Making the nation your fall guy

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get requests for posts, but I actually got one from my daughter the other day. She wants me to write about psychological projection and Donald Trump.

Well, I sort of have been, just not explicitly. I’m sure that it won’t be news to any psychologists reading my blog that Donald Trump has a bad case of psychological projection. But first, let me define it. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.

I have discussed this before, principally in the context of whom we choose to marry. None of us come into life cast from a perfect mold. We stumble and fall repeatedly through life as we try to find what works in the relational chaos around us. We tend to marry people that force us to confront our own inadequacies, who ironically appear under the guise of our soul mate. When it works in addressing our imperfections, it’s good but not much fun. It helps us grow as human beings in ways we otherwise likely would not grow.

The best way to get through these issues is to live an engaged life, where situations periodically force you to tackle your less than admirable spots. What happens though when you grow up in an insular world? Suppose life is presented in a predominantly false way so you never have to learn to deal with people as they actually are? For perhaps the most egregious case possibly ever, I give you Donald J. Trump.

When one of these people is given a lot of power, this warped perspective can be very damaging. Years ago, I opined that this was the problem with our last president, George W. Bush as he was insulated by Poppy from taking the fall for most of his mistakes growing up. George W. though at least had a father somewhat grounded in the real world. Donald J. Trump’s case is much more extreme.

Trump was a child of privilege from birth. His father told him to not feel ashamed of his family wealth. He was told he was naturally better than other people because of his race, ethnicity and family status. He was told he could clear all obstacles in his path to success because that’s what Trumps do. Trump never had to endure a public school. He never had to scrape for a living or know a day of poverty. He got a generous endowment from his father to start out in business. At least once as an adult his father bailed him out when his financial mistakes caught up with him. He grew up believing that more wealth could be acquired through brand, and that came from image. So he projected the image of the person he wanted to be: rich, confident, successful and glamorous even while his behavior made him a wreck of a man to most of us paying attention and many who encountered him.

Obviously many people bought into his projection. Some of them who partnered with him or bought his overpriced products found out that he was happy to screw them out of their money for the illusion that he offered them something special. Others, principally a lot of white people, see something in Trump they admire. They like that he speaks his mind. They see his bullheadedness as a virtue. I call these Powerball people because I see them all the time at the local convenience stores buying reams of lottery tickets. (I saw one working class Joe drop $80 on lottery tickets at a local Pride store just the other day.) They see themselves as temporarily inconvenienced future millionaires and Trump as a model of what is possible, forgetting that he was born into privilege. While waiting for life to reward their talent they hope for unlikely riches by winning at Powerball. They believe that the right uber-male with the golden touch can change a system they feel is rigged against them and favoring the others. Trump is their spokesman and change agent.

In reality Trump has failed many times in life but at least was smart enough to cushion those failures by foisting it on others, including taxpayers like us. When he acquired enough wealth he was also able to throw lawyers at people who gave him grief, like his creditors. This let him develop a reputation of someone not to mess with, so a lot of people didn’t even though he shafted them. He seems to have tacitly conceded that he is not a successful businessman anymore, but he does see himself as a successful brander. He now sells illusion that he has the Midas touch. This part of his career, as well as his ceaseless self-promotion and stomping on those who question it has been successful, at least until now.

Trump’s enormous ego means he believes that he can succeed at anything he puts his mind to, so the presidency became his irresistible lure. The only problem is that he is spectacularly unqualified to actually be president. He never held political office, which requires learning the language of diplomacy, creating coalitions and true leadership. He doesn’t understand how winning campaigns are run and publicly flouted the rules. A wonkish president is good but he simply does not have the ability to absorb information, analyze it and reach logical decisions. He operates on impulse, gut instinct and the unquestioning belief in his own greatness. It’s not surprising then that his campaign never really caught on except for those who shared his perspective, which turned out to be a plurality of Republican primary voters. He doesn’t know how to seal the deal with the rest of us because he has no experience relating to us.

Losing the presidency will be an epic failure for him, but one he cannot acknowledge. It would be to admit his brand is worthless which means he is worthless. But worse, it would mean he would have to confront his own shame. And what is this shame? It’s not that he’s a bully or ran perhaps the most inept campaign ever. It’s the shame that he cannot succeed in selling himself to a majority of American voters.

So it has to be someone else’s fault because if he confronts the awful truth about himself, his house of psychic cards collapses. It would mean that instead of being an uber-male he’s a human being like the rest of us, and not a particularly likable one. It would mean that in spite of his fortune he is a failure because he could not meet his own impossibly high mark.

To keep himself from confronting this awful truth, he will apparently do anything. This is exactly what people with bad cases of psychological projection do simply to mentally survive. And if that means encouraging his followers to harass voters he doesn’t like from voting or by claiming our electoral system is rigged when it isn’t, so be it. If that means breaking our democracy in a fundamental way and causing widespread civil insurrection, he’s good with that. That’s because it means he doesn’t have to confront himself. He never has and this won’t be an exception.

Perhaps by rejecting Trump the country can at least acknowledge its mistake in picking a similar but less-flawed piece of hubris: George W. Bush. Perhaps we are maturing at last. Don’t expect Donald Trump to do so.