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.