Paul Mann: Running the hazards of presidential character

History wisely taught reveals the qualities best suited to leadership.     

Paramount is strength of character. Washington overcame his short fuse and towering anger. Lincoln vanquished his bottomless melancholy. 

Both men had gravitas, that balance of depth, seriousness and dignity cherished by Roman statesmen.    

Leaders of distinction commonly possess sound judgment (rare), a stable temperament, discretion, self-deprecating humor and elemental decency.

Helpful are amiability, practicality and prudence. 

Second only to strength of character, however, is a capacity for accurate self-assessment, an appraisal of one’s self free of conceit.         

Donald Trump is commonly called a narcissist, so often that it belabors a truism. It is more accurate to say he is a solipsist. His reality is the only reality. His interior world is impervious to the external, to perspective, proportion and fact.    

Puer aeternas, the eternal boy, Trump is the Peter Pan who never grows up, the personification of arrested development. His puerile, often venomous tweets are the cant of the thug, the bully, the alley.

His obsession with conspiracy theories reveals his unbalanced mind. A weak and poorly developed self cannot abide that life and politics are complex and complicated. Hence his take-no-prisoners pose. Chest-thumping, he is the lone ranger who can ward off the plots and schemes and subterfuges only he is aware of. “I’m the president and you’re not.”  Conspiracy theory is a psychic relief because it vastly simplifies life’s maddening frustrations and perplexities. Most people tend to adjust and adapt to life’s puzzles as they grow older. Trump is unusually vulnerable because his inner self is largely empty. In Gertrude Stein’s formulation, “There’s no there there.” His is a pseudo self, a construct for his vacant interior.

He splashes his name on buildings and products around the world, sweeping self-advertisement. Emotionally intact people do not suffer from such monumental neediness and vaulting pride. Stunted, Trump exorcises his inner demons with conspiratorial notions, which he fondles in his bilious way. They stabilize his inward disorientation. He must rebuild them constantly because they are rickety scaffolds.

His certainty that former President Obama spied on him is one among many helpless expressions of an outsized persecution complex, which exceeds even that of the tormented Richard Nixon. A small personality sees enemies behind every bush and under every bed, as Nixon imagined  with Communists.

Physical expressions of Trump’s insecurity are his gauche and gaudy mansions at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, reminiscent of the wanton baroque vulgarity of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. The president’s meretricious sense of style is glaringly devoid of taste. “Without taste,” Voltaire said, “there is nothing.”

Personal insecurity explains Trump’s genius for marketing, which is always and everywhere an exercise in sophistry. He’s skilled at hoodwinking people because he is adept at fooling himself. In the fury of his political pitches to adoring crowds, he convinces himself ad nauseam that he is great. Hence “Make America Great Again.” He and the country are interchangeable, aren’t they? Just say yes.   

Trump’s father shunted his recalcitrant young son off to military school to instill maturity and discipline. It petrified him in adolescent amber.

His truncated political appeal will prove fleeting. The size of his political base has been static all along.

As time goes by his supporters will lose interest and tire of him, especially if he breaks his promises of universal health care and lucrative jobs. Americans are notorious for their short attention spans and terminal impatience. 

Too many of us lack a basic knowledge of civics and history. A bare 25 percent of Americans name the three branches of government or explain the federal system of checks and balances. Our schools and colleges have abdicated their civic responsibility to the republic.

Too many of us believe, with Henry Ford, that “History is more or less bunk,” even though the past is prologue. Ignorant of history, we are poor judges of where our countrymen are headed, what our leaders are made of, how they are likely to behave. A people who expect to be ignorant and free expect what never was and never will be, whether Jefferson said so or not.    

In our heedlessness, counseled Machiavelli, we change masters (presidents) willingly, hoping to better ourselves. “In this we are deceived, as experience later proves that we have gone from bad to worse.”

We refuse to listen to leaders who tell us the truth. Imagine trying to sell realism on the campaign trail, telling voters not all problems have solutions, that thorns are more populous than roses. In the passions of the electoral moment, in our past disappointments, we fall for the visions of elusive utopias that candidates peddle to us.   

History doesn’t repeat itself, we do.

Paul Mann is a former White House correspondent, 1982-2002, who studied presidential decision making at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government under a 1980 congressional fellowship. 


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