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The man inside Donald Trump

Sentiment around US President Donald Trump is very clear-cut. To his supporters, he can do no wrong. His detractors condemn or ridicule everything he says and does. With Donald Trump, there appears to be no middle ground. Günther Simmermacher attempts a look inside the man and suggests that Trump’s actions and words may reveal a “raw vulnerability” that makes the president a victim of his own illusions. It might be too much for him to face up to the truth and reality about himself.

Lately, I have come to feel a certain pity for Donald Trump, a man whom I have found off-putting ever since he first emerged as a celebrity in the 1980s.

That is not to say that I have started to find appreciation for a man whose policies, governance, philosophy and general conduct stand in contrast to all I believe in.

In my view, which I understand may not be universally shared, almost every policy or opinion which Trump holds or pronounces is a repudiation of Jesus, whose preferential option was for the poor and the marginalised. As president, Donald Trump is in conflict with virtually all of Catholic Social Teaching, which inform and shape my political position.

Even when Trump is in line with Catholic teaching, as he is in his opposition to abortion, it smacks of political expedience. When Trump talks about matters of Christian faith, it sounds like the sales pitch of a snake oil peddler who delights in his legitimisation by men with collars, hats and toll-free pledge numbers flashing on the screens of their own TV channels. He has such men bless him and pray with him, but what kind of Christian wishes other believers a “Happy Good Friday”, as Trump did in a tweet did last week? 

Aware as I am of the traps inherent in questioning the sincerity of the religious beliefs of others, I still dare to suspect that Trump’s Christian professions are expedient.

The lies he tells himself

Donald Trump is the ultimate hustler, and almost four years ago he won the ultimate hustle. One might think that this should give a hustling man satisfaction, to let him sit back smugly like a latter-day Warren G. Harding, light a cigar, and let others run the show.

And yet, Trump never seems satisfied. He continues to self-aggrandise in ways that are scarcely conversant with the truth. In Trump’s mind, nobody does anything better, knows anything better, has anything better than he does. And in his mind, nobody has greater power than he has, as he demonstrated at this week’s bizarre press conference, when he claimed to have levels of authority which the US president simply does not have. He is the archetypal narcissist. And he is a pathological liar.

And yet, Trump never seems satisfied. He continues to self-aggrandise in ways that are scarcely conversant with the truth.

Nobody lies more than Trump. Ironically, this is the one true boast he could make, but won’t. But he won’t make that boast because of embarrassment — he is the least embarrassed man in the world — but because it is the truth. And Donald J. Trump can’t handle the truth.

Donald Trump lies even when the truth would serve his agenda. We saw that in his many bizarre statements on the COVID-19 crisis, when he blithely contradicted his own administration’s policies, to his own detriment.

Watching Trump self-destruct by his own transparent lies has been revealing: he is morbidly compelled to lie. My hypothesis is this: Trump has to lie because the reality — all reality — is too difficult to face.

Forgive the armchair psychology, but I have a vision of a fundamentally sad man consumed by such deep-seated self-loathing that facing the truth, any truth at all, is simply too painful.

To face the truth, even trivial or benign truth, would open the gates to his own demons. To acknowledge truth would be to admit access to that closeted ugly self. To lie is a mechanism of self-protection, even when the distortion of reality doesn’t serve or even harms his interests.

We can only guess where such loathing might originate. Was it his emotionally distant father, a member of the Ku Klax Klan and generally unappealing individual to whom Donald J. owes his wealth? Is it the suppressed but gnawing conscience that recalls all the times Trump ripped off contractors and business partners, and all the times he bullied and brutalised those around him?

Short of welcoming Trump on our psychotherapist’s couch, we cannot know. But clearly his pathologic dishonesty must have a source in a troubled psyche. And that source cannot be pretty.

Trump conceals that raw vulnerability, probably unconsciously, beneath that rubble of boasts, lies, slander and bullying. He finds comfort in the power he has, or imagines he has. And he feeds off the love of people — whether it is the genuine loyalty of the cheering red-capped MAGA base or the sycophancy of those who see Trump as a vehicle to greater things (or, in the case of politicians, the preservation of their status).

He finds comfort in the power he has, or imagines he has.

If all the people love him, how could he possibly hate himself? That gut instinct which is bedevilling him simply has to be wrong when almost all the people he sees — except mean and nasty people — so clearly love and admire him, and crowds turn out in such masses for his rallies (and if people don’t turn out in great numbers, as it was for his presidential inauguration, he’ll lie about it).

And that is why those who do not love him unconditionally — that is, those who criticise or even mildly question him — are a target for Trump’s relentless bullying. Donald Trump wants to be loved, needs to be loved, and when he feels he isn’t loved, he lashes out like an ill-tempered child.

Facing the truth

This explains his visceral hatred of journalists who do their job instead of cheerleading him. This explains the infantile nicknames he attaches to his opponents. And this explains his immediate willingness to forgive and embrace even his harshest critics when they turn to sycophancy, as we saw with erstwhile Trump critic Senator Lindsey Graham.

Of course, understanding the President of the United States as a wounded child who is just acting out doesn’t buy us a bag of peanuts, never mind the peace of mind that the world’s most powerful nation is in safe hands. You don’t need to be a social justice warrior liberal to see that it isn’t.

Donald Trump wants to be loved, needs to be loved, and when he feels he isn’t loved, he lashes out like an ill-tempered child.

But when we look at Donald J. Trump and feel exasperation at his bluster and bullying and bigotry and blatant lies, also look at the man — Ecce Homo — and feel some pity for him as he tries to navigate this desperate self-loathing deep within himself.

Pontius Pilate, whom history describes as a cruel and power-hungry governor, asked of Jesus: “What is truth?” The Bible does not tell what Jesus answered, if anything. But Jesus looked deep into this heart and in that moment, Pilate encountered his own truth, maybe for the first time, and still not really knowing what it was. Perhaps his lack of courage prevented him from acting, shifting the responsibility to the high priests and their rent-a-mob.

Every human life has such a moment. And every time this moment occurs, there is an opportunity for grace to break through broken humanity. We can only pray that when that moment comes for Donald Trump, he will find the healing which may lead to a conversion of heart.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.