For over a year, we have been subjected to an unprecedented public display of one man’s unrivaled arrogance and narcissism. To the pleasure of at least half the country, a presidential election that should have focused on social exigencies – immigration, climate change, finance reform – has largely tornadoed around a single personality. Without having to ask, we have been treated to an iteration of every single item on Donald J. Trump’s catalogue of superlatives. To recap: He has made a lot of money. He understands ISIS better than our loser generals. He makes the best deals, using the best advisers and, self-evidently, the best words. He is very good looking, very high energy and has the most stamina. And lest we forget, his hands are well-proportioned, as are his other appendages.
But as sickening as Trump’s uncontainable stream of self-adulation is, it’s a delight compared to his newfound taste for self-pity.
It has been only one (long and nauseating) week since The Washington Post published the by-now infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” video of Trump crowing over how he can’t control himself in the presence of good-looking women. When you’re a star, Trump explained on tape, “you can do anything.”
“Trump has lived a life of cosseted selfishness and unchallenged privilege, used to taking what he wants and squashing anyone who resists him.”
The tape came out at a pivotal moment. After an impatient, blathering performance in the first debate, Trump, who was already trailing in most polls, had staked his hopes for redemption on the presidential town hall debate. It didn’t quite pan out this way.
When asked in the debate about the tape, Trump insisted, without a quiver, that it was nothing but “locker room talk.” No, he didn’t actually do any of those salacious, rape-y acts of which he had so gleefully boasted in the video. No unsolicited pussy-grabbing, no groping, no abuse of power or sexual assault of any kind.
So naturally, 24 hours later, women started going on record attesting that Mr. Trump had indeed pussy-grabbed, groped or used his position to make sexual advances. The media furor was instantaneous, as was the dive in Trump’s poll numbers.
There are still questions surrounding some of the testimonies and not all of Trump’s accusers have been vetted with equal scrutiny. All things considered, it’s difficult to suggest how Trump should have responded, but by all likelihood a show of contrition, or at least somber modesty, would have been recommended. But Trump, who wouldn’t flirt with humility if she were a 5’10” Teutonic model, decided to go a different Via Dolorosa. He decided to play the victim. A very angry victim.
Apparently, when the going gets tough, this tough gets whiny.
Consider this koan, for example. Note the genuine feeling of injustice, of persecution, as though this Olympian deal-maker, with the “best temperament,” is about to cry.
Or take this piece of prose, sludged during his rodomontade on Saturday:
I am the victim of one of the biggest political smear campaigns in the history of the country.
This is a very serious statement, and worth looking into. It operates (splendidly) on no less than four levels.
First, and most superficially, it reclaims the status of victim by reversing the equation: The women who’ve alleged sexual assault aren’t the victims, they’re the offenders.
Second, it dissolves responsibility for the damage done to his campaign. It’s not his words, or his actions that have wrought disaster in the polls, but external, nefarious forces. Donald Trump doesn’t do losing. But he may still be cheated out of winning.
Third, it blows more hot wind into his rapidly ballooning conspiracy theory: Everything is rigged, the deck is stacked against him. This recent episode is just part of an intricate ploy designed to steal the election by Crooked Hillary, who coordinates with a “dishonest media,” who’re in cahoots with vindictive attention-seekers, who have colluded with “special interests” and “big money” and Carlos Slim. CNN’s Brian Stelter called it “connecting dots (...) that do, in fact, not connect.” But to many Trump supporters those connections are as plain as Mother Teresa’s profile on toast. Conspiracy theories are the dispossessed’s new religion, and Trump is the pontiff of the paranoid.
Finally, this statement places Trump in what he clearly takes to be his rightful place: the center of the Universe. It wouldn’t do for the conspiracy to be merely the greatest of, say, the century.
Christopher Hitchens diagnosed the psyche of Jihadism as three concomitant self-perceptions: self-righteousness, self-pity and self-hatred.
It’s possible, as some suggest, that Trump is a cynical showman, deadpanning his way to notoriety. But I suspect he’s a true-believer in his own religion, and I won’t be surprised if deep down he wrestles with Hitchens’ dreadful trio.
“[Trump] has all the makings of unchecked hubris and tyranny, yet in his mind he remains a martyr.”
Try, if you can, to imagine how frustrating this week must have been for him. Imagine seeing yourself as a man of superior skill and virtue, of high birth and unearthly endowments, and yet being at once betrayed by the very public you were aspiring to serve, and crushed and shamed by an army of inferiors. Of cheaters. Of losers.
Of course, the simpler truth is that for 70 years Trump has lived a life of cosseted selfishness and unchallenged privilege, used to taking what he wants and squashing anyone who resists him.
He has the self-hatred of a tawdry businessman still hoping that money can buy him dignity. He has the self-righteousness of a con-artist who has grown to believe his own act. And, most dangerous of all, he has the self-pity of a bully who sees his power diminish and finds fault in everyone but himself.
In truth, he has all the makings of unchecked hubris and tyranny, yet in his mind he remains a martyr.
Donald Trump spent a whole year telling us how big he is. But it’s in the light of his panicking and shriveling and self-pitying that the true enormity of his conceit becomes clear.