Donald Trump can be hard to figure out. Because of his newness to politics and his seemingly erratic behavior it’s difficult to understand sometimes what motivates him (assuming he has motivations aside from just reacting to various stimuli like a human goldfish). To clear things up a bit I have surveyed the various attempts to categorize and understand Trump’s behavior. This is not an exhaustive list nor are any of these views mutually exclusive but rather this represents a catalogue of ways for understanding our 45th President. Disclaimer: these are theories of Trump not of Trump supporters, or conservatives, or Republicans more generally.
1. Malevolence tempered with incompetence. On the blog Lawfare Benjamin Wittes described the first Executive Order on visas and refugees (aka “the Muslim Ban”) as thus: “The malevolence of President Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees is mitigated chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.” His criticism of “malevolence tempered by incompetence” applied in this case not just to Trump but to his staff as well. However, I think the phrase “malevolence tempered by incompetence” is a pretty accurate descriptor for most of Trump’s behavior. I think one can go a long way explaining Trump’s actions by placing them on a graph with one axis of competence to incompetence and the other with benevolent to malevolent. Trump is usually in the Malevolent-Incompetent quadrant
2. Dumb. Of course Trump’s behavior can probably just as often be attributed to the fact that he is not that bright. In line with the dumbness theory is the notion that Trump is a perfect representative of the Dunning-Kruguer effect. The Dunning-Kruguer effect is a cognitive bias where someone is so ignorant they don’t know how ignorant they are and actually think that they are of superior intelligence. A couple of pieces of evidence that support this theory: 1) Its been well reported that Trump is so ignorant on policy issues that he will believe whatever it is that the last person he talked to said about the issue. 2) His staff tends to treat him as if he is a child that must be supervised at all time, and 3) he takes his intelligence briefings in picture form. We are just not dealing with the brightest bulb here.
3. White supremacist. Ta-Nehisi Coats lays out the case for Trump as a white supremacist:
I don’t think it is mentioned enough that Trump was (and probably still is) one of the most prominent “birthers.” Trump has a long history of racism from his company being sued for housing discrimination, to his insistence that the central park 5 be executed even after they were cleared of all charges, to his most recent pronouncement that there were some “very fine people” marching for white supremecy in Charlottesville. Claiming that the President of the United States is a white supremacist is serious and should not be made hastily, but as Charles Blow puts it in the New York Times puts it,
There certainly is.
4. Con Man. Another theory of Trump is that he is that classic American archetype – the con man. The classic con is to bowl people over with confidence and then take their money. Trump certainly projects a lot of confidence and he got many people to give him their votes. Trump as con man certainly describes how he operated as a business man repeatedly shorting, or not paying, people who worked for him, contracted with him, or did deals with him. So if Trump is conning the American people then what is the grift? It’s what it always is – personal enrichment, and Trump’s Presidency has proven very lucrative for him. With all the talk of normalizing Trump and the Trump administration eroding the norms of representative democracy, I still don’t think the outright corruption and conflict of interest represented by Trump and his family get nearly enough attention.
5. Showman/Reality T.V. star. A little less sinister version of the Trump as con man theory is the Trump as a showman, or Reality T.V. star. The idea here is that he still projects tons of unearned confidence, not for nefarious purposes, but just because he loves the attention and adoration. Its no surprise that where Trump has felt the most comfortable during his Presidency, and during the campaign, was at his rallies where he could immediately soak up all that love and attention. Trump as con man would imply that with all his blustering and confidence he is actually working some angle, hoping to get something illegitimately from someone. Trump as showman/reality t.v. star is that all his blustering is simply just for attention, and he will say or tweet whatever he thinks will get a reaction from people.
6. Mentally Ill. Its also possible Trump is mentally ill. His illnesses could range from the tragic and serious, such as early dementia, to just the fact that he has tremendously toxic personality traits. I agree that “diagnosing” Trump is more about politics than mental health. However, I think filtering any of Trump’s actions through the notion that he is an extreme narcissist goes a long way explaining his behavior. Look at the behavior of the extreme narcissist:
-Highly competitive in virtually all aspects of his life, believing he (or she) possesses special qualities and abilities that others lack; portrays himself as a winner and all others as losers.
-Displays a grandiose sense of self, violating social norms, throwing tantrums, even breaking laws with minimal consequences; generally behaves as if entitled to do whatever he wants regardless of how it affects others.
-Shames or humiliates those who disagree with him, and goes on the attack when hurt or frustrated, often exploding with rage.
-Arrogent, vain and haughty and exaggerates his accomplishments; bullies others to get his way.
-Lies or distorts the truth for personal gain, blames others or makes excuses for his mistakes, ignores or rewrites facts that challenge his self-image, and won’t listen to arguments based on truth
Does this sound like anyone you know?
7. Lazy. The other thing about Trump is that he is extremely lazy, and I don’t just mean that because he drives his golf cart onto the green because walking a few extra feet is too much for him. Trump is notoriously ignorant about policy details and shows no interest or motivation to learn. He apparently spends up to 5 hours a day watching cable news. To make sure he reads his daily briefings his staff has to sprinkle his name throughout, and of course the memos cannot be longer than two pages. Laziness is as much of Trump’s character as is his narcissism.
8. (Economic) Nationalist. A claim that is often made is that Trump has no ideology or policy beliefs, but one can make the argument that he is an economic nationalist. The journalist Evan Osnos had a quote about Trump that I think applies here. He said that Trump has actually been consistent over the years on some things:
But on three core ideas, he has stayed completely consistent. One of them in his belief that the United States is fundamentally being damaged by immigration. Number two is his belief that trade deals have done more damage to the United States than they have helped. And number three is his belief that the United States does too much for the world. As he said in 2015, ‘I want to take back everything that the United States has given the world.’
Trump’s image as a dealmaker is that every relationship is transactional and that he can, and will, make a deal on anything. This is not exactly right, however because a true dealmaker can see that some (most?) deals are positive sum – both parties can benefit. Trump seems to see all interactions (at least economic interactions) as zero sum – someone wins and someone loses. The quote above seems to capture that view and so does his constant braying that the U.S. is getting beat on all its trade deals.
9. Authoritarian. Another way to view Trump is that he is an authoritarian. This is not to say that the U.S. is now an authoritarian state but rather that Trump himself has authoritarian tendencies. The danger here of course is Trump consolidates power by systematically eliminating any checks against his authority and the U.S. does turn into an authoritarian state. I think nine months into his presidency that seems unlikely but vigilance must be kept. During the campaign many political scientists, especially comparativists, highlighted the authoritarian danger represented by Trump. Reasons to think Trump is an authoritarian is his aggressive hostility to the press, his williningess to promote violence, his willingness to shower praise on authoritarian leaders around the world, and, most interesting, his authoritarian aesthetic. Of course, one can also make the case the Trump’s authoritarianism is all talk and no action.
10. Independent Deal-Maker. Perhaps the most charitable way of understanding Trump is to view him as some sort of political independent willing to work with both sides to make deals. This got the most traction when Trump negotiated a debt-ceiling deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. It’s true that Trump did not have deep ties with the Republican party and that some professional Republicans (i.e. people who would serve in his administration) have kept their distance from him, however, I can’t imagine seeing many deals between Trump and the Democrats in the future.
11. Conservative Republican. Despite the claim that Trump has no firm ideological beliefs so far in his Presidency he has advanced an agenda that is nothing but red-meat for his hard core conservative base. The legislative agenda advanced so far during Trump’s Presidency has been to repeal and replace Obamacare and tax cuts for the wealthy. These are standard issue Republican policies and Trump is completely on board with both. Furthermore as his foray into the ongoing protests of police brutality during NFL games show he is nothing if not a culture warrior. Trump cares about his base and many of his actions are geared towards comforting and supporting just those people at the expense of everyone else.
12. Spiteful and Resentful of Obama. I think you can make a strong case that much of what motivates Trump is a desire to eliminate the legacy of Obama. Trump wants to destroy the signature domestic policy achievement of Obama (Obamacare), and his signature international policy achievements (Iran nuclear agreement, opening with Cuba). Trump spent years before he was President belittling President Obama on twitter and questioning his legitimacy with his birther nonsense. Maybe Trump’s entire desire as President is just to get back at Obama for this. I wouldn’t put it past him.
13. Bonus: Finally, we may just be overthinking this and its true that he is nothing more than “a disregulated bundle of impulses, being manipulated by a cast of crooks and incompetents, supported by a Republican Party willing to bet the stability of the country against upper-income tax cuts.”