch hunt. He guided the senator to whatever evidence suggested an accused person was gay, or had once belonged to a suspect organization. Trump became a client of Cohn’s law practice and was introduced by him at fancy clubs. Cohn was a master manipulator of the press, as Trump is today, and a practitioner of the dark political arts.
Trump first dabbled in the politics of shame in 1987 when he called public attention to Japanese businessmen who would secretly “laugh like hell” after negotiating with Americans. At the time he was also pretty worked up about Arab oil states. In a full page advertisement he bought in various big city papers he said he wanted to “make Japan, Saudi Arabia and others pay for the protection we extend as allies.” The ad concluded with a plea: “Let's not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”
When Trump returned to national politics in 1999, with a run at the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, he turned his sneer upon the other candidates in the race. “They’re losers,” he said of men who stressed their humble beginnings. “Who the hell wants to have a person like this for president?” More recently Trump did his best to shame Barack Obama by suggesting he might not be an American citizen. When this tactic started to fail he voiced doubts about Obama’s admission to elite universities, trying to undermine his legitimacy through innuendo.
Which brings us back to 2011 and the White House Correspondents dinner where Obama kept the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound secret while poking fun at his political rivals and critics. His sharpest jabs were directed at Trump, whom he praised for his displays of leadership on his TV show The Celebrity Apprentice. “You didn’t blame ‘Lil John, Jon, or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night.”
Trump attended the dinner and TV cameras showed that his face was frozen throughout Obama’s talk. Later he would insist he wasn’t affected by the jokes, even though he failed to laugh along, as custom would require. Given the ferocity of Trump’s attacks on Obama in the time since that experience, and his own emotional repertoire, it’s hard to accept that he felt nothing that night. It’s a safer bet that he felt plenty of shame and the anger.
Volumes have been written about how the shame dynamic works. Some men will try to get rid of this feeling by picking a fight, which gives them the chance to show they are strong, and someone else is weak. Always a fighter, Trump has taken his shame on the road in the form of a political campaign that gives him the chance to bellow and bray against enemies real and imagined. As he smears his opponents with nicknames and complains that America is being raped, Trump may be soothing his own pain but he is transferring it to us. In some cases the result has been violence at his campaign rallies. More typically we find ourselves riveting by his performance, disturbed and confused and fearing what comes next.