A Man of False Promise

I read that Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Republican Congressmen.  No doubt he will promise or appear to promise many things to them, and suggest that they will be great partners if they trust him.  His rhetoric is filled with phrases like “believe me” and “trust me.”  But those who do trust Trump are bound for disappointment and sorrow.  And it is a sorrowful day that even these most obstinate, oppositional congressional “leaders” feel that have to give it a try.  If not, the demonic Democrats lurk on the horizon.

Trump’s promises are familiar to most of us.  They sound like the husband who says he’ll really try to get home on time, take more time with the kids, say what’s on his mind—from now on.  But he never does.  It sounds like the alcoholic and the drug addict who understand deeply, not only that his health is at risk, but that he has been letting down others; and they couldn’t, in good conscience, do that again.  But they do.  They do it again and again.  It sounds like the abuse victim—not the abuser—who says that she’s finally learned her lesson.  She knows that all of his sobbing regrets and meaningful promises aren’t worth the air he breaths.  No sir, she won’t go back to her man.  But she does.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the victim or the victimizer.  Neither can or wants to believe that the other doesn’t want to reform, that there isn’t a kinder, gentler, more generous side to the offending party.  Maybe it’s almost impossible to believe such a thing.  Maybe it goes against so much of what we believe.  Some degree of trust, however small, appears to be our default setting.  How could we go on in our lives if we became that cynical.

The willingness to believe Trump is not a trivial matter.  If people were more skeptical, he might not get away with his swaggering lies.  Unless, of course, he was always dealing with new people.  There is a powerful marriage that is formed between the liar, the cheater, and the cheated–if they continue together.  They need one another.  Trump’s jilted partners have continued to believe that they can make a good deal, that a relationship with him will pay off in the end.  Some need the broken deals so that they can be better than he is.  Some, like Marco Rubio and Chris Christi may have a masochistic streak. Who knows.

There is one way, however, that Donald Trump is different than all of these intertwined pairs—husbands and wives, parents and children, addicts and enablers, abusers and abused.  They usually do feel guilty and have regrets.  Trump does not.  I find it almost impossible to believe that he wakes up in the morning promising to himself or to anyone else that he will stop lying, that he needs people to trust him and understands that he has to earn their trust.  I don’t believe that Donald Trump believes that he has to earn anything.  He has been given things, like his inheritance.  He takes things, like money from vulnerable people in search of an education; or from almost anyone who thinks they can make an honest deal with him.

The picture of Trump tramping into Congress could be funny if it weren’t pathetic.  We know he’s going to make a deal or two.  We know he will go back on the deals the first moment that it is convenient, or the moment someone pierces his very thin skin and offends him.  We know how indignant the Congressmen will be.  We know that their indignation will threaten and enrage Donald Trump.  Then revenge becomes the only possible path for him.  I think that all of those Congressmen know this.  If not, they are even less conscious and observant than I thought.  And that’s not much.

Like the abused women and children, the Congressmen think they are dealing with at least a rational person.  They think that he understands that it is in his interest to deal fairly with them.  Their ego can accept nothing less.  He thinks it’s in his interest to appear to deal fairly with them.  They can’t quite bring themselves to believe that they can’t strike a deal of mutual interest.  He can’t govern without Congress, can he?  Never mind that Mussolini and Putin managed this very readily.  He couldn’t really have so little respect for promises, could he?  Of course he could.

This fundamental willingness to lie, this fundamental lack of concern for and about others—this, and we need to believe it—is the true Trump.  He is a narcissist, concerned almost exclusively about his own enhancement.  And he cannot even feel, really feel, anyone else’s pain enough to change.  What’s more, he is constantly afraid that people will get the upper hand on him.  When these fears emerge, he is convinced that he’s not making them up, that others really are plotting to hurt him, to take him down.  At such moments, Trump sees conspiracies everywhere.  The idea of African plots that install presidents in the White House is only the best of a frequent Trump narrative.

In a couple of essays to follow, I’m going to discuss what narcissism is.  The term has been bandied about a great deal in relation to Trump but I want people to understand it with a little more clarity and depth, particularly when expressed as a narcissistic personality disorder.  And I will also write about how integral lying and paranoia is to that kind of disorder.

For now, this is what we need to know: Trump is a narcissist, a liar, and a conspiracy monger.  He cannot and does not really want to be anything else.  He is not to be trusted.  His word is not his bond.  Anyone who acts on the opposite assumption will suffer the consequences.

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Forming a Leadership Identity

Leaders make demands on others, often requiring trust, sacrifice, even obedience.   Sometimes the demands initiate a productive process.  At other times, they create frustration and confusion. How often have we observed people in leadership fail because they do not connect well with their staff.  They may be smart, experienced, forceful.  When no one seems to be listening, they might talk louder, explain themselves at greater length and in many different ways, ask deputies to intervene.  To no avail. Not only aren’t people listening, they may be resisting.  Why? Because connectivity and influence require legitimacy, and somehow they don’t have it.

Where does legitimacy come from?  Position.  “I’m the boss.”  Among other things, the position at the top has cultural currency.  Leverage.  “I control your job, your salary.”  Skill and knowledge are important, especially when clearly perceived and aligned with organizational aims.  A track record of being right helps a great deal.  Honesty and consistency matter more than many leaders know.  Legitimacy requires many forms of currency working together.

In traditional societies, being at the top of the hierarchy may be enough to overcome the deficiencies of other currencies.  In modern merit-based societies, however, currency has to be earned, and it depends as much on the sense that  leadership is consistent, thoughtful, moral, and motivated by the “right” reasons as it does from position and power.

There is something about leaders who do what they say and say what they do, who are pretty much the same inside and out, that makes them trustworthy.  This quality of being yourself, even when it is hard to do, represents a kind of internal or psychological alignment, comparable to the structural alignment of effective organizations.  Let’s call this internal alignment authenticity.

Authenticity comes from a clear sense of who you are in the world: your identity.  Erik Erikson taught us how individuals form their identity, more or less clearly, more or less solidly, as they navigate their adolescent passage.  He also taught that there were a series of “identity crises” that continued to define our adult years.  The emergence of an authentic leadership identity works in this way.

Every leader develops an identity, a self image, a story that s/he tells to herself and to others that more or less unites her internal experience and her external behavior. “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story.”  Lynde.  The stories are revised to better account for internal changes, new people, and new places.  As you tell the story, for instance, people respond positively and negatively to various parts, and the story teller adjusts the story to get into sync with the audience. There is nothing counterfeit about the activity.  We are social beings.  As Lynde puts it, these stories are “…created, negotiated, and exchanged.” Much of the adjustment is subconscious, but some is intentional.

To put this another way, the identity story forms a bridge between the leader and her staff.  At its best, the story links the inner person to the leadership role in a way that frees the leader to call upon her best and to call upon it often. At its worst, leadership identity is so false or inappropriate for a particular organization that it undermines even the leader’s best attempts to get things done.

Identity is not exactly character—who we are down deep and in mostly unchanging ways. It is not the part of us that is hard wired.  Identity is the person we present to both ourselves and to the world, who we and others know us to be.  Since it is both a private and public thing, identity, unlike character, is constantly shifting here and there, constantly being negotiated with those who we regularly interact with.  For those with a strong identity, the shifting is minimal.  Those with weak identities seem like chameleons.  But all identities change with context.

Among the most coherent stories about leadership identity that I have heard is that of Sister Margaret Leonard, formally the Executive Director of Project Hope, an admired and successful organization, built to care for the homeless.  Here’s how she describes the moment when she recognized herself as a leader.

About forty years ago, Sister Margaret was asked to join a leadership council. While she agreed to attend, she was a little awestruck by the other members and, at first, too shy to speak.  With time and the welcome of others, Margaret grew more comfortable and, by the end of the week’s retreat, began to speak up.  It turned out to be an exhilarating experience for her and it boosted her confidence.  She could hold her own with other leaders.  But when she returned to New York City, she “had to explain to my staff and my colleagues what it meant that I was a leader when I still didn’t completely think of myself that way.” This was a daunting task.  With a twinkle in her eye, she continued, “It just took me about six years to dispel my doubts.”

At the end of that period, though, she still didn’t feel entirely right calling or thinking of herself as a leader.  Why?  She didn’t fit the cultural imagery she had absorbed since childhood of the powerful, assertive, charismatic people—men and women—who could claim the authentic mantle of leadership.  Someone like Moses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then a friend brought her up short.

“Margaret,” she said, “you’re a servant of God, are you not?”

“Yes I am,” said Margaret.

“You serve the poor and homeless, do you not?”

“Yes I do.”

“And you serve the Sisters who work with you, do you not?”

“I do”

“Then you’re a servant leader, no doubt,” concluded her friend.

“That’s true. I am that,” said Margaret.

At that moment, something deep within Margaret relaxed.  Finally, the role she played, the responsibility she assumed, and the image she had of herself came together.  She no longer felt self-conscious about being a leader.  She could simply lead, without the internal static of doubt and dissonance interfering with her teaching and decisiveness.  She had come to what I call a leadership identity that fit her and aligned with the organization and culture in which she worked.

In essence, our identity is a story that says what is important in our lives.  Here’s how the historian, Drew Faust puts it: “We create ourselves out of the stories we tell about our lives, stories that impose purpose and meaning on experiences that often seem random and discontinuous.  As we scrutinize our own past in the effort to explain ourselves to ourselves, we discover—or invent—consistent motivations, characteristic patterns, fundamental values, a sense of self.  Fashioned out of memories, our stories become our identities.”

Stories of leadership identity are told and retold until they become part of the lore of an organization or political movement, so real that they define leaders to themselves and to others, so powerful that leaders, or their stories, come to embody their organizations and causes.  Thus Gandhi becomes “mother India”; During World War II, Churchill becomes the British nation and its resistance to Nazi tyranny.  And, in a lesser way, Sister Margaret Leonard became Project Hope, with its generous welcome to all comers and its gentle but fierce dedication to the empowerment of homeless and disenfranchised women.

The leadership narrative is not something one makes up out of whole thought.  It may emphasize certain things about us and not others but it is not fiction.  Leaders have to believe the narratives as deeply, maybe more deeply, than anyone else.  When leaders believe and when the narrative fits with the culture and objectives of an organization or movement, then the bridge of authenticity has been built and the leader is enabled.

 

What Can a Man Do

A while back, I read an article, “I Slept With the Enemy,” by Sonya Huber.  Not only does it offer a compelling explanation for Trump’s appeal to men but it does so with compassion.  Without both, there’s not much hope to change the way the men are seen and how they respond to the condescending, demonizing glares headed their way.

I appreciate the article’s focus on the need for rebellion, the need to “flip a bird” to the establishment. It’s the rebellion that counts for them, not any particular ideology.  Huber is right to emphasize the growing isolation of this group of men, particularly from sources of education, support, common cause, and direction that labor unions had once provided.  The union movement had provided an alternative narrative, in which rebellion, persistence, and courage are essential to organizing and to strikes, where a channel for anger and aggression is sanctioned, even applauded

What Huber doesn’t emphasize—and I would like to—is that the rebellion we need is against the proper people: the Koch Brothers, Wall Street, the Republican Party, which has nurtured a racist culture for decades, with its “southern strategy,” its absorption of the Dixicrats, and its Regan-inspired union busting tactics.  These are the people who have captured large swaths of the American narrative, trumpeted by the right wing marketing machine and long symbolized by the Willie Horton ad.  That ad, as you know, was for George HW Bush, a president that current Democrats have decided was a good Republican.

I imagine that Huber went light on the idea of emasculation because it would take away from the article’s compassion.  But in my view, the social and economic emasculation of working class men is one of the main reasons that the rebel narrative is so appealing.  And if we were to go further into the theme of emasculation, we would also have to turn to the gender revolution that has been taking place for a half century.  White men of all classes have not only lost pride of place to outsiders, like Blacks and Latinos—to the “other”—they have also lost position to insiders: their sisters, wives and mothers.  And while there’s a way to at least try to distance themselves from African and Latin Americans, there’s no place to hide from the women in their lives, who are earning more money.  Or even the same amount.  And demanding that their voices be heard.

It is as easy to make fun of such men as it is to simply condemn the “yahoos” and their Confederate flags.  I saw many, many such men in marital and family therapy.  They didn’t want to come.  They kicked and snorted fire about that stupid girl’s stuff.  And once they appeared in my office, it was clear that they felt anxious and diminished on the foreign turf.  They had no real language to express their diminishment because it was an emotional language they didn’t speak.  Even worse, speaking of diminishment aloud was dangerous, forbidden.  To say you feel like less of man, to complain, to whine, to cry, means that you are less of a man.  So you bear the daily losses, the indignities, the insults in private and in silence, except through explosions and apparently “random” acts of violence, acts that you don’t really condone, against your own wives and daughters.  Or you simply run off with another, preferably younger woman.

There have been efforts to heal these masculine wounds but, in my view, most of the men’s movement has been almost completely ineffective.  It has been apologetic, which feels like more diminishment to me.  It has tried to inject “female” values and styles into the male psyche.  That often feels foreign, even alienating.  The various men’s movements have done almost nothing, other than re-introduce loin cloths and drums on weekend retreats, with the aggression that seems to be hard wired into the male species.  It has provided none of the exuberance, the meaning, fun and rage, nor even the sense of common cause and comradeship that, for example the union movement of the first half of the twentieth century and  the 1960’s Civil Rights and Anti-War movements had for men.

I want to emphasize the sense of belonging and common cause, of having a team to identify with.  There is almost no more powerful and defining experience for many boys than their athletic teams.  Being a member of a team, going crazy with joy when you win, having your pals around you when you lose.  That is a place where you can express your agony, even cry.  And there is virtually no substitute for it once they leave school.

Once you leave school, you become a loner, a Man, as defined by working class culture—or by almost any male culture.  You learn to suck it up when you are lonely or upset.  You can’t take it out on “the man”—you’d lose your job, if you have one; and your woman doesn’t quite understand, even though she keeps asking.  You are alone much too often.  “Bowling Alone,” as Putnam would say.  And, as post World War II sociologists made plain, it was that condition—thousands, millions of men separated from the people and institutions that had structured pre-war life—it was under that condition that people were readily mobilized by demagogues, like Hitler and Mussolini.  We stand too close to that flame right now.

So I stand with you, Sonya Huber.  I stand against the most obvious solutions to the loss of manhood, voting for Trump, Cruz, and the others who thumb their noses at the establishment only to offer cruel, often elitist alternatives.  We need to affirm the hurt, the loss, the anger, and the need to rebel against its causes.  We need to help to build an alternative narrative.  It is no surprise that both Trump and Bernie Sanders made such great strides this year.  They are not accommodating.  They don’t like the establishment.  They give voice to rage.  They don’t back down.  They fight.  They are rebels.  And Bernie Sanders, at least, is a rebel with a cause.

 

Domesticating Radicals

In response to Mohammad Ali’s death last week, there was an outpouring of grief and adulation for the great man.  Not only was Ali a great athlete, but he great philanthropist and humanitarian.  He was a champion of civil rights and free speech.  At great cost to his career and reputation, he stood firmly on principle in his opposition to an unjust war.  He was known for his smile and his friendships with even the hard-to-love Howard Cossell.

In today’s Sunday Globe, Steven Kinzer, a terrific foreign policy analyst, objected to this one-sided portrait of the great Mohammad Ali: “Don’t mythologize Ali’s rage.”  Kinzer notes how the commemorations have taken the edge off, turning Ali into a kind, grandfatherly, and patriotic soul.  In fact, he was a fierce advocate of social transformation.  He was angry at US racism and the US war against Vietnam, which he objected to on general moral and race-based grounds: killing people of color and drafting disproportionate numbers of African Americans to do so.  I remember that well.

Kinzer then argues that the softening of Ali’s image is nothing new.  Our culture, powerfully abetted by our media, declaws all kinds of radicals.  Think of Father Daniel Berrigan and John Brown. “Activists of earlier generations have suffered the same fate.  Radicals from Thoreau to Paul Robeson to Malcolm X now appear on US postage stamps.  Mark Twain is remembered as a folksy humorist partly because his vivid denunciations of American intervention are absent from most anthologies.”

During their own time, these men—in fact, almost anyone who wanted to change our society—were  generally reviled, termed irresponsible, unpatriotic, revolutionary, un-American.  And there were reasons to revile them.  These were passionate people with passionate points of view, many of which were offensive to a great variety of people, even to those who appreciated the advocacy which made them famous.  In this sense, domesticating them not only robs them of the activities we value but also of their complexity.

The media are not alone in transforming fire-breathing radicals into kindly patriots.  Historians do a pretty good job of this, and the clearest product of their efforts is the generation of men who led the American Revolution.  I would be willing to bet that at least ninety percent of people do not even think that the “revolution” part of that phrase means what the dictionary tells it means: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.”  The synonyms Google offers are: “rebellion, revolt, insurrection, mutiny, uprising, rioting, insurgence, seizure of power…”  These are not polite words; applied to any contemporary activities, they would almost surely be condemned by the great, great majority of Americans.

The “gentlemen” who led this revolution were no doubt thoughtful and principled.  They stood for many of the same principles we hold “to be self evident.”  But the differences between them and us are multifold: first and foremost, they were willing to die for these principles, and many explicitly acknowledged that commitment; second, they were bringing a new order into being, trying to shed autocracy for democracy.  They were change agents.  In our attachment, we stand for the status quo, even, I might add, if the actual status quo does not live up to those principles.

It has become a cliché to say that history is written through the eyes of the present.  We might add that it is written to advocate for a particular ideological position in the present, whether it is states rights or federalism, for instance.  So, in fact, we don’t always domesticate historical heroes.  Sometimes, as in the case of John Brown, we play up their violence as a lesson to contemporaries who even think that insurgency is a good idea.  Bottom line, though, consciously and unconsciously, historians distort what they report, either to prove a point or because they are so imbued with contemporary values and viewpoints, that they lack perspective.

Maybe the most glaring instance of historical distortion is the one imposed on judicial decision making by the “Constitutional Originalists.”  Led by Justice Scalia, the Originalists treat the Constitution the way religious fundamentalists treat the bible—as literal truth.  Then they contend that they know the intention of those who authored the Constitution and of the other Founding Fathers.  Really?  How do they know those intentions.  Serious historians have been struggling to understand these intentions for centuries.  They have also disagreed in countless ways.  If they are to be taken at their word, then we simply have to conclude that the Originalists are poor historians, ignorant and obviously biased.

But to avoid being a literalist myself and getting into an argument about what the Founders’ intentions really were, I would like to emphasize the more important point.  The authors were practical revolutionaries, dedicated to change, flexibility, adaptability.  They would never prescribe, in exact terms, how generations hundreds of years hence, should conduct their affairs.  Rather, as Jefferson often argued, each generation must make its own decisions.  It is totally ridiculous to use them in the service of a fundamentalist style conservatism.

Then, too, we might remove the halo from our Founders.  As great a service as they performed, they also solidified the institution of slavery in American society.  They famously “compromised,” trading slavery to induce the South to join the Union.  The importance of the Union has gotten a free pass in our historical telling.  What, we may ask, was so holy about all getting together.  Maybe two nations would have been a successful way to go.  And, as an aside, wouldn’t the whole Progressive urge in America have been better realized without the South?

Finally, I want to add a word about ordinary people like me.  We are like the historians.  We often join in the process of disarming ourselves.  We make fun of ourselves, of our youth, of the fire and passion that made it so engaging, so much fun.  Part of this has to do with perspective—sometimes called wisdom—gained over the years.  But part of it has to do with not making too many waves.  We grow vulnerable with age, and we love to be loved.  By joining in the stories of misbegotten youth, we remove our own claws.  That’s a good thing—sometimes—but sometimes we should keep the fire going.

 

Towards a Stronger Model of Manhood

As successful as he has been this year, Donald Trump’s candidacy would be nothing if it did not resonate with something deep in American culture, with its celebration of strong, self-reliant, even anti-social men, like Daniel Boone and John Wayne. Both, we are told, would take off into the wilderness at the first sign of restrictions on their activities.  Both are Tea Party heroes.

Then there is a parallel tradition of apparently independent men yearning for the approval of the right people.  F Scott Fitzgerald might almost have invented Gatsby as a model for Donald Trump. Though Gatsby is surely more appealing, in part because of the vulnerability he shows.  And in real life, turn-of-the-century tycoons like James Fisk, Jay Gould, and John Pierpoint Morgan, with their flamboyance and need to impress, have provided excellent templates for Mr. Trump.  Morgan’s ostentation, for instance, knew no bounds.  He and his companions gambled, sailed yachts, gave lavish parties, and built palatial homes.

There are other American archetypes that Trump falls into, like con man and celebrity, but that is a discussion for another time.

Both the anti-social individualists and the narcissistic and entitled tycoons have held sway over our imagination for centuries now.  And in less obvious ways, narcissistic, entitled men have led our country for decades.  Think of Tricky Dick Nixon or Ronald Reagan who translated his charm as a TV marketer into presidential office or of those relentless womanizers, JFK and Bill Clinton, and, God forbid, Donald Trump, to name a few.

These men do not represent me.  I reject this idea of manhood.  It is not how I identify myself.  I know how these guys would dismiss me.  “He’s not really a man.”  But, in fact, I’m not one of those liberationists who hates being a man.  I love sports and sex and argument.  I played football, basketball, baseball and ran track into my college years.  I still watch football all the time.  I am a backpacker.  For thirty years, I went into the Western wilderness for week-long treks off trail and above tree line.  I love carpentry and built my own house, post and beam style—without power tools.  I have built and led a number of organizations.

Nor am I afraid or ashamed of my aggressiveness.  I like competing—and winning. Both have been the source of great pleasure, energy and effectiveness in my life.  But I need to be connected to family, friends, and colleagues.  Without them, life would otherwise be dreary and lonely.  I do not want to ride off into the sunset, at least not for long.  And I don’t want to lord it over people.  That feels isolating and brutalizing.  My daughter loves to tease me when I cry at the end of movies.  My father and I always hugged and kissed each other on the check.  It’s the same with my son—and my grandsons.

I have not been victimized or even challenged by immigrants.  My grandparents’ struggles in America and the triumph of their children—my parents—are the stuff of legend to me.  They are America to me.  They have given our country its vitality and diversity.  I rejoice in the new immigrants, who will make us stronger and more interesting.  I do not feel emasculated by the immigrants, the gay and lesbian freedom fighters, the women, who have demanded their rights.  I feel enlivened by their demands.  This, not isolation or bullying, is my strength. This ability to affirm change and to affirm the advances of other people.  I’m proud of that kind of strength.  And I am not alone.  I have millions of compatriots.

At the moment, the receptivity to Trump and Trump-like manhood is running high.  He is experienced as a model and a protector to all of those men who feel left behind, diminished and disrespected, and punished for they don’t know what.  Trump makes them feel strong.  They make Trump feel strong.  They need one another.  It is the marriage of a depleted cohort of American men with a pumped up and frightened cartoon character that has brought us to our current plight: the possibility of Trump becoming President of the United States of America.

The question is what to do.  In both the short and long term, one obvious answer is the creation of better paying and more meaningful jobs, jobs with a living wage that returns dignity to men.  A longer term answer, beyond the scope of this article, is the eventual acceptance of gender equality.  As long as men fight a losing and dispiriting battle with the women in their life and in public life, they will feel frightened and deprived of what seemed to be their rightful place in life.

I don’t think we have to redefine or redesign men, at least not entirely, but we do have to make some sort of Darwinian adjustment.  Men will not survive well in the mode of primitive hunters.  Physical strength is not the prime currency in today’s world.  We do not need warriors and clan chiefs, at least not in the traditional mode.  With our current weaponry, in fact, the world is far to dangerous for warriors and hunters to be in charge.

But I do have a prescription for the men who are feeling left out and, in retaliation, are lashing out.  This will not be easy.  It’s not a path for sissies.  For almost thirty years, I met with countless lost men who were pulled into therapy by frustrated women and their families.  Those with courage and perseverance were able to struggle towards different ideas of manhood and strength.  This is a prescription not just for the narcissistically injured men that I wrote about in “Trump and the injured souls of men.”  It is for all of us.  There are three steps.

Step one: gain access to what is going on inside of you.  This includes your fears and pleasures, your anger and your joy.  The dreaded feelings that women are forever asking about.  Get to know yourself well.  In the process you may feel a little out of control.  In the end, you will feel in better control.  You will know the resources at your disposal. Knowledge is power.

Step two: develop a strategic sensibility.  Once you know how you feel about things, you can decide what you want to do with them. You won’t react as much, meaning you won’t embarrass yourself and alienate others as much.  Most importantly, you can deliberate on the most effective course of action, meaning what will most likely lead to your goals.  That’s what great athletes do, what great generals do, what great statesmen do.  Strategy is power.

Step three: build the discipline to act on your strategy.  Walk the talk even before it’s natural or easy.  It’s not enough to know what to do.  It takes great strength and conviction to act on that knowledge.  If, for example, you are upset that your wife earns more money and demands a full say in the family, acknowledge your feelings, and plan a way to regain your sense of efficacy.  Throughout history, men with the discipline to serve their ends and their values are the ones we admire.  They are our heroes.  Discipline on behalf of goals is power.

 

Trump and the injured souls of men

Most who join the Trump bandwagon say they have been wronged.  They feel left behind and bullied by big government.  Their freedom is in jeopardy.  They don’t have jobs, having lost out to “foreign” workers who are empowered by big capitalists who move business off shore.  Or they have jobs that barely pay a living wage—nothing like their parents’ generation and, therefore, their own expectations.  Or they fear that job loss is just around the corner.  In short, they have lost the dignity of good work, lost the secure ability to support their family, and they feel vulnerable all the time.

That’s the external side of things.  The psychology of their condition is equally troubling—and infuriating.  With the economic and social vulnerability comes insecurity and a loss of identity.  They don’t know who they are anymore.  They don’t fit their own definition of manhood—and the majority of Trump supporters are men.  For those who went to war, long the definition of manhood and courage, the return, without their team, the soldiers who ‘had their back,’ can be disorienting and infuriating.  Who did they fight this war for, anyhow.  Much as the British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, says that mothers hold their children, giving them a sense of belonging and connection, so the army teams metaphorically held each other.  And, as Putnam so poignantly wrote, the structure of American society no longer provides that sense of belonging.  The men, veterans and just guys “bowl alone.”  As we say about children who lack true family support, these men are “at risk.”

These are Trump’s people and their vulnerability expresses itself most often in anger, which momentarily hides their vulnerability.  When you are angry—for that moment in time—you often feel strong.  You get pumped up and you find external targets for your rage.  In today’s America, the targets have been easy to find: immigrants and Muslims, bankers and effete northeastern intellectuals or “media types.”  When there is someone who models and stokes anger as well as Trump does, it is contagious.  When you see someone who seems to bully the enemy, then he becomes a hero.  He is the leader they believe they need.  As I wrote in my essay on eighth grade bullies, these men and their passions are ripe for mobilizing.

Rather than elaborate again on the theme of mobilization, though, I’d like to take a moment to better understand their internal struggles.  Many, many of the Trump people suffer from what psychologists call “narcissistic injury.”  So what is narcissistic injury.

Let’s begin with narcissism, itself.  Here are some definitions.  1. “Excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.” 2. “Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.” 3. “Self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects.”  Sound familiar?  I think it captures Trump the way Matisse captures dancers with a few brush strokes.

Now let’s take this a step further. Here is a description of a “narcissistic personality disorder”:  “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”  What then?  He lashes out, as Trump has done with countless ‘enemies,’ the latest being Judge Gonzalvo Curiel, who presumes to sit on the Trump University fraud case.

Narcissistic rage is a reaction to narcissistic injury, which is a perceived threat to a narcissist’s self-esteem or self-worth. (Google def).  Where does the disorder or injury come from? Some powerful, usually repeated childhood experiences in which the child’s need for love and nurture is unfulfilled, and the existential insecurity that follows that unfulfilled child through life.  For much of the time, people can control the fear, but certain kinds of events set it off.  Rokelle Lerner, author of The Object of My Affection is In My Reflection,  identifies three triggers.  1) The threat of losing the primary source of narcissistic supply, be that a job or a relationship. 2) A failure of old strategies to work, for example, someone challenging their power or trying to take control away from them.  3) An unexpected situation in which their “robust sense of self dissolves and they become desperate.”

The narcissist is in constant search for affirmation and admiration to calm his fears.  When activated, his “frantic need” for “narcissistic supply,” the “constant ego-stroking that sustains…the underdeveloped sense of self and confirms his grandiosity, entitlement, and superiority.”  The confirmation is like a drug that is essential to his well being.   When you interrupt the supply by neglecting him, paying too much attention to others, criticizing or blaming him or not giving him special treatment, you threaten his sense of superiority and call his entitlement into question.  That triggers the a narcissistic injury.

I trust that I don’t have to draw each of the parallels to the Republican presidential candidate.  But, as I suggested earlier, his narcissistic needs require a response from others.  Just as a tree, when it falls in the forest, needs someone to listen in order to know that is has fallen, Trump needs his followers in order to believe he has a self.

What often follows narcissistic injury is rage and blame and, sometimes, violence.  We all recognize this response.  We see it in husbands and wives, children and friends, and bosses when they have been hurt.  Narcissistic injury flows readily among us.  But the degree and the expression of the injury varies immensely.   When you need the rage to relieve yourself, and you need it often, you know that the situation is dangerous.  Like admiration when it comes, rage and blame are like drugs for the narcissists.  This is why Trump can’t get enough of his own ranting, and his followers need it almost equally.  They both need the supply.

Trump and the Power of the Eighth Grade Bully

When I was a boy of 14, the ability to “put down” others seemed like an essential social skill which I never had.  In fact, I couldn’t do it.  It seemed cruel and I was a sensitive boy.  Others were brilliant at it.

“Put downs” were simply efforts to humiliate others by pointing out their inadequacies or imagined inadequacies.  They targeted kids who were slow footed and didn’t make the sports teams, who were not quick witted or who seemed “too smart for their own good,” kids whose pubic hair was late coming in—oh the terror of the locker room.    There was no end to the wounds and fears that made us vulnerable to these verbal bullies.  My hairline was low, for example, and boys used to say that it met my eyebrows.  Why that seemed so devastating, only a pimply adolescent can tell you.

Some “put down artists,” as they were called, were bullies and big enough to push others around more directly if they chose.  Some were little kids, who managed their size by being the best “put down artists.”  You knew how bad it could get if you challenged them, and that made many of us timid.

I can hardly remember anyone defending the kids who were put down, except sometimes a really nice girl.  The girl who became my love when we were seniors in high school was chief among them.  And she seemed to do it without humiliating the bully too much.  But the complicity of everyone else was evident to all of us.  We even talked about our complicity, about our lack of courage, and found comfort in others who shared our cowardice.  But we never, individually or collectively, planned a counter attack.  Rather we took the bullying for a fact of life.

The guys—girls didn’t do it to boys in their presence—who were good at “put downs” were either loners or leaders.  I don’t understand how these two pathways converged in this way but they did.  The loners seem to guarantee their privacy and safety with their skills. The leaders could get other kids to pile on.  They could squeeze other kids out of a social circle.  They could get activities going.  You loved it when they hurt others who you didn’t like. You really wanted to be on their side.

These boys, all pimples and insecurity, were ripe for mobilizing.  Targeting others as scapegoats, proved a great relief.  In a small but very important way, this adolescent interaction teaches about the ripeness that foretells the rise of fascism.  According to Robert Paxton, the eminent scholar, fascism is not an ideology, not a clear set of ideas or an agenda for the future.  It is the “mobilization of passions,” mass passions, almost as chaotically at first, as the 14 year on put down artists.

The mobilization depends chiefly on the following conditions:

A sense of crisis. Demagogues succeed, according to Paxton, when there is “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution.”  Donald Trump, the Republican nominee to be President of the United States, speaks to a white, largely male electorate who feel left behind, lost, and diminished.  They no longer believe that government can or even wants to help.  Over and again, Trump plays to America’s downward spiral, and particularly the loss of power to which the white working class is entitled. The psychology of crisis draws them in.

Feeling victimized.  “The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.”  In other words, the crisis didn’t arise from vague forces.  Someone made it happen: “Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.”  The sense of American society bowing before the forces of “foreign hordes” has fueled populist movements throughout our history and before. As in Europe, American culture is in the midst of a renaissance of such nativism.

“The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.”  From the start of the campaign, Trump has put himself forward as the strongest, the one who is destined to survive.  He mocks Jeb Bush’s lack of energy and Marco Rubio’s sweaty underarms. They are inferior creatures destined for extinction.  Watching the Republic primaries, we saw how easily he turned those debates into eighth grade free for alls in which he, simply by putting others down, fulfilled his promise to survive and thrive.

“The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.”  We see this in Trump’s wall, in the segregation of Muslims, Latinos, and others—all in the name of “making America great again.”  This is the kind of ‘isolationism’ that is the kissing cousin of American exceptionalism.  For us to be great, we must believe that others are lesser beings.

Faith in the superiority of the leader’s instincts over evidence and reason. Trump tells us, over and over, to “trust me” because he’ll “make a better deal.”  He talks about his business experience but what he really means is that he was born to a certain kind of wisdom.  Like the pimply adolescents of my youth, Trump’s fans want toughness, decisiveness, confidence far more than thought and reason.  They love that he speaks spontaneously.  It feels authentic to them.  They don’t care about lots of thought. They don’t even like or trust it.  Thought and ‘excessive planning’ are effete.  Trump will know the right thing to do when the moment comes.  As Robert Tsai puts it in What Aryans See in Donald Trump: “He is the Aryan warrior, come to save whiteness itself.”

I have been following politics for over sixty years.  I was brought up during the McCarthy scare, which was horrifying in its indiscriminate scapegoating of “Reds” and the way that it made so many millions too timid to raise their voices against anything that wasn’t “red blooded American.”  Donald Trump may have the ability and the audience to replicate the Red Scare but, more importantly, he has the potential to go much further.  His bullying of all who oppose him, his racism, his convenient nationalism, his lack of any consistent set of values, his capacity to marshal the worst in American culture is more reminiscent, still, of Benito Mussolini.