Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Why Doesn't Trump Feign Humility?

by Michael Dorf

My latest Verdict column addresses the recent controversy over--ahem--Donald Trump's penis. I argue that while there is no precedent for a presidential candidate's explicit declaration that, as Trump put it last week, "there's no problem" with the size of his member, there are numerous precedents for political candidates and office holders attempting to project an image of male virility and strength as a basis for winning or maintaining public support. I invoke domestic and foreign examples, as well as evolutionary biology. I conclude by wondering how Trump's alpha-male routine would play in a general election campaign against Hillary Clinton. Spoiler Alert: I don't know.

Both Marco Rubio's initial "dick joke" about Trump and Trump's response have predictably provided fodder for pundits and comedians. As I note in the column, Rubio's move seems to have backfired; by descending to Trump's level, he undermined his claim to be running a positive campaign. That was predictable, but I do think the reaction is unfair to Rubio. He was obviously making a joke, first by invoking the long-running trope that Trump is a "short-fingered vulgarian," and second, by suggesting that the supposedly diminutive stature of Trump's digits implies a corresponding genital deficit. No one who watched the video of Rubio's Trump-roasting shtick could possibly think that Rubio was actually reporting that he had seen and measured Trump's penis, which he found to be abnormally small.

It. Was. A. Joke.

Trump's cringe-inducing performance on Saturday Night Live last fall included his recitation of the line, "I can take a joke," but his response to Rubio's dick joke and, well, just about everything else from the Donald, pretty strongly suggest that he has no sense of humor, at least not about himself. On the contrary, like many other bullies and egomaniacs, he is hyper-sensitive to criticism.

We are nonetheless left with something of a mystery. Most other egomaniacs craving public approval understand the value of at least feigning a bit of humility. Sports are instructive. Just about all professional athletes grew up as the best player on their team. Many of them--because of how broad the base and how narrow the top of the pyramid are--were the best player ever to play for their school or in their division. They are used to being adored. When they reach the professional level, most of them discover that they are, by pro standards, just average. It can be difficult after a lifetime of adulation to accept a kind of rarefied mediocrity, but most athletes master it. They figure out how to fake humility, even if they never really feel it. Indeed, the cliches that Crash feeds Nuke in Bull Durham are all about sounding humble. And as Mark Canha of the Oakland A's showed last year, they work!

So why doesn't Trump at least try to feign humility from time to time? I'll stipulate that Trump doesn't actually ever feel humble, but surely a candidate with so few qualms about saying things he knows to be false would be untroubled by the prospect of saying something humble-sounding even though it did not reflect his actual feelings. Accordingly, I am left to infer that Trump's unceasing braggadocio is calculated. He has apparently concluded that even an occasional transparently insincere "aw shucks" would dilute his appeal by conveying the appearance of weakness.

Nine, six, or even three months ago I would have said that this is a strategic error, but--along with most other observers--I have been surprised by Trump's staying power. I still think that when it comes down to it, more people are repelled by extreme arrogance than are attracted by it, but that might simply be wishful thinking.


Joe said...

His act liking a dick -- we are being blunt here, right? -- mode is doing him well.

He really had little reason to act humble given winning or coming in second (and coming in second in Idaho etc. can be ignored) in each race. He actually did act humble after losing Iowa. It weirded people out.

He also basically toned it down when on Stephen Colbert. So, I think he isn't an asshole 24/7 or something. But, yeah, he is most of the time. It's working for him.

Asher Steinberg said...

"I do think the reaction is unfair to Rubio... No one who watched the video of Rubio's Trump-roasting shtick could possibly think that Rubio was actually reporting that he had seen and measured Trump's penis, which he found to be abnormally small. It. Was. A. Joke."

First, I don't think the reaction has anything to do with people believing that Rubio made a dishonest claim to have actually seen and measured anything; no one's suggested that he did. Rather, the reaction's based on its being a vulgar joke (or speculation). Second, the possibilities here aren't joke or actual claim to have seen and measured; there's also non-joking surmise, or joking surmise. Obviously Rubio's comments were intended to be funny, but it's possible to seriously suggest that such and such is the case and mean that suggestion to be funny. Or, one can suggest that such and such is the case in a joking fashion and not believe it, hope to maintain some plausible deniability about the seriousness of one's suggestion by making the suggestion jokingly, but also hope that some listeners will interpret the suggestion seriously. (I think this is quite possible in Rubio's case.) Or, one can suggest that such and such is the case and not believe it, not intend your listeners to take it as a serious suggestion, but hope, nevertheless, that the object of your remark takes it seriously enough to react in some embarrassing fashion (which may well have been Rubio's idea). There are all sorts of possibilities, none of them very becoming of a presidential candidate.

On Trump, it's possible that his lack of displayed humility is strategic, possible that he's so arrogant that he can't even bear to feign humility, possible that he's so insecure that feigning humility is unpleasant for him, and finally, possible that he lacks the self-consciousness required to act differently than he feels. Probably a number of these things are true. I believe he's discussed the value of false shows of confidence in his "business" writings, but I also think he's clearly someone who has some interesting psychological issues. I also think that, as a factual matter, Trump sometimes acts humbly. There are moments where he seems humbled by the support he's received. There are times where he expresses some uncertainty about winning the nomination or a primary, although that isn't quite humility.

tjchiang said...

Most people probably are more repelled by extreme arrogance than attracted by it. But Trump's supporters are not (yet) most people.

Edward Keller said...

Nobody really cares about Trump's (or anyone else's)"virility." Trump merely says the things that people want to hear (e.g. throwing 12,000,000 undocumented immigrants out of the country; Mexico will pay for a border wall; Muslims KEEP OUT, etc.).

Rubio will not get elected because he's not fit to govern. It has nothing to do with virility.

Cruz probably will not get elected either because, outside of the religious right, his support remains tenuous at best.

Paul Scott said...

I don't know what you are talking about. Trump is the greatest at feigning humility. Just the best. Really terrific. You are probably meaning to say, "Mr. Trump, with all your humility - we can't take it. Please, can't you accept some praise?" No, it is humble all the way down.

Shag from Brookline said...

Is Trump capable of feigning humility in a convincing fashion to attract voters beyond his base?