Few of us may be inclined to wade into what happened in the election of 2016 when our energies are so urgently on call to deal with the reality of 2017. But we can’t properly understand the mechanics of our situation without getting a better idea of how we got here, and for that we need to understand not only Donald Trump but also his defeated opponent.
In many ways, Trump and Hillary Clinton represented two sides of the same coin. Both of them had deep-seated needs for power, recognition and acceptance.
In Trump’s case, this took the form of building a business empire that, through shady loans and the bankruptcy code, branded his name throughout the world; becoming a TV celebrity; and rubbing elbows furiously with the rich and famous — including an ex-presidential couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom at one time he courted. Trump appears to have entertained fantasies of political power, but he never actually sought office until he decided to run for president.
In Clinton’s case, the presidency was the single-minded goal of half a lifetime or more, and certainly from the moment when husband Bill declared that the country was getting essentially a joint presidency — “two for the price of one” — upon his own election in 1992. For both Trump and Clinton, becoming president was the ultimate act of personal self-validation, and if Trump’s road to this ambition was more meandering, it proved no less psychically compelling in the end.
It followed that nothing like principle would ever stand in the way of either candidate. It has often been remarked that Trump has no political philosophy, or even any conception of what such a thing would be. Nor is he a pragmatist; his policy goals, if they can be called that, are notoriously shifting and volatile. But Hillary Clinton is, or was, equally void of any worldview: what she stood for, in any given case, was simply what would get her ahead.
It was for this reason that she so badly misread — or, really, failed to read at all — the political climate of the 2016 election, and so, her elaborate website pronouncements on this or that issue notwithstanding, she persuaded no one, even supporters, that she had a vision for the country or an understanding of where it stood. In that sense, the novice Trump had a far clearer sense than Clinton or any of his other rivals what 2016 was all about, and how to exploit it. He knew, he viscerally felt, that the country was angry, in part because it answered to the anger within him. He set about to convert that anger into electoral rage. And, skillful if wildly erratic demagogue that he proved to be, he succeeded.
Much ink has been spent in attempting to fathom Trump’s psyche and the bizarre behavior he exhibits, including the soon-to-be published “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump”, an examination of the 45th president by some 27 mental health professionals. We will return to this book, but first let us consider another, Clinton’s own memoir of her defeat, “What Happened.”
The general impression of the book is that Clinton, while (reluctantly) admitting some tactical mistakes, has no clue as to why she lost. She offers a host of reasons — negative press and anti-feminist stereotypes; her persecution by James Comey; the effects of her primary challenge by Bernie Sanders. Never once does she point the finger where it belongs, namely at herself.
The ultimate reason for Clinton’s defeat lies in the very fact that stoked her all-consuming ambition: her humiliation as First Lady of Arkansas and then, far more publicly as America’s First Lady, at her husband’s serial infidelities. The exposure, shame and personal agony she endured in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, to mention none of its predecessors, could be redeemed only by achieving the position of authority that stood above all others. And Bill had promised it to her: that was to be the price of his own redemption, insofar as a President Hillary would permit it.
The trouble with this scenario was that the Clintons’ marital drama had to be played out before a national electorate. Men would harbor secret contempt for a scorned woman, as men tend to do; women would see in Hillary the image of their own worst fears: sexual desertion by a mate in their middle years, leaving them unloved and, in their own eyes, unworthy. Above all else, this was the image that clung to Clinton, whatever she might do to deflect or evade it. It was who, in the public eye, she ultimately was. The handicap was fatal.
I don’t mean to suggest that Clinton could not have won the presidency. She did win the popular vote, and she lost an Electoral College majority by the thinnest of margins in key states where Republicans were assiduous in voter suppression. But her negative image among voters, which never wavered, meant a far closer race than almost anyone anticipated. It left her virtually no margin for error, and she erred fundamentally in completely misjudging the temper of the country. The payoff was in the postmortem: not only did she fail to win over blue collar males, but their wives as well. The one constituency that should naturally have hers, white women of a certain age, turned their backs to her.
Clinton’s defeat was not only her own, but her party’s. Barack Obama, paying back some political debts of his own, elbowed Joe Biden out of the race, and the only other challenger for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, fell short in good part because of party rules and machinations stacked against him. It is, in retrospect, appalling that anyone in the Democratic establishment thought Clinton a suitable or effective candidate. It is now appalling to most of us that Donald Trump is our president. But a rudderless, deja vu Clinton presidency, with the old psychodrama reinstalled in the White House and unassuaged anger in much of the electorate, might well have been a disaster in its own right. I thought so, and still do.
Still, there are disasters and disasters. Nothing like a Donald Trump has ever achieved high office in an established democracy, and the moral and legal norms of ours have been under relentless assault since Day 1 of his administration. Hence the alarm of not only the political but the psychiatric community; hence “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.”
The appearance of such a book itself represents an act of considered desperation. The American Psychiatric Association’s code of ethics forbids members from speculating on the psychic health of political candidates they have not personally treated. Doing so therefore flouts a serious professional rule. The book’s spokesman, Robert Jay Lifton, has explained why he and its authors think this not only warranted but necessary. All presidents have their flaws, but in Lifton’s view Trump’s engagement with reality as such is so deeply compromised that it is incumbent on psychiatrists in particular to warn the public of the danger his presidency presents, not only to democratic institutions but, in a nuclear world, to the safety of the planet itself. Lifton does not mince words: Donald Trump, he tells Bill Moyers in a recent interview, is nothing less than “the most dangerous man in the world.”
Trump’s “case,” in Lifton’s own view, is one of what he calls solipsistic reality. For such a personality, he says, the only reality that can be embraced is one that directly involves the projection and protection of the self. The external world is perceived only in these terms, and is fitted to it. Thus, objective facts and situations do not exist as such, but are shaped and reshaped according to the needs of the ego, often on a moment’s whim. Trump’s obsessive tweeting is such an ego in action. The solipsistic ego can maintain contradictory propositions in rapid succession or at the same time, as Trump does routinely, and it relates similarly to individuals, praising them one moment and damning them the next. What the solipsistic personality demands above all else from others is submission, anxiously defined as loyalty. It is thus by its nature both autocratic and constantly suspicious.
Such a personality is essentially sociopathic; when it achieves a position of authority it is dangerous; when it attains the greatest power vouchsafed anyone on the planet, the American presidency, it is supremely dangerous. Richard Nixon, during the crisis of Watergate, mused that he could kill 70 million people within 25 minutes by activating the codes for a nuclear launch.
That power — and much more — is now in the hands of Donald Trump, and he has already threatened to use it. If that doesn’t scare the pants off you, nothing will. I don’t have the expertise to evaluate Lifton’s diagnosis of Trump, but it does fit the patterns of his behavior exceedingly well. We have a would-be tyrant on our hands, and containing him until we can get rid of him is the only political task we have. This, steadily, is the only reality we can afford to keep before us.