By Dr Nick Fischer
For observers of American politics, the Trump presidency is providing an exceptionally rich trove of data about the state of the union. One might indeed argue that the present is too rich in data, anecdote and outrage; it is impossible to keep up with the torrent of tweets, pronouncements, policy reverses and partisan barracking, let alone analysis.
An interesting exercise to perform half-way through the president’s term of office is to try contextualise the conduct of Donald Trump and his administration’s legislative, executive and administrative activity.
This year, the presidency turns 230 years old. That gives us plenty of comparative data to assess:
- The personal character of the current president (is it so much worse than his predecessors’?)
- The political importance of the current president and the office of the president (i.e. the relative power of the office and of the incumbent, mediated by Congress, the Supreme Court, governors, the major parties, the media and other forces)
- The state of American politics and society more broadly.
The personal character of President Trump
Few but his most ardent supporters will argue that President Trump exhibits many traits of a serious personality disorder. Many observers, for example, will agree that Trump appears to have narcissistic personality disorder. According to contemporary medical terminology, Trump is an archetypal “wall builder” rather than “bridge builder.” His leadership characteristics are:
- tribal / cult values
- emotionally dys-regulated
- vulnerability intolerable
- impermeable consciousness
- blame and shame
- closed off
- short-term horizon.
Opinion may divide as to whether and to what extent Trump has “vulnerable” or “grandiose” narcissism or “malignant self-regard.” A broad definition of pathological narcissism, however, characterized by an “impairment in the ability to regulate the self, emotions, and behavior in seeking to satisfy needs for recognition and admiration,” seems applicable. Indeed, Trump is arguably a textbook example of someone incapable of “transforming narcissistic needs and impulses into mature and socially appropriate ambitions and conduct.”
Trump’s presidency has been marked by indolence, insensitivity, corruption, extreme aggression, intemperance, racism and misogyny. These qualities have hardly been rare in US presidents, but it is hard to find previous presidents who have combined so many unattractive traits and to such an extent.
The foibles of presidents past can make for amusing (and troubling) reading. Authors like Nathan Miller (Star Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents) have enjoyed compiling lists of shame. Miller’s list (published in 1998) “from the poor to the horrid” comprised: Carter, Taft, Harrison, Coolidge (“who was a living embodiment of Woody Allen’s observation that ‘eighty percent of success is showing up’”), Grant, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Harding and Nixon.
In the spirit of Miller’s work, we can attempt a comparison of Trump with his 44 predecessors.
A list of presidents without narcissistic traits may well be shorter than a list of those who have. In the modern era (the last 120 or so years), it is arguable that presidents Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, both Roosevelts and Wilson regularly behaved narcissistically. Yet compared with Trump, other presidents’ narcissism was manifest in fewer ways. For example, a selfishness in relationships and need for praise and attention was often mediated by a sense of public purpose, to counteract a lack of empathy. Woodrow Wilson is perhaps a close match for Trump in terms of his sense of entitlement; he drove a reluctant nation into a war of choice that claimed 120,000 American lives (in 18 months), to further his dreams of international diplomacy; intellectually, however, he and Trump are incomparable.
Idle presidents prior to Trump, who seems to have inordinate time for leisure and tweeting, include Coolidge (who worked strictly 9-5, Monday to Friday, with a lengthy afternoon nap on most days), Reagan (seemingly suffering the onset of senility) and Bush, Jr. However, unlike Trump, Coolidge and Bush were not outwardly vain and Reagan understood the need to charm. The antitheses of these lazy presidents include Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Wilson.
Insensitive presidents include both George H. W. and George W. Bush, Reagan (tax cuts for the 1%; meddling in Nicaragua and Panama), Nixon (where to start?), Lyndon Johnson (on Vietnam, if not civil rights), Eisenhower (tardy on civil rights), Hoover (everyone in the Depression), Coolidge, Wilson (the dead of World War I; the dead from meddling in Mexico; wartime economic suffering alleviated by White House prayer meetings; race riots and colour bars in federal employment) and Cleveland (“though the people support the government, the government should not support the people”). Even Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights during the Civil War; the rail-splitter, however, left copious evidence of the peerless thought and calculation he gave to such dilemmas. Yet there are obvious distinctions between Trump and his predecessors. Few, if any, were heartless or gormless enough to praise and excuse neo-Nazi vigilantism or its historical equivalents; Wilson, however, enthusiastically screened D. W. Griffiths’ pro-Klan Birth of a Nation in the White House.
The ranks of corrupt administrations include those of Grant, Harding and Bush Jr., but here Trump is in a class of his own. Grant, Harding and Bush Jr. stand accused not so much of running their administrations to benefit themselves financially but for surrounding themselves with crooks; and doing too little about it. Trump is also the first president to be an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal crime, though Nixon came close. Plenty of presidents have lied to the electorate and plenty are guilty of war crimes (Jackson against Native Americans, Polk against Native Americans and Mexicans, Truman against the Japanese, Nixon against Cambodians and Vietnamese, Bush Jr. for the utter Charlie-foxtrot of Iraq and Afghanistan), but their crimes were generally not borne of personal graft (although profiteering from the invasions or Iraq and Afghanistan may have outstripped the graft of the Harding administration). Trump is the first president to so blatantly direct government business for his own financial benefit, revealing the difficulty of enforcing the Constitution’s ‘emoluments’ clause.
The political importance of Donald Trump and the presidency in the Trump era
There have been times throughout US history when having a dud president was not so important. Earlier in its history, the US was not a global superpower, so the foreign policy prerogatives of the president were less important. Domestically, presidents have always been important. Even though the office was often occupied for long stretches by comparative non-entities (between Jackson and Lincoln, and Grant and Theodore Roosevelt), in general and certainly since c.1900, their policies and pronouncements set the political tone for the nation. So, the indolence and obstinacy, respectively, of Coolidge and Hoover, for example, worsened the onset and effects of the Depression. But the power even of popular and successful presidents has often been limited by a hostile Congress or Supreme Court, as the Founding Fathers intended. FDR, for example, enjoyed crushing congressional majorities but was so frustrated by an implacably conservative Court that he attempted to change the number of justices that sat on it. In recent times, Obama’s domestic influence was so cruelled by Congress that he was unable even to hold nomination hearings for a Supreme Court vacancy.
Trump has been able to rise to power due to several historical anomalies, including the dreadful public standing and hyper-partisanship of Congress, a friendly, ultra-conservative Supreme Court; an enfeebled Grand Old Party; and a hyper-partisan media.
The state of the union; and the people
The Republican Party
Has the Republican Party ever been in such an abject state? Perhaps, early in FDR’s presidency, when it crashed on the rocks of the Great Depression, after 12 years of pro-business administration too extreme even by American standards. In 2016, sixteen unelectable candidates were put forward as alternatives to Trump. Not one of them got even close to winning the nomination from a disaffected voting, as opposed to financial, ‘base.’ Trump has staged a hostile takeover of the GOP and with so many Representatives and Senators terrified of losing a primary if they contradict him, the party is welded to the President and his policies as never before.
Has civil society ever been so divided? Obviously during the Civil War, but probably not so viciously since the Vietnam War and the backlash against civil rights; perhaps never so in terms of partisan division. Party allegiances have seemingly exceeded the character of parliamentary parties during our era of neo-liberal consensus: the GOP and the Democrats fight all the more fiercely for the spoils of government, as they fight less over policy, especially fiscal policy. This only feeds their mutual propensity to promote unelectable machine candidates, such as Mitt Romney/Marco Rubio/Scott Walker and Hillary Clinton. And the people who can bring themselves to vote, it seems, have become rusted-on supporters of the major parties in a way that is quite out of step with voters in the UK, Canada and Australia.
Has the media ever been so partisan? Probably not since before the Progressive muckrakers were at work. In addition, the media has never had this much influence over their audience, with an unrivalled technological capacity to reach people at any time, to the exclusion of other voices.
Jacob Greber recently explored the effects of modern media on American citizens in the Australian Financial Review. Citing polls showing that one third of Republican voters in Louisiana blamed President Obama for the federal government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, Greber suggests that “basic facts of record” are now constantly contested in a country “swamped by fake news, social media manipulation” and deep cynicism. A Columbia Journalism Review study published in 2017 helps explain this phenomenon. It found that in 2015-16, a right-wing media network, centred on Breitbart news, “developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media … to transmit hyper-partisan perspectives … [whose] power stems from [a] mix of verifiable facts … familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic, and consistent political orientation within a mutually-reinforcing network of like-minded sites.”
President Trump, Greber argues, has ridden this media network and a “caboose of decades-old, anti-establishment” movements drawn from “the darker forces of American life” into Washington. The Republican Party had already been courting proponents of these sentiments, but Trump has amplified these views and the GOP’s identification with them.
A substantial portion of voters, 40% overall and around 90% of GOP voters accept the veracity of Trump’s (more than 6000, according to the Washington Post) false statements, based on their “gut feel”; a polite term, arguably, for ignorance.
In the midst of the chaos of the Trump administration (the Brookings Institution notes that more than 60% of top officials have left office), this voting base remains impervious to the danger of a president mired in dozens of court cases and congressional inquiries.
For a visceral sense of why, go and see the new film Vice, starring Christian Bale as Vice President Cheney. You will be struck by its depiction of a people sliding, either angrily or blithely, into oblivion.
 Huprich SK, Nelson S, Sohnleitner A, Lengu K, Shankar S, Rexer K., “Are malignant self-regard and vulnerable narcissism different constructs?,” J Clin Psychol. 2018;74: 1556-1569. htpps://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22599
Nick Fischer is Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, and the author of Spider Web: The Birth of American Anticommunism, published by University of Illinois Press (2016).