Saturday, July 15, 2017

The aggressive neurotic: Trump’s cynical use of language

“I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. ‘[The official labor statistics] may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now’.” – Sean Spicer, March 2017
In my previous post, I discussed the moral code of the aggressive neurotic type analyzed by Karen Horney. For this type,
a strong need to exploit others, to outsmart them, to make them of use to himself, is part of the picture. Any situation or relationship is looked at from the standpoint of ‘What can I get out of it?’ – whether it has to do with money, prestige, contacts, or ideas. The person himself is consciously or unconsciously convinced that everyone acts this way, and so what counts is to do it more efficiently than the rest. (Our Inner Conflicts, 65)
This larger analysis bears on the complex question of Trump’s dishonesty. Are the false claims he spews daily in person and on Twitter expressions of his delusions, impulsive outbursts, compulsive lies told for no reason, part of a brilliant political strategy,…?

Trump’s neurotic distortion of reality is so far advanced (and possibly accelerated by neurological degeneration) that he often can’t accept facts that contradict the beliefs his neurosis demands. Some of his false claims do appear to express delusions of this sort; this seems to be the case, for example, with his insistence on the size of the crowd at his inauguration or his Electoral College victory.

I’m not convinced by arguments that Trump’s vicious, dishonest tweets are part of some master strategy to distract from issues he’d rather people not focus on – not because it isn’t in keeping with his neurotic character but because the evidence doesn’t support it: He’s not, fortunately, particularly intelligent or strategic. He’s lashed out in similar ways for decades, long before and beyond his political involvement. He does it when there’s no issue it makes sense to distract from, and indeed when it draws attention away from what he would reasonably like people to be focusing on. And he often creates new problems for himself with these tweets. So I believe these claims are often what they appear: either (semi-)deluded statements or impulsive, spur-of-the-moment attacks.1

That said, setting aside the false claims rooted entirely in Trump’s desperate delusions – which are of great concern for other reasons – his lies, including even his most impetuous tweets and statements, are in fact calculated in the sense that they’re used to advance his neurotic goals. The key to understanding and responding to Trump’s statements is understanding that he simply doesn’t care what the truth is. What he says and tweets has a purely coincidental relationship to the world of fact and reason. He sees his statements only in terms of their effectiveness or usefulness.

Most of the rashest, most impulsive claims he makes on Twitter seek to achieve a perceived end: to exact revenge on an opponent, to discredit or instill doubt in a critical voice, to neutralize a threat, to incite fear or hatred, to self-promote, to confuse or misdirect, to “work the refs,” to rally his followers, to humiliate or destroy an enemy, and so on. Does Trump now or did he ever believe that Obama was born in Kenya, deliberately booby trapped the ACA, had him wiretapped,…? Practically speaking, it doesn’t matter, nor does it matter that he lashes out at people impulsively or via Twitter. Because even if he knew his impulsively tweeted early-morning assertions to be utterly false when he made them, or took the time to calmly consider his claims’ merits, it wouldn’t have the slightest impact on his decision whether or not to make them.

He’s not constrained by truth in the least – it’s simply not a consideration. That sort of constraint is for suckers. “Smart” - which Trump understands as self-servingly devious - people are not only not bound by the facts2 but know how to use language to advance their interests and vanquish their enemies. “Is this true or not?” is utterly irrelevant. The only question is “Is it effective?” - and winning decides.

It’s not the case that Trump’s mistruths stem primarily from an epistemic failure on his part. An oped in the LA Times argues that:
He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy. He is a stranger to the concept of verification, the insistence on evidence and the standards of proof that apply in a courtroom or a medical lab — and that ought to prevail in the White House.
He’s not a stranger to the concept of verification, though. He’s aware of these standards and can deploy them when it suits his purposes, even using hyperskeptical language when he’s attacking an opponent or facing off against claims he sees as threatening. He’s just morally indifferent to them. He feels no obligation to adhere to these standards as such. Does embracing skepticism advance his perceived interests? If so, he’ll embrace it. If credulity seems more useful, that will be his choice (as the writers acknowledge with the phrase “that he might repackage to his benefit,” which suggests, correctly, that his credulity is selective and tactical).3

It’s easy enough to provide evidence of Trump’s cynical approach. As I discussed in the previous post, an interesting aspect of Trump’s case – and one that’s very telling of the state of our culture - is that he explicitly boasts of his neurotic-aggressive moral code. Recognizing that he faces few negative consequences for openly endorsing sociopathic behavior - and often wins praise when it’s seen as toughness, “counterpunching,” and so on - he even offers advice in these terms.

As the appalling quote from Sean Spicer at the beginning of this post suggests, he not only has perfect awareness of what he’s doing but believes that publicly acknowledging it will have no negative repercussions and quite possibly receive a positive response from his followers.

Trump boasted of his instrumental use of truth claims throughout the presidential campaign and after the election. At a rally after Ted Cruz had debased himself to endorse him, Trump had to educate some of his followers who had joined him in detesting “Lyin’ Ted” that his attacks were pure theater:
‘Ted Cruz is no longer a liar, we don’t say Lyin’ Ted anymore’, Trump told the crowd. ‘We love Ted, we love him, right? We love him. Now we don’t want to say Lyin’ Ted. I'd love to pull it out and just use it on lying, crooked Hillary because she is a liar’.
Audiences had to be similarly educated after the election, when Trump declared his campaign rallying cry about jailing his opponent no longer politically useful:
Donald Trump said Friday he doesn't care about prosecuting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, after attendees at his rally chanted ‘lock her up’.

After the chants started at the President-elect's post-election ‘thank you’ rally in Michigan, he responded, ‘That plays great before the election -- now we don't care, right?’4
Indeed, he proudly announced on several occasions after his “victory” that his campaign claims had been nothing but cynical devices to gain votes:

As Noah notices, he describes his techniques to those he’s manipulating in the language of grifters and cold readers, explaining how he settles on catchphrases that “play well” and “pulls out” claims to use when convenient. In one post-election appearance, he started to talk about how knowledgeable he is about infrastructure when he interrupted himself to inform his followers that “I don’t need your vote anymore”…but would still try to sell them on the claim that he’s good at infrastructure anyway (noting that he’d need their votes in four more years in any event).

In some moments, Trump presents his use of language as advice or a personal development strategy. In 2011, in an appearance that was vile in innumerable ways, Trump called 2004 Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins onto the stage and told her and the audience, by way of illustration of his moral principle of “get even with people,” that when he’d believed she’d declined to appear to introduce him:
I was actually going to get up and tell you that Jennifer is a beautiful girl on the outside, but she’s not very bright…. But that wouldn’t have been true, but I would have said it anyway.
Nothing could be a better illustration of his attitude toward truth claims. He’s not just openly bragging about his self-serving deception – he believes he’s imparting valuable knowledge.

So how should Trump’s falsehoods be confronted? I argued in the previous post that it’s futile to appeal to Trump on the basis of sympathy, decency, or traditional values. Similarly, there’s little point in attempting to shame him or his minions for their promotion of lies. Trump doesn’t feel shame over lying, or any sort of attachment to facts or logic. As the spectacle he created when pushed to acknowledge his years of birther lies attests, under pressure he’ll simply shift to a different tactical lie.

It’s necessary to continue to publicly call attention to the untruths while pointing to the facts. We should be attuned to those times when Trump appears to be in the grip of delusions, and note the pathological insecurity and danger of this. But most important, we should be fully aware of his absolute indifference to the truth – every statement and tweet can be read in terms of the neurotic delusions to which it caters or the neurotically-driven pursuits it serves. (This basic indifference means that we shouldn’t focus exclusively on outright lies – he’ll make similar use of true claims if he thinks they serve his purposes.)

Over many years of using lies to damage or discredit his “enemies,” Trump has developed an intuitive sense for people’s personal and political vulnerabilities, and his practice has proven successful, which says nothing positive about our society. But there are many important contexts in which his actions have negative consequences, especially given that he’s not very bright.

Much of reality, of course, is resistant to his claims. His handlers seem to be awakening to the fact that in many legal contexts his lying won’t help him and could potentially destroy him. Robert Mueller and his professional team won’t be swayed by Trump’s tweets or other public statements; increasingly, in fact, his claims appear to expose him to more legal and political jeopardy. As the pattern of purely tactical statements comes to be recognized, his capacity to extricate himself and others from suspicion or legal trouble is weakened. Obviously, as we’re seeing over time, he’s destroying his credibility. This matters not only for his personal legal situation and attempts at domestic political alliances but for the global standing of the United States. To the extent that he threatens this, allies could desert him.

1 There are many insightful articles about authoritarian regimes and how they not only lie to the public but seek to destroy the concept of disinterested truth entirely, leaving people with no concrete basis for resistance. It’s not that I think people in Trump’s inner circle don’t recognize the usefulness of this approach or that Trump’s efforts to undermine truth-seeking institutions like science and journalism don’t advance this goal. But I don’t think this is the most useful understanding of Trump’s actions in light of the fact that he’s operated the same way for virtually his entire life. The most accurate and fruitful approach, in my view, is to understand Trump’s neurotic psychology and then analyze how his thinking and actions play in our political climate.

2 Extremely neurotic people like Trump believe something that goes beyond this. Because they’re special, they’re not bound by existing facts and in a sense transcend the mundane reality of ordinary people. This is another element of neurotic grandiosity carried to an extreme.

3 Once again, it’s often difficult to discern the extent of the delusion in any specific case: does he actually convince himself of the truth of some of the claims he finds useful, or attempt to confuse himself as he does others? It’s an interesting psychological question, but again doesn’t change the fact that he would make or repeat any claim he sees as effective regardless of his belief in its truth.

4 Despite publicly “retracting” such claims, he’s always ready to revive them whenever he’s feeling threatened or thinks they might be of use.

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