Sometimes other people say it better.
In a terrific column two Sundays ago the New York Times’ Frank Bruni totally nailed the Trump personality in all its inglorious glory. Bruni is typically pretty interesting and always worth reading but this time, in a piece titled “Donald Trump’s Ideology of Applause,” he really nails it. Read his column here, on the Times’ web site, or below.
Americans are such sticklers. Such poops. Sure, some of Vladimir Putin’s political opponents wind up in jail, while some of the journalists he dislikes end up in the morgue.
Yes, his government is apparently committing cybercrimes to meddle in our election. And there was that small matter of invading and annexing one of Russia’s neighbors.
But look at his numbers! What’s a little blood on your hands when you’re polling like that?
“He does have an 82 percent approval rating,” Donald Trump said during the special “commander in chief” forum last week. It’s worth dwelling on that sentence, because it’s the key to what drives and guides his presidential bid. It’s the giveaway.
For Trump, the whole point of political office is adulation, and adulation is the ejkbvntire proof of a person’s worth. Rectitude pales next to ratings. Ethics are a sorry substitute for applause. And the methods by which a crowd is fired up don’t matter, so long as he can bask in the clapping.
This is Trump’s core — or, rather, his terrifying lack of one.
It’s why he swerves from one pronouncement to its opposite and one position to its alternate. It’s why he tells lies with such ease and glee. He’s not sweating the substance of what he’s saying or doing, because that’s a negotiable, trivial thing. He’s just gauging the reaction, and a positive one — in the form of victories in the primaries, dominance in the media or supremacy in polls — means that his course is just. If Trump’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.
He’s not confused about immigration. He’s confused about how to wring the most love from the issue.
He grew so enamored of a magnificent, impenetrable wall along the Mexican border because the primary-season voters who thronged his rallies went gaga for it. He was a rat pressing a lever and getting precisely the pellet of reverence that he sought, so he kept pressing, over and over, harder and harder: Mexico will pay for it! Meanwhile I’ll round up and deport all the illegals! Let’s ban Muslims while we’re at it!
If he’d elicited the same orgiastic response by promising free milk to every malnourished child in the developing world, he would have built his entire campaign around a new era in lactose diplomacy and named a dairy cow as his running mate. He has no real philosophy, just an all-consuming need.
And so his immigration policy softened, only to harden anew. The general election is a laboratory with rules different from those of the Republican primaries, and he’s still trying to figure out which lever to press.
In a sense he’s a fun-house mirror of the inconstancy, vanity and insecurity in almost every politician. But the distortion is extreme. From the start of his campaign, he has exhibited a near-pathological obsession with how people and organizations fare in the fickle (and corruptible) court of public opinion. When his insults aren’t about physical appearance, they’re about popularity.
A newscaster is incompetent because his or her show isn’t No. 1. A newspaper isn’t trustworthy because its profit margin is down. Jeb Bush wasn’t fit for the presidency because voters didn’t swoon for him. Trump deserved the job because more people chanted his name.
Detailed policies? Those could come later. Mastery of issues? He’d bone up on them in due time. A sophisticated campaign operation? Any dweeb could put that together. Trump led the polls. None of the usual, humdrum preparations or qualifications for the job held a candle to that.
The idea of intrinsic merit is alien to him. Numbers render the final verdict, and numbers don’t lie.
Except they do. Putin’s routinely high approval ratings exist in a context of intimidation and fear. There’s no way to know how many Russians feel free to speak their minds to pollsters. There’s no way to overstate the amount of propaganda that they’re subjected to. There’s no way to adjust for the lengths to which Putin will go to stoke nationalist fervor and whip Russians into a state of Putin-worshiping pride.
Trump’s possible blindness to that is scary. His probable awareness of it is scarier still.
Several Republicans who have had dealings with him tell me that they can’t really determine which of his most outrageous, deplorable statements are instances of a mask falling away and which are instances of a mask being put on, because with Trump it’s all about the situation and the audience, and if the audience signals an inclination to embrace him, he recites the lines that guarantee the hug. Never mind if the script is hateful. Never mind if it causes hurt.
He praises Putin in large part because Putin praises him back, or so he’s convinced himself. “If he says great things about me,” Trump told Matt Lauer during that forum, “I’m going to say great things about him.”
But the compliment in question is open to question. As The Times’s Steven Lee Myers recently explained, the Russian word that Putin used for Trump can mean not only “brilliant,” which is Trump’s interpretation, but also “colorful” or “flamboyant.”
Trump hears only what he wants to hear. He bases his regard for people on their regard for him. He judges their actions in terms of the benefit to him. When he demeans the very Republican senators whose re-election campaigns he should be helping, it’s typically on the grounds that they haven’t showered him with praise or genuflected when he draws near. No sin is graver than the diminution of Donald Trump.
And no cause is nobler than his elevation.
He has long boasted of a plan to defeat the Islamic State, but has vowed not to share it because Barack Obama might implement it and take the victory lap. Follow that reasoning. He’s saying that if lives are lost in the meantime, so be it. At least the bump in the polls won’t be the president’s.
Of course there’s no plan, just a blowhard ceaselessly tooting his horn. Of course he’s blasé about Putin’s possible manipulation of our presidential election — and at one point encouraged it — because he assumes the manipulation will favor him.
He’ll play a fascist if that’s the path to the throne. He’ll weave ludicrously tall tales if that’s the route. Should he get there, he’ll proclaim his arrival the very evidence that he’s worthy, and then he’ll do whatever it takes to continue feeling as affirmed as he wants to and as invulnerable as he’ll need to. Ratings are rectitude, and he has found his role model — in the Kremlin of all places. Eighty-two percent or bust.