Political and psychological analysis of Donald J. Trump has come so hard and fast after his election that it has almost become an interdisciplinary academic school in and of itself. This of course is understandable, as never in our nation’s history have we elected such an ignorant charlatan who has never had an even infinitesimal interest in public service, and has probably never read a book that wasn’t illustrated. People (non-Trump voters) are understandably shaking their heads and asking, why? How? This can’t be!
After his election, journalists and academics from all political appetites got down to the business dissecting and analyzing every desiccated strand of Trump’s hair: how he won, how he pays no price for his many mendacities, why his supporters by and large still like him, among many more topics. You could fill a multi-volume encyclopedia with the think pieces that have been written. The Trump phenomena is, after all, an intriguing and unprecedented enigma.
One of these threads of late has been how brilliant Trump is at manipulating the media using unpredictable tactics – baiting and switching, obfuscating, and touting conspiracy theories via Twitter at just the right time to divert attention away from his growing number of gruesome self-inflicted political wounds. To many on the left he is seen as a megalomaniacal evil genius, a master tactician of feckless Machiavellianism. On the right, he’s manhandling the biased media in a way that has never been done before, delightfully sowing fear, loathing and confusion in his wake. Both are wrong.
Much of this speculation is simply a case study for how to overanalyze. If William of Occam were still around he would conclude that the great bulk of these theories are wrong for a simple reason: Donald J. Trump is just an impulsive narcissist and a borderline moron, a very slightly more sophisticated version of his contemporary and New York’s other famous idiot, “Teflon Don”—John Gotti. This is a much easier explanation, with equal explanatory power concerning our Commander and Chief’s behavior.
Take, as one example, Trump’s series of tweets accusing former President Obama of wiretapping him, without providing, of course, evidence. This got deep, heavy, media coverage, and rightfully so. But that coverage then led the cognoscenti to wonder: Weren’t these accusations against Obama a brilliant distraction from the Russia collusion scandal? Keyboards sizzled as writers pontificated. Not surprisingly, as it turns out, Trump had just belched up some conspiracy he’d seen on – where else? – Fox News, by its international conspiracy theory correspondent, Judge Andrew Napolitano, who had culled the pap from “anonymous sources” which probably means Breitbart. These writers didn’t stop to think about the fact that Trump has had a habit of tweeting about anything and everything that he happens to find personally offensive, at all hours, based on dubious sources or no sources at all. Or that the President’s tweets only intensified the Russian “Manchurian Candidate” speculation. It seems entirely unlikely that Trump thought about this either.
Of course it’s easy to understand this basic instinct of the literati. This man assumed the presidency of the United States of America – inarguably the most powerful executive position that has ever existed on our planet – while withstanding the white-hot gauntlet of righteous indignation from the members of his own (professed) party. He achieved what was thought to be impossible only a year ago. Surely there must be something behind the hairspray, the grotesque hindquarters, the seeming inability to construct a coherent (much less grammatically correct and logically consistent) sentence on his feet. But, given his rapid ascendency, must he not possess some undefinable talent, not unlike an idiot-savant, which we must try to understand?
No, I say, and so would Occam: he’s no idiot-savant. He’s just a deeply flawed, wealthy moron. His political campaign was not the result of any masterplan or mastermind at work. Even he didn’t think he was going to win. It remains doubtful as to whether he ever wanted the job. We can go on and on analyzing how he won: an ineffectual Clinton campaign ignoring the Rust Belt, white middle class economic angst, an indifferent body politic, racism, white nationalism, the growing influence of the alt-right, a flawed election system, James Comey, ad nauseam. And in any combination one wishes. Trump’s election was a happenstance of history, a perfect and unfortunate storm of circumstance and luck. A much less definitive answer will always be elusive – any single factor could have changed the game. But it didn’t – politics is politics, it is not physics, as pollsters and pundits have so indubitably demonstrated to us. No, Trump is not a perfidious puppeteer, and how some political writers ostensibly believe this is a somewhat beguiling.
I can’t remember a time when I ever thought Donald Trump was a smart person. He and his acolytes on the alt-right milk the encomiastic meme that he’s a self-made man and negotiator nonpareil. But even in the 1990s, when his spoken words were slightly more intelligible, he came across as an insufferable self-promoter and real estate con man who lucked into a fortune. His personal history, when stripped of the glitter of hagiography, supports this view.
While he says, unsurprisingly, “I’m like a smart person,” he won’t release his college transcripts. Of course Presidents seldom voluntarily release their transcripts, but no President has ever prated so much about his own intelligence, and besides, didn’t Trump demand that Obama release his transcripts? He also claims to have gotten his start with a “small” million-dollar loan from his father, omitting the fact that he was also a trust fund kid, had testified in a deposition that he borrowed $9 million from his father’s estate, and according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), was given somewhere around $14 million by his father, Fred. Moreover, dad bailed him out of a bad casino deal with an illegal $3.5 million loan. Bloomberg News estimated Trump’s net worth at around $2.9 billion, not very close to Trump’s own $10 billion claim. He isn’t even among the top 20 richest real estate moguls in the world, but has been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits (and counting). Had he simply invested his money in index funds, his net worth today would be closer to $13 billion. He operated a fake charity and a fake university, the latter of which cost him $25 million in a fraud settlement. Combined with his multiple bankruptcies, these facts hardly paint a picture of a smart businessman. By any honest account, he is a walking, talking, breathing fraud.
Trump is not particularly good at abstract thought, and has no patience for policy; like a bird, he’s mostly a bundle of instincts, appropriately demonstrated by his tweets. He surrounds himself with likeminded conspiracy theorists like Steve Bannon, and in the course of less than a hundred days has managed to change a flawed but functioning democracy into a third world kakistocracy/kleptocracy hybrid. He should not be given evil genius creds because it is entirely likely this was never his plan. Such a plan would require an actual political philosophy and coherent thinking. Nor do his current and former supporters deserve a shred of sympathy: they are either ignorant, credulous, complicit in Trump’s prevarications, or some amalgam of the three, and were therefore willing participants in strengthening the lattice of lies that ensconced him in the White House.
Trump is, and will always be, a failure – as a businessman, as a person, as the President of the United States. No financial net worth calculation will ever be able to change that.