It was a moment that told us much about the psychology of Donald J. Trump.
“I don’t want to hear the tape, no reason for me to hear the tape,” Donald Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday, referring to audio of the killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
When pressed as to why he wouldn’t listen to it, Trump said, “Because it’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape. I’ve been fully briefed on it, there’s no reason for me to hear it…”
Trump says he is not sure whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about the murder (a notion that seems implausible), but he concedes that what happened was “very violent, very vicious and terrible.”
Still, knowing something intellectually is different from experiencing it viscerally. And maybe something would be gained from the latter. Science has shown, for example, that people who read fiction tend to be more empathetic toward others. Perhaps Trump’s resistance to exposing himself to this difficult content shines some light in to the way he operates.
One (generous) theory is that Trump is trying to preserve his ability to make cold, calculated decisions (that put America first!) instead of reacting emotionally. An alliance with Saudi Arabia, regardless of their atrocities and human rights record, is probably in America’s best interest. As such, bogging himself down with additional emotional baggage would only make him (a) feel bad and/or (b) base foreign policy decisions on compassion instead of realpolitik.
The trouble is that Trump applies this method in other parts of his job, too. As The Washington Post reports, two years in, Trump has yet to visit troops in a combat zone. (Maybe that’ll change this holiday season?) He skipped visiting Arlington Cemetery on Veteran’s Day (though he said he regrets that decision).
It would be easy to dismiss his actions as him being too busy or apathetic. But I think there’s something more deep-seated at play.
Bob Woodward’s book Fear may shed some light on this hypothesis. According to Woodward, after traveling to Dover, Delaware, to greet the body of fallen Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, Trump reportedly told a senior staffer, “That’s a hard one.” Woodward’s source went on to say that Trump “was clearly rattled. He let it be known he would make no more trips to Dover.”
“He’s not that guy,” former Trump aide Steve Bannon added. “He’s never really been around the military… Never been around death.”
It is understandable that a president wouldn’t enjoy this aspect of the presidency. However, dealing with death is part of the job. The men and women who make sacrifices to see their commander in chief should both see the president and know that he understands and appreciates their service to our country.
Instead, Trump seems to be engaged in a sort of emotional protectionism. Just as he doesn’t exercise his body (reportedly, for fear of using up the finite amount of physical energy we are bestowed), he husbands his emotional energy, avoiding the kinds of difficult content and contact that might actually help him grow as a person.
For most of us, this isn’t an option. Encountering tragedy (whether horrific or just the daily humiliations associated with normal life) takes a toll on us, yes, but it also brings maturity and wisdom.
If you’re rich enough and surrounded by enough underlings to handle things (say, for example, to fire subordinates so you don’t have to), you, too, could be insulated from some of the unpleasantries of life. But should you want to be?
I suspect some of this goes back to a worldview Trump picked up as an early acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the influential book The Power of Positive Thinking. As far back as 1983, Trump told The New York Times, “I never think of the negative.”
Don’t get me wrong, it is clear that Trump plays negative politics and stokes fear in others. But that’s entirely different from exposing himself to it.
If you’ve ever been in a self-help section of a bookstore, you’ll know that one of the common themes is that thinking positive thoughts will bring positive things into your life, and dwelling on negative things will bring negative things into your life. So focus on the positive and avoid the negative.
In general, I’m not altogether certain this is bad advice (though the Stoics would certainly disagree). But taken to the extreme, this posture could carry negative consequences.
One potential result is that, when tragedy does strike, you are utterly unprepared to handle it.
Another consequence is a 72-year-old president who is emotionally stunted—who shields himself from the horrors of a fallen world, even as he makes dramatic decisions to shape it.
He should listen to the tape.