The presidency as psychodrama
I’M FREQUENTLY ASKED why I set aside fiction to write about the all too real drama of the 2016 presidential race. But the campaign — and Donald Trump especially — rewards a central concern of most good novels: a probing exploration of human character and psychology. For better or worse, this focus will be indispensable in following the Trump presidency.
In my youth, Richard Nixon demonstrated that the crucible of the White House magnifies the importance of a president’s personal sensibility. But even by Nixonian standards, Trump is someone special — a man driven by an inner landscape that transcends the normal analytic boxes of issues, strategy, or demographic appeal.
During the campaign, journalists operating within the standard rules could report factually dubious statements as they occurred. They could note individual incidents that suggested a lack of empathy, or obliviousness about what the presidency really requires. They could record moments of self-involvement, unreasoning defensiveness, or irresponsible rhetoric. But what does it mean when all these disturbing characteristics — and many more — repeatedly converge in a single human being?
What it meant, I concluded, is that the usual methods of political reportage, focused on recording events as they occur, was insufficient to this highly unusual candidate or to the volatile environment in which he arose. To my mind, Trump’s own behavior made some sort of larger journalistic reckoning unavoidable. Friends schooled in the admirable constraints of traditional journalism questioned, understandably, whether it was responsible to venture a psychological assessment of a candidate. But because as a novelist I was focused on the psychology of characters as real as I could make them, I undertook to assess the organizing principle behind all he said and did — the inner life of Donald Trump.
Consider these characteristics: An exaggerated sense of self-importance. An unjustified belief in your own superiority and brilliance. A preoccupation with fantasies of your own success and power. A craving for constant admiration. A consuming sense of entitlement. An expectation of special favors and unquestioning compliance.
Or these: A penchant for exploiting or disparaging others. An inability to tolerate criticism or critics. An unreasoning fury at people you perceive as not supporting your wishes or desires. A tendency to judge people in terms of whether they flatter you — see, e.g., Vladimir Putin. A belief that you already know all there is to know.
Or these: The need always to be right. A lack of empathy for others. An array of inconsistent statements and behaviors driven by your needs in the moment. A tendency to lie so frequently and routinely that objective truth loses all meaning.
In sum, an incapacity to separate the world from your own psychodrama.
This is bad enough in selecting a spouse or friend. But in a president, it is flat out dangerous. And it presents a unique challenge for the journalists trying to cover the Trump presidency in a meaningful way, and for Americans seeking to assess the man we have made the most powerful person in the world.
This is not a time for empty sentiment or false hopes. Our president-elect is an ignorant and unstable 70-year-old man. That won’t change; nor will he. For the lesson Trump learned from this election is that he alone, once again, is sufficient to all moments. He won, after all — in his mind, he always does.
No matter what we do, his presidency will mark us. But what we can do — must do — is to stand up for the values that Trump contravenes: the civic institutions he disdains, the civility he abjures, the inclusiveness he shuns, the rule of law he resents, the compassion he diminishes. We must always remember that what makes America great is that which makes it good. And we must never forget who this man is, and what our country yet can be if we strive to make it so.
Richard North Patterson is the author of 22 books. His latest is “Fever Swamp,’’ a narrative of the 2016 presidential campaign.