— Donald Trump
IN BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a scraggly puppeteer discovers, in the file room of his day job, a small wooden door that leads to a tunnel that leads into the mind of John Malkovich. Soon, people are lining up to pay $200 for a 15-minute trip. When the actor himself discovers the operation, he storms into the file room and demands to try it.
“What happens when a man goes through his own portal?” the puppeteer, played by John Cusack, asks his co-conspirator, played by Catherine Keener.
She shoots him a look, dark and bemused: “We’ll find out.”
I found myself thinking of that scene as I tried to wrap up a long effort to get into the mind of Donald Trump. I read biographies, watched full speeches, talked with psychologists and scholars, and followed links until my eyes burned.
The typical approach to Trump, it seems, is to diagnose him (often with “narcissistic personality disorder”); or to lionize him (“Trump is like a Shakespearean ‘fool,’” Ann Coulter writes, “he seems crass because he speaks the truth”); or to assail him in terms low or high (Robert De Niro’s invectives included pig, dog, con, and punk; The Atlantic’s — “a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar”). But I think these are surface, not substrate. They follow the river water of Trump’s personality as it pours into the gulf, but we ought to look at the source of his character, its primary drive. I think we need to read him like a character in fiction.
Though Trump is a sexist and a xenophobe, the primary thing is not animus toward women or any specific group. And though he is a narcissist, the primary thing is not that he wants to inflate himself. The key thing with Trump is his relationship with himself, a sort of exclusive relationship that seems to crowd out the possibility of actual relation. I mean “relation” in the Martin Buber sense, the true glimpsing, regarding, considering of an other. Trump’s self is surrounded by moats and barbed wire and cannons. His essential psychological quality is a peculiar style of solipsism, the heart of both his appeal and his danger.
It’s telling that the best way to capture this is a baroque metaphor from fiction. When Malkovich goes through the portal, he sees, through a kind of goggle vision, a restaurant where every single person looks like a version of him — there is him with breasts in a low-cut dress; there is him in a maître d’s tuxedo. And every word that every person speaks — the intonations make clear that they are not mouthing syllables but actually communicating — is the word “Malkovich.”
In the movie, the “real” John Malkovich is horrified and scrambles out of the room. By contrast, I think Trump is horrified anytime he is not in that restaurant. He is horrified when any word spoken is not his name.
This insight helps knit together what may have previously seemed like disparate aspects of him, as well as Trumpian moments of pure utter strangeness. It makes sense of his preoccupation with disgust, his attitude toward women, his penchant for play-acting — and why he’d turn on a dime in such a weird way on a crying baby.
Not least, it helps explain his politics. To anyone still asking, “Does he mean it?” — still hoping that Trump is scanning the aisles of a grocery store looking for the sign that says, “Red Meat for White America” — it’s time to recognize: Trump is not out to please voters. Many voters, though, are indeed pleased by his core quality, which is a primal horror to incursion against self, his idea of his self, his sense of safety and aloneness in his self. His politics are not crafted out of his ruthless drive for power. His ruthless drive for power and his politics both emerge from this quality of solipsistic fantasy, and it clearly has a real, ongoing appeal that will last way beyond this incarnation.
One good indication of Trump’s primal mind state, and a root of his character, is his use of “disgusting.” “On a daily basis,” the psychologist Dan McAdams writes with wonderful understatement in his Atlantic essay on the candidate’s mind, “Trump seems to experience more disgust, or at least to say he does, than most people do.”
It’s impressive how often he uses the word, and how varied are his uses. “Rosie O’Donnell is disgusting” (“disgusting both inside and out”). “These weak-kneed politicians are disgusting.” The “system” is “disgusting.” Reporters are “disgusting, horrible people.” Windmills are “disgusting.”
Trump is often disgusted by female bodies. Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break was “too disgusting” to talk about and he told a lawyer who needed to pump breast milk, “You’re disgusting.” It’s tempting to say this disgust proceeds from sexism. Without meaning to underplay the toxicity here, I think that gets it backward: Trump’s sexism — and all his other -isms — proceed from his more fundamental disgust at difference, which is to say, at anything that he can’t, or doesn’t want to, absorb into his self — i.e., acquire.
Disgust governs our personal borders — borders set up for our protection. (The movie Inside Out provides a good primer.) Disgust keeps us from eating poisonous foods, and because the cost of eating a single poisonous berry outweighs the benefit of eating 100 good ones, it is a potent emotion indeed. Kids, who haven’t yet learned discernment or control, display it most purely. Perhaps one definition of adulthood is the ability to tolerate disgust and not act aggressively against its source (spitting out broccoli, telling the source of unpleasant news, “I hate you,” etc.)
With Trump, disgust (and its frequent companion, anger) seems to be running the control panel much of the time. His life is mostly about building big, impenetrable, tall, beautiful, powerful walls. All manner of people and ideas that seem to trigger a threat — they must be kept out, and if they are already here, well, “Get ’em out.” “Get ’em the hell out.” (Trump’s intention to jail Hillary Clinton is a shocking but not at all surprising extension of his penchant to expel; were he president, it seems totally reasonable that he would enjoy “You’re under arrest” just as he did “You’re fired.”)
But I don’t think Trump is a politician whose views color his personal life. He’s not Machiavelli. He’s a kid spitting out unfamiliar food. Banning Muslims, silencing reporters, building that beautiful wall — these follow a long-standing pattern of aversion to out groups, which, according to the psychologist Jesse Graham, are often linked to parasites, poisons, and other impurities. (Trump is a famous germophobe.) Jonathan Haidt links preoccupations with purity and disgust to conservative politics generally.
In Trump’s world, every wall does have a right side. The flamboyant, the sexy, the wealthy, the powerful — these he welcomes in, suspending judgment; as with Don King or Mike Tyson, you can be a murderer or a rapist without incurring his ire. The Clintons were his friends, until they weren’t. He’s often “loyal” to people like Corey Lewandowski. He is also fluid with his boundaries (as with his sexual remarks about his daughter Ivanka). And obviously, he’s intensely aware of objects of his desire, and ruthless in his efforts to consume them, but the operative word, with respect to his mind, is object. “Oh, it looks good,” he said gazing at Arianne Zucker.
Trump is also, obviously, aware of his “millions and millions” of supporters. So he does have some “we”-consciousness, but it’s not the sort of “we” that takes the other into account, like, “Hey, you and me, we’ve got something going on here.” It’s the sort of "we" that negates the other, by collapsing all reality into the core distinction of I/we/me/us versus You/them/he/she. It also seems fairly easy for him to incorporate something into his identity — just as he puts his name on buildings, properties, resorts — and then cast it out: the signs can always be removed; the bad deals quickly forgotten. The baby incident is a great illustration: when a baby cried at a Trump rally, Trump unctuously, floridly dismissed any fears the mother might have, but it wasn’t a message of compassion. He didn’t say to the mother, “Look, this happens. Babies cry.” He magnified the baby, glorified it. His instinct was: Make that baby part of me. “I love babies … it’s young, beautiful, and healthy.” The baby was aggrandized as with all parts of his in-group/self. He put “Trump” on it.
Then he changed his mind. In an instant. And when he cast the baby out, it was with a swift mockery of the baby’s mom for thinking that the baby was welcome.
Or maybe he was genuinely incredulous that she believed him earlier. That incredulity — Trump seems genuinely baffled when anyone interprets an event differently and he seems genuinely earnest when he says things like, “No one respects women more than me” — speaks to another essential element of his character. Trump not only lacks the ability to criticize himself; more broadly, he seems to lack inner dialogue. “Thinking” is, for most of us, a conversation with self. If, say, a baby was crying while we spoke, most of us would have some version of this exchange:
“Is it okay that the baby stays?”
“Well, it is loud. But, on the other hand, it’s just a baby.”
“On the other hand, it is loud and distracting.”
Trump seems to have one voice play in his head — and that’s true to him, absolutely, entirely. Then, a few minutes later, another voice enters — and it’s remarkable to him, really hard to believe that anyone could think anything else was true. Any evidence that runs contrary to his self-view of the moment, he shunts out — “phony” polls, a “rigged” system.
You could call this worldview, but for Trump it’s more of putting on very dark sunglasses against the world. When he’s interviewed, it’s not that he rejects questions, or disagrees with their premise. He doesn’t fundamentally recognize the conversation — or conversation itself as a phenomenon. His mind skirts questions like a car over an oil slick.
And where is he headed? What does he want? This is where the “narcissist” label is so problematic, because many of the epic narcissists in public life have concrete ambition. Steve Jobs wanted to put a dent in the universe. Bill Clinton wants to seduce, command. But Trump doesn’t seem to care about building things. His businesses are basically shell games. His main sense of the value he’s created — I mean this literally, according to his defenses of his estimated net worth — is his name.
This bodes poorly for his ability to put together a team. Take seriously, and as predictive, his answer to Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe about whom he consults most consistently: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain…” This isn’t Trump saying, “Look, I’m confident about my ideas and my instincts.” This is him pointing to an absence of the relational strain: “My primary consultant is myself,” he said. He is in the restaurant scene.
In this same vein, though it may have first seemed a bizarre curiosity that Trump would call reporters and pretend to be his own publicist (as he did repeatedly over three decades), it is in fact psychologically essential. Trump is not looking at himself in a mirror like a lot of narcissists. He is himself and he is the mirror:
Trump: “How do I look?”
Trump: “You look fantastic!”
Trump is not the kid preening in front of his dad, trying to hit a home run. He’s the kid pretending he’s every player on the team — and the color commentator full of wows. “He’s a good guy,” Trump said when he was playing his publicist. “He treated his wife well. […] He’s somebody who has a lot of options.” He introduced himself to the reporter as John Miller, “somebody that [Trump] knows and I think somebody that he trusts and likes.”
Who knows what blend of temperament and experience produced this in Trump, but his early and repeated exposure to Norman Vincent Peale — who presided over his childhood church and officiated his first wedding — certainly didn’t hurt. Peale preached a version of the Mind Cure — “that obstacles to a good life are fundamentally psychological,” explains Mark Silk, “and can (only) be cured by positive attitudes and beliefs.” Peale believed, more or less, that people could bend spoons with their minds. No accident that Trump came to be, as Silk writes, “not so much a congenital liar as a person for whom unpleasant truths exist only as obstacles to be thought away.”
The good news is that Trump can certainly be pushed — in the same way that a child can be reliably provoked to a tantrum — if forced to go against his primary drive to disgust. Trump’s opponents should probably ask: What’s the equivalent of putting broccoli right up in his face? It’s clear, though, that he won’t stand down when challenged. To the contrary, Trump is rarely more at home in his skin than when he is repelling some incursion, and it matters not the least to him whether it is coming from Democrats or Republicans — or space aliens.
And yet, even if he’s opposed effectively in this election, Trump’s character needs to be reckoned with, because his core preoccupation with his self and his disgust at the other is a genuine strain in American life. We have two primal narratives as a nation. We’re inclusive, we’re a nation of immigrants, we’re out of many one, etc. But the United States is also that place that kicks ass and goes home, that repels incursion, that stands gloriously apart and separate. Trump is the candidate for that second idea; it’s a supreme oddity that he has so fully gone through his own portal, and if he’s defeated it may be tempting to regard him as extraneous — but what he reveals and how he appeals is painfully relevant. Just how much? We’ll find out.
The essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of books, including Lincoln’s Melancholy, and is executive director and writer-in-residence of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute.