The GOP's Strongman Syndrome

VIENNA, OHIO - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump finishes speaking during a campaign event at Winner A
VIENNA, OHIO - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump finishes speaking during a campaign event at Winner Aviation in Vienna, Ohio on Monday March 14, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Has it struck you by now that Donald Trump is, in the deepest of ways, not right?

I don't mean on the issues, though that's true enough. I'm suggesting something far more troubling -- a personality disorder which feeds, and is empowered by, a profound disturbance among Americans at large. 2016 is the year that megalomania became a movement.

The symptoms of personal instability and societal destabilization abound -- not least the violence erupting from the mass anger Trump inspires -- and the implications are grave indeed. The moral importance of this subject transcends, but emanates from, the state of the Republican race. So please hold the deeper thought while we pause to contemplate Trump's continuing rise, and thus the stakes in today's primaries and beyond.

Last Tuesday's victories in Mississippi, Michigan and Hawaii have buttressed Trump's lead. While Ted Cruz's second-place showing drew notice, his strategy rested in large measure on doing much better in the South, where Trump stole his evangelicals and ate his lunch. Kasich took some votes from Rubio in Michigan and Mississippi; Rubio now stares into his political grave.

The debate which followed proved only that the candidates could speak in muted tones. Trump gave us his version of statesmanship -- he insulted no one save, of course, every Muslim on the planet, calmly advocated torture, and linked sucker punching a black protester to righteous anger about trade deals. Rubio pandered to Sheldon Adelson by calling the West Bank "Judea and Samaria", and otherwise gave us the latest Marco of the moment, a reprise of his sunny son of a bartender meme. Having survived his endorsement by Carly Fiorina, the self-righteous and mendacious Cruz cast himself as the sole alternative to Trump. Kasich tried to persuade us that things are not yet that desperate.

No one really went after Trump, and nothing said changed much of anything. So what happened the next morning was at least worth noting : Ben Carson endorsed Trump -- this despite the fact that Trump had once compared him to a child molester -- giving Trump a further boost while confirming Carson's political and personal disorientation. One wished once again that Carson was still de-linking conjoined twins.

So here we are on the cusp of five primaries -- Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri -- fateful to the fortunes of the contestants and, perhaps, our own.

The linchpins of fate are Kasich and Rubio, contesting their home states of Ohio and Florida. Should both lose to Trump, he would hold a commanding delegate lead over Cruz, whose hard-right positions underscore his noxious persona. Add an inescapable momentum, and Trump is the all but certain nominee.

In a last-ditch effort to prevent this, Republican donors are hitting Trump with at least $10 million worth of attack ads in Florida alone, with another few million in Ohio and Illinois. But Cruz is undercutting this strategy by going after Rubio with attack ads of his own. Wednesday morning, we will have likely seen the last of Marco Rubio.

Kasich is another matter. Polls in Ohio show him with an edge on Trump -- should he survive, and Rubio fall, it will be a rare moment of justice in this wretched campaign. Kasich has been a committed governor; Rubio an absentee senator who used Floridians as a springboard. Kasich has run a positive campaign which evinces a political core; that Rubio never found his core was affirmed by his desperate efforts to sink to Trump's level before retrenching, confirming that only one of them is, however horrifying, at least authentic. As a presidential aspirant, Rubio became a one-man Potemkin village. His weekend denunciation of Trump's incitements to violence, piercing though it was, came too late.

But even should Rubio vanish, if Kasich takes Ohio it will preserve the prospect, however difficult, of stopping Trump short of a delegate majority going into a contested convention. The immediate question is which way the donor classes will jump -- Trump, Cruz, or Kasich.

Though Kasich is the least likely choice, he is the only honorable one. He is precisely what the establishment claimed to see in Rubio -- a mainstream candidate who offers hope and speaks to the future. While hewing to Republican orthodoxy, he also calls for compromise, civility, and making government work. Instead of fomenting hyper-partisan hysteria, Kasich would campaign in the world as it exists, competing for voters in the middle. He might actually win, and in a way which allowed him to govern.

By contrast, the strategy for both Trump and Cruz is divide and inflame -- Cruz by poisoning the arid soil of political and religious fundamentalism with fear-mongering and lies; Trump by stirring yet more anger at Mexicans and Muslims in ever more incendiary terms. In either case, their campaign would douse America in rhetorical Agent Orange, searing the roots of our civility.

If the Republican donor classes were visionary or even smart, they would embrace Kasich like a long-lost son, hoping to somehow rally Republican voters and elected officials and repair the damage to the body politic which resulted from enabling Trump and Cruz. For the party does not simply need to be saved from Donald Trump -- it needs to be saved from itself, and for the greater good of the country. But plutocrats obsessed with cutting their own taxes are dubious agents of salvation.

The most unlikely prospect is that Trump loses Florida and Ohio. That would leave him ripe for the attack ads which would rain down on him like plutonium. He is a classic front runner, averse to adversity, and defeat would unleash his gracelessness under pressure.

Nothing would wound Trump more deeply than to lose control of what he cherishes most -- his own image. Spoiled by the media's gift of free airtime, he has shown no inclination to unleash his millions to counter the enormous sums which the stop-Trump forces, seeing blood in the water, would spend to bring him down. Under this relentless pounding, Trump would shrink to the Wizard of Oz, leaving at least a modicum of hope for a decent man like Kasich.

But neither the party, nor the country, is likely to get off that easy.

Far from it. Should Trump take Ohio and Florida -- or, alternatively, win Florida and do well in North Carolina, Missouri and Illinois -- much of the party establishment will claw at his bandwagon with the same craven self-interest which allowed Trump to rise. For those who have countenanced the bankrupt GOP agenda of the last several years, fighting for a high-chair at Trump's table may feel like nothing new.

But a still-viable Cruz presents the battered GOP elite with a morbidly edifying choice. However much they despise him, some may decide that Cruz is more predictable than Trump, too disingenuous and calculating to implode. But the even less principled may be tantalized by the thought that Trump's appeal is more elastic than Cruz's scary specificity, and that his lack of any decent rhetorical boundaries is a perfect instrument for demeaning Clinton or Sanders.

One can imagine their eyes growing big at the thought of their erstwhile bête noir as the instrument of their deliverance. A tempting vision may appear at the end of their very dark tunnel : that the fevers sweeping the land will place Trump in the White House, putting the party, and themselves, back in business. Leaving the rest of us, as ever, to live with the consequences.

Which returns us to the most essential and disturbing question of all: whether Trump's megalomania matches our societal moment, and what that means for America's future.

Megalomania is defined as a "psychopathological condition characterized by fantasies of power, relevance, and omnipotence and by inflated self-esteem." Among its hallmarks are extreme grandiosity, indifference to truth, and an inability to accept criticism or to see other people except as agents of one's own needs, fueling the reflex to devalue and disparage all those who fail to please.

Sound familiar? Then consider that, when linked to power, these attributes are "likely to lead to miscalculation as a byproduct of the subject's conceit."

Lest this seem far-fetched, consider the startling degree to which Trump is unable to separate self-celebration from his pursuit of the world's most powerful office.

In speech after speech, his principal subject is Donald Trump.He brags about his penile size. He touts his skyscrapers. He trumpets his golf game. A post-election press conference becomes an infomercial for Trump water, Trump wine and (bogus) Trump steaks. All meaning evaporates in self-referential babble.

Granted, some of this has the buffoonish character of a comic opera satrap, parading his imaginary grandeur before a crowd of peasants in which he sees only himself. But imagine George W. Bush using a press conference to exhibit his paintings; or Barack Obama showing videos of his golf swing in the East Room. One can't, and for the simplest of reasons -- a marginally normal president can separate the trivia of his life from the gravity of his office.

Not Trump. And when it comes to issues, any trace of comedy evanescences. His ignorance of policy -- foreign or domestic -- is as comprehensive as it is stunning. He knows nothing and, even worse, cares to learn nothing. In the cul-de-sac of his mind, his own greatness is enough.

So deep is Trump's romance of self that his solution to every problem is, quite simply, "Trump." Insulated by the impermeable solipsism of his inner landscape, he issues prescriptions with the preposterous insouciance of a three-year-old Emperor. ISIS? He will simply take their oil. Mexico? He will make them pay for his wall. Homeland security? He will bar all Muslims from abroad and spy on those at home. China? He will bully them with tariffs until they send back all our jobs. Terrorists? He will waterboard their leaders and execute their families. He is, after all, Trump.

So why didn't Bush or Obama think of all this? Simple again, Trump tells us -- they're "incompetent." Mired in fantasies of his own omnipotence, he never considers the possibility that they're sane.

Equally telling is his mercurial relationship with anyone but himself. His only prism for assessing others is whether they "treat me fairly". Those who criticize or oppose him are assaulted with insults. Those perceived to favor him -- like that noted character witness, Vladimir Putin -- develop qualities of leadership worthy of his notice. Because other people are not real to him as separate human beings, he shifts them from one category to another depending on whether they feed, or offend, his all-encompassing sense of self. Imagine, then, a political and geopolitical world where America's course is defined by "Trump."

Funny, no. Dangerous for sure. Trump rarely speaks without reducing our reserves of empathy or understanding. Faced with an America which is an extension of Trump's psychodrama, the world will stop laughing soon enough.

Yet millions of Americans have cast him our one-man-fits-all solution to all that besets us. So it is imperative to ask whether our social and economic flux is explanation enough.

To be sure, the anxieties besetting the middle and working classes are corrosive. Far too many have been battered by recession; ruined by the home mortgage crisis; displaced by globalization; and bypassed by the information economy. The GOP has offered them nothing but empty political theatrics and strident denunciations of Washington, deepening their belief that the financial elites have appropriated our politics for their own selfish ends.

As their sense of displacement and impotence swells, so does their fury -- including at a growing social and racial diversity personified, for many, by Barack Obama. This is a breeding ground for magical thinking, scapegoating minorities, and false solutions promised by self-serving demagogues. In short, it is made for men like Donald Trump.

But Trump's rise as our tangerine would-be Caudillo is abetted by another factor -- a growing strain of authoritarianism among the Republican electorate. Thus Trump's megalomaniacal prescriptions fuse neatly with a widespread craving for stern and simple answers.

The GOP has long been seen as the "daddy party" -- hierarchical, proscriptive and committed to order. But lately social science has fleshed out this perception.

A doctoral student at UMass Amherst, Matthew MacWilliams, asked a survey group of Republicans four questions about which traits were most important in child raising: independence or respect for elders; curiosity or good manners; self-reliance or obedience; being considerate or being well behaved. His purpose was to identify those inclined to favor hierarchy and direction from the top, characterized by psychologists as "authoritarians."

The results were striking. Half the Republicans who chose the second -- or authoritarian -- answer to each question supported Donald Trump. Recent articles by George Lakoff and Amanda Taub amplify these findings. The short is that Trump's persona meets a deep need for authority which is particularly strong among evangelicals, as well as the less religious who feel economically and socially threatened. And, unsurprisingly, authoritarianism tends to thrive among white Republicans of limited education.

These folks respond to promises of direct action to impose clear and simple solutions. This is precisely what Trump does -- and, given his pathology, all he can do. And his disdain for "political correctness" in stereotyping minorities gives anxious authoritarians the empowering sense that their enemies will be repelled and their security restored -- a need reinforced by the widespread fear of terrorism. Amanda Taub puts it this way:

Trump's specific policies are not the thing that most sets him apart... Rather, it's his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus week, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage.

And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening.

Inevitably, this must metastasize into a mass degradation of character and spirit. Hence the fruits of Trump's sulfurous penchant for using protesters as props, sinking to a level unseen in America since George Wallace in 1968.

From the safety of his podium, no doubt comforted by the memory of his multiple draft deferments, Trump throws verbal matches on gasoline: "I'd like to punch you in the face"; "Knock the crap out of him, will you? I promise to pay your legal fees"; "Get a job"; "Go home to your mother." Again and again, he evokes the supposedly good old days where such people were treated with a rough efficiency which would put them in their place.

To be sure, many of Trump's supporters feel uneasy about this; granted, as well, that the protesters are using Trump rallies as a megaphone to reach a larger audience. But Trump and his message have created a uniquely volatile environment which seethes with anger and racial animus. Reporters, too, are verbally abused, often by name; recently, a journalist was roughed up, allegedly by Trump's campaign manager. Lately the confrontations with protesters have turned violent -- as when an old white man sucker punched a black kid who he said "wasn't acting like an American," proudly adding that "next time, we may have to kill him." When questioned about this, Trump's evasive evocation of the righteous anger of his followers confirmed him not merely as a demagogue, but as a moral midget.

A dangerous one. For it is increasingly clear that, as a political leader, he has little sense of responsibility to anything or anyone beyond his needs of the moment. Over the weekend, he exploited his decision to cancel a rally in Chicago to further stoke the distemper of his crowds, attacking protesters in ever more vehement terms; suggesting that he might pay the legal fees for the racist sucker puncher; falsely claiming that protesters had been sent by Bernie Sanders; and threatening to "retaliate" by instructing his followers to disrupt Sanders rallies. Far from tamping down the potential for violence, he now escalates the risk to feed his hunger for votes and, even more disturbing, for the dominance and attention he cannot live without.

Yet this man is the probable Republican nominee for president of the United States.

In one sense, Trump is uniquely disturbing, if only because his character disorder is so obvious. But megalomania did not make The Donald great -- our politics did.

For far too long, our political system has been foundering in the quicksand of polarization, rhetorical dishonesty, narrow partisanship by both parties, and cynical exploitation of our deepest problems. This intractable dysfunction was cemented by a Republican party which appropriated the fear and anger of the most vulnerable to serve the most privileged, offered empty gestures and phony solutions which betrayed its contempt for those they purported to serve, and wallowed in an extremism which blamed Washington, D.C. for every problem -- until the only apparent "solution" was to shut down the government and blow the place up.

The inevitable result was a profound alienation and distrust among the GOP electorate, the craving for a strongman who will put things right. Trump's megalomania simply fills the need his party has created.

So we can take no comfort in believing that Trump is singular. Ted Cruz is right behind him. And the next demagogue, and the next, unless and until the GOP decides that the only solution to our problems is to confront them, challenging Democrats to an honest debate about how best to relieve the anxiety of our people and achieve the common good. Which means that the electorate -- Republicans of conscience most of all -- must shun this heartless joke of a party until it does or, failing that, meets the extinction it deserves.