Monday, June 12, 2017

What Is It Like To Be Donald Trump?

by Michael Dorf

Last week in this space I took issue with the hypothesis that President Trump's early-morning tweets about the Travel Ban were intended to sabotage the Justice Department's legal defense of the policy or otherwise intended to serve any rational purpose. I suggested that there is a much more straightforward and thus much more likely explanation of Trump's tweeting: he "is an ignorant racist with no impulse control." The tweets simply vent. Any good they might do him--e.g., by firing up his base or by distracting the media from more damaging and/or substantive stories--is coincidental.

Today I want to address a related question: Does it even make sense to try to figure out what is happening inside Trump's head? I will frame the discussion with reference to a justly famous work in the philosophy of mind: Thomas Nagel's 1974 essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat?

As I noted last December, people who probably haven't read Nagel's essay sometimes invoke it for the proposition that a human being can never know what it's like to be a bat because when you imagine yourself as a bat you don't imagine a bat as a bat; you can't; thus you only can imagine what it's like to be a kind of bat-like version of you.

That's an interesting claim, but it's not what Nagel says. He says--and I agree--that in many respects it's pretty straightforward to imagine what it's like to be a bat. Because bats are mammals like us with many similar physiological and neurochemical characteristics, we can readily imagine what it is like for a bat to feel cold or hot or itchy. But in at least one respect bats are very different from us. They perceive the world by echolocation, which is a capacity that nearly all humans lack. Although we can develop the capacity to echolocate (albeit not as well as bats and dolphins), until one has trained oneself or been trained in echolocation, the very concept seems completely alien. What does the world "look" like when perceived through echolocation? At best most of us humans have only metaphors to answer that question.

Nagel's essay was an intervention in an ongoing debate in philosophy about what counts as an adequate description of mental events. He thought he had shown that because it is possible to describe the physical phenomenon of echolocation without shedding any light on what echolocation feels like from the inside, there is a gap between a physical description and an account of how the physical events give rise to a subjective experience. I say that he "thought" he showed this because subsequent debates (about artificial intelligence, among other things) indicate that not everyone is convinced. I don't have a strong view about these matters (although I lean in Nagel's direction), but for present purposes that doesn't matter. I don't want to go all of the way down the road of Nagel's essay. Instead, I would like to focus on the earlier step in the argument: our inability to understand or explain echolocation "from the inside" (at least if we have not been trained in or independently figured out how to do it).

Here's my hypothesis: Normal humans are similarly unable to understand or explain what it feels like to be Donald Trump, because in some respects Donald Trump is different from normal humans, just as bats--in virtue of their ability to echolocate--are also different from normal humans.

I can illustrate the hypothesis with a recent example of Trump's behavior. In the aftermath of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack, Trump tweeted "At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is 'no reason to be alarmed!'" The tweet was indecent for two reasons: First, any reasonable human being would have expressed solidarity and sympathy; and second, the premise of the tweet--that Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Londoners need not be alarmed about terrorism--was false.

Khan had said that Londoners ought not be alarmed by the increased police presence they would see in the wake of the attack. When this was patiently explained, Trump did not apologize. Instead, he vented again, calling the clearly correct response a "pathetic excuse."

If we were dealing with a normal human being--even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being--we might ask whether Trump deliberately misconstrued the original statement by Khan for some nefarious purpose, whether he somehow misunderstood the original statement by accident, or whether there is some other explanation for this bizarre and despicable behavior. But Trump is not a normal human being. He is not even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being. Trump is Trump. Asking what Trump was thinking or feeling when he decided to launch a patently unfair and grotesque attack on the Mayor of London while the latter was working to soothe and protect the people of London is like asking what echolocation feels like to a bat. The same appears to be true of much of Trump's inexplicable behavior.

To be sure, as with bats, so with Trump, there are some ways in which we can imagine his subjective experience. I suspect that Trump experiences cold or heat or itchiness in the same way that I do, that other humans do, and indeed that just about all other mammals do. I can even imagine that Trump feels some complex emotions more or less in the way that other normal humans do. Notwithstanding the extremely creepy elements of Trump's feelings towards his daughter Ivanka, I assume that he loves his children. I can thus assume that being Trump feeling (non-creepy) love for his children is more or less like being me or anybody else feeling love for my children or their own children.

But in trying to understand what would make Trump hurl deceitful ill-informed and often racist or sexist insults at people--many of whom have not in any way wronged him--we generalize from our own experience at our peril. I can imagine being very angry at someone and saying mean things about or to that person; indeed, I've done that on occasion; but, being a more or less normal person, I've then felt bad about it and apologized. Not only does Trump never apologize; he appears never to experience remorse. He might feel regret. For example, perhaps he regrets that he lost the popular vote. But so far as we can tell, Trump doesn't feel that he did or didn't do anything to cause that result.

At this point some readers might be thinking that the Trump-is-like-a-bat hypothesis is too strong. Sure, they'll say, Trump is a colossal jerk, but he is not unique. There are other colossal jerks in the world.

That's fair. I don't mean to claim that Trump is unique. In many ways his behavior fits the pattern of other deranged authoritarians who have sought to create a cult of personality reflecting their own egotistical idea of reality. Caligula, Idi Amin, and Saparmurat Niyazov were undoubtedly jerks (and much worse) in some of the same ways that Trump is a jerk. My point is that at a certain level of arrogant assholery, we have reached a difference in kind, not just degree. Just as we cannot understand how any bat subjectively experiences echolocation, so we cannot understand how any Trump-level jerk experiences his own jerkiness.

Does the unfathomability of Trump's subjectivity disadvantage us in our efforts to mitigate the damage that he inflicts? Probably not.

It is not useful to know how it feels to be Donald Trump unless knowing how it feels helps us in some way to predict or affect his behavior. But I doubt that it does. It's pretty clear from his past conduct that flattering Trump can be an effective way to influence him, subject to the risks I identified in an earlier post: others could counteract your influence; Trump acts so impetuously that influence can be fleeting; and it surely must be degrading to flatter Trump.

It is even easier to see how to provoke Trump: Insult him by saying true things about him or by quoting him.

Thus, without losing any predictive power, we can treat the question of how Trump's mind translates external stimuli into batshit crazy reactions as a profound mystery, an impenetrable black box. The more important point is to know that Trump's mind translates external stimuli into batshit crazy reactions in broadly predictable patterns. We should be Skinnerians when it comes to Trump. What is it like to be Donald Trump? We'll never know, and we shouldn't care.


David Ricardo said...

Mr. Dorf is correct, the analysis of how Trump’s mind translates external stimuli into action is not important and not related to the predictive ability to forecast what Trump will do with respect to external stimuli. And that predictive ability if so firmly established that many of us know what Trump will do in response to a situation at the same time his mind reaches a conclusion.

But the real concern here may be not what Trump does which is very little or what he says which is very inarticulate, but how he is just an enabler of the Republican agenda. A noted conservative, I believe it was Grover Norquist, once said (I am paraphrasing rather than quoting here) that all that was needed from a Republican President was that he (yes it was always going to be a he) did not have to originate policy or have intellectual heft. All he had to do was sign the radical conservative policies that would be passed by a Republican Congress. And this appears to be what we have.

Consider health care. Trump appears to have no specific policy concepts, only that he wants ACA repealed and replaced with something, anything. Whatever the Congress passes is he will sign, embrace and claim as his own, and leave the podium with little or no understanding of what the policy actually embraces. And Republican members of Congress will be happy to let him take the credit as long as they get the programs put in place that they want.

On an unrelated note I think it is time that this Forum banish a person who despite warnings that he refrain from personal attacks did so in a highly offensive manner over the weekend. Failure to do so will take this Forum which is one of the most intellectually powerful sites of discussion on the internet in a direction that is demeaning and insulting not only to those of us who comment but also to those who do the original posting.

Michael C. Dorf said...

DR: Thanks for the heads up. I don't always read the comments on co-bloggers' posts in a timely fashion. My policy is to delete offensive comments and spam. I've deleted the offending comment.

Joe said...

There is a new book out that was reviewed by the NYT that is a collection of essays by experts regarding Aliens. One article discussions octopus to give us insight into the possible "alien" physiology of aliens. The essay includes an attempt to analyze how an octupus would "see" the world, if it was conscious.

Anyway, the bottom line of the discussion is probably true enough though there probably is some usefulness in understanding how Trump sees the world. On some level, it's a parlor game, since we cannot really know & as you say, for our purposes, it isn't that essential we do know. Still, looking into how people see the world is something common in various fictional and non-fictional examinations of the human animal. I guess for me personally it's somewhat relevant.

[Aliens: The World's Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life]

Joe said...

(I gather the main point of citing the bat essay is to come back with the "batshit" line.)

Unknown said...

Very interesting read, but I see two errors. First, that he can experience love for his children, and second, that he might feel regret.

A narcissist does not feel these things. He does not regret that he lost the popular vote, he simply cannot experience that emotion, so he truly believes he DID win it, that his crowd size WAS larger. He isn't lying about these things, but because he is the center of his own universe, these things could not have happened. Everyone else must be wrong.

A narcissist does not love his children. Does he love Tiffany? Look at how his visible children dress and act in ways that please and REFLECT him. Because he can never, presumably, have sex with Ivanka, he acts as if he loves her, as men tend to idealize and adore women they can never have sex with for some valid reason (mom, a nun, grandmothers, the pure lady in medieval times who knights could never possess, which is in fact the origin of our ideas of romantic love). His children are reflections, or mirrors, or the only image he can image, his own.

I was raised by a narcissist, and for many years was one myself, emulating my only parental role model. Slowly I learned awful truths about the world which turned out to be just normal emotions. Remorse, realization that others had feelings just as important as mine, compassion, were all tempered with the wonderful realization that I was not alone in the world. Not better than everyone else, not the center of the universe, but the payoff was that I could be satisfied and happy, which narcissists are unable to experience. That's why they are so obsessed with winning, winning everything, because nothing is ever enough to satisfy when you do not realize that others exist in the same world and there are some things--other people, America--which are as or more important than oneself.

Shag from Brookline said...

I do recall the expression in my youth of a person having "bats in the belfry" but as an urban dweller I have not had direct contact with bats, until an encounter a year or so ago with one intruding in my home while a couple of children were visiting. I got a broom for self defense purposes as my 2 A right in my home to dispatch this intruder, which I did, unfortunately, in a lethal manner (as bats do make beneficial contributions). It would have been easier with a tennis racket (against the echo powers of bats) but one was not then available to me; I now have one at the ready just in case. Other than that, there was some recent nostalgia with the demise of Adam West at 88 who had played on TV a comic book hero of my earlier years with camp. In reading Mike's post I thought of "bats in the belfry."

But let me segue to Eric Anthamatten's NYTimes OpEd "Trump and the True Meaning of 'Idiot'" which opens with this:


In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, respondents were asked what word immediately came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump: The No. 1 response was “idiot.” This was followed by “incompetent,” “liar,” “leader,” “unqualified,” and finally, in sixth place, “president.” Superlatives like “great” and a few unprintable descriptives came further down on the list. But let us focus on the first.


Eric goes back to the Greeks and updates meanings over the years. The analysis trumps "batshit crazy."

Unknown said...

"Trump is Trump"

So the only question that needs to be answered is who then is Trump?

Trump is a very simple-minded creature. He divides the world into "winners" and "losers." He, of course, is the ultimate "winner." Anyone who disagrees with him on any subject is a "loser." But you are not necessarily a "loser" (in Trump's head) forever. You can always redeem yourself and agree with Trump and, thus, become a "winner." But if remain a "loser," you are fair game for Trump attacks.

To understand Trump, you have to understand how he was raised and who (and what) were the major influences in his life. He wasn't born dividing the world into "winners" and "losers" and having always to see himself as a "winner." That black and white view of the world was learned. So who were his teachers? And what do we know about them that gives us insight into Trump's mind?

Fred, his father, and infamous attorney Roy Cohn, were Trump's Dr. Frankenstein. The WaPo last year published a detailed account of Trump's upbringing. It lays out in detail how Fred and Cohn helped create Trump. None of it was a surprise to me because I have been following Trump since the '70s and, thus, was well aware of his lack of "normal" character traits.

Finally, it must be remebered that Trump (in his head) must always see himself as a "winner." Anything less would destroy him. Thus he will say and do things that he believes will project him as the "winner" (in any "battle," big or small -- it doesn't matter if his adversary is Rosie or Comey, for his psychological survival, he must perceive himself (and project himself) as the "winner" and his perceived enemy/opponent as the "loser."

I suspect that the vast majority of the 62 million or so people who voted for Trump have a moral compass and perceive their internal and external worlds in a "right" or "wrong" paradigm. They also mistakenly perceived Trump as someone who operated on that same internal framework. Or, at least, they agreed with Trump's categorizations of "winners" and "losers." But I doubt that they truly understood that Trump's simplistic brain was only able to operate on a winner vs. loser basis.

Trump is Trump. He will never change. He is as inacpable of changing his winner vs. loser ingrained mentality as you are in changing your DNA.

Shag from Brookline said...

John Smith observes as an alternative reason for those voting for Trump:

" Or, at least, they agreed with Trump's categorizations of 'winners' and 'losers.'"

Did they consider themselves as "winners," or as "losers" thinking that Trump as president might make them "winners"? If the latter, I wonder how they think that's been working out so far? Or have the Forgotten forgotten?

Bob Hockett said...

This one especially is a masterpiece, Mike - thanks so much.

It's funny - I've never been fully convinced by TN's argument in WLBB, but I am QUITE convinced by yours. I suppose that this might mean that I'm less able, less disposed, or both to 'put myself into Trump's head' than to put myself into a bat's head. That's probably true with respect to pretty much any other person, place or thing as well - virtually anything, even a lava lamp, a Q-Tip, or the square-root of 2 seems to me more readily imagined as my 'being' than is being Trump.

Neither Peter Sellars nor John Malkovich need ever worry about being sidelined by Trump in any next 'Being ...' film.

Speaking of (or alluding to) 'There,' another TN piece comes also to mind here, in this case with special irony: The view from Trump's head is indeed surely a 'View from Nowhere' - though of course not in the sense Tom had in mind. For the 'nowhere' in this case is not that of perspectiveless impartiality, but the 'there' of 'no there there.'

One other thought here: I once read a squib about a particularly controversial novelist's oeuvre contributed by a fellow writer. 'Read [author] and take a tour of Hell,' it read. One might say the same of any attempt at a phenomenology of Orange Julius's 'psyche' - or what ever we call the psyche's counterpart in the case of this rare avis. A tour of hell indeed.

Thanks again,


Unknown said...

Check out the article entitled "Trump and the True Meaning of 'Idiot'" in the Opinion Page of today's NYT.

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps we might consider how Republicans controlling Congress translate Trump. Some recent commentary suggests that these Republicans have Trump by the short hairs politically. These Republicans have an ideological agenda in contrast to the populist campaign of Trump and Trump's failure as president at delivering populism. These Republicans control any "I" team and are prepared to protect Trump from impeachment so long as Trump goes along with these Republicans' ideological agenda, even though Trump ideologically may not share their views. Trump needs "wins." He needs these Republicans as only Congress can give him real "wins," such as repeal/replace Obamacare and tax cuts for the 0.1%. So to a certain extent these Republicans can hold Trump hostage, as it would be politically difficult for Trump to veto a non-populist repeal/replace of Obamacare that might reduce insured roles for some 23 million Americans including many of the Forgotten of Trump's voter base. And as I have noted on other threads at this Blog, Trump and these Republicans may be anticipating political tithing by the 0.1% of their significant annual tax savings with the Trump "tax plan" to build on the benefits of Citizens United on campaign contributions to support Trump and these Republicans. How might voters react to this short hairs hostage technique of these Republicans?

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