What are the lessons from Donald Trump’s presidency?

By Kim Michaels

In this article I will focus on what I think can be learned from Trump’s presidency. The first, and in a sense the most important, lesson is that many people voted for him, both in 2016 and 2020. I don’t think there has been enough focus on what it was about Trump’s message that appealed to so many people.

When I moved to the United States in 1987, I came to Montana where many people lived in mobile homes and drove old, banged-up pickups because they worked for six Dollars an hour. After a year I visited Fort Lauderdale in Florida and there was a street with a Rolls Royce dealership, a Ferrari dealership and of course, Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW dealerships. How rich do you have to be to buy a Rolls Royce? And how many rich people must be in an area to sustain a dealership that only sells Rolls Royces?

During the next 22 years I lived in four different states and I saw how many Americans are struggling with money problems. Americans are willing to work hard, but many people found it increasingly difficult to get an education, maintain the same material standard of living as their parents or even “make ends meet.” Coming from Denmark, this was shocking to me, as we don’t have anywhere near the same contrast between a rich elite and the general population. Of course, we also have a social safety net, public healthcare and free education so most people have a good standard of living.

I see that there is a real problem in America, and it is not just that there is such a gap between rich and poor but that the living standard of the broad population has been going down for decades. I believe this has been described very well in the following report by the RAND Corporation, a think tank dedicated to identifying security threats to the U.S. The report basically says that since the 1970s income disparity has increased manyfold because enormous amounts of wealth has been funneled from the general population to the top few percent. This has reached such a level that RAND considers it a threat to national stability and security.

An increasing number of Americans experience this problem in their own lives but they also feel that politicians are not doing anything about it. Many of them feel that Trump has addressed this issue and therefore he is different from other politicians. So that is one reason they voted for him.

I think another reason is that because of deteriorating living standards and for many other reasons, many Americans have had enough of “politics as usual.” They want a decisive change, but they didn’t see the political establishment even addressing their concerns, so they voted for Trump because he wasn’t part of the establishment. After the election in 2016, I thought that with Hilary it would have been politics as usual, but maybe Trump could do something different.

To me, the real issue in America is that there is a small power elite of people who own the corporations and control the financial system. Because they have so much money, they have enormous influence on the political system. It was shocking for me to learn that a newly elected senator has to spend most of his or her time seeking to raise money for the reelection campaign. It was shocking to hear about campaign contributions, corporate contributions to politicians and political parties, not to mention lobbying. I believe that if it is possible to buy political influence, then a democracy is not living up to its highest potential.

In my view, the immediate change that needs to happen is that money must be taken out of politics, yet this obviously isn’t going to happen from the top down. I think it can only come through a demand from the people, but this requires the people to first identify that there is an elite and then unite in demanding that their politicians do something about getting money and the elite out of politics. 

The problem I see is that Americans are so divided that they cannot create the necessary political pressure. And I don’t think this division has diminished during Trump’s presidency, on the contrary. I think many Trump supporters see themselves as being in opposition to all who don’t share their view of Trump. For too many people on both sides, Trump is the issue, not the elite. Yet it is not only Trump voters who have had their incomes stolen. If there is to be a united front, people need to work across party platforms and personality platforms. As long as the people are so divided between Trump supporters and everyone else or between republicans and democrats, the power elite can feel secure. Divide and conquer is their time-tested strategy.

I don’t think Trump can solve this problem. He doesn’t see the elite as a problem because he sees himself as part of the elite. And based on his business dealings in New York, it doesn’t seems like he sees money in politics as a problem. I understand his supporters think he has done something about this, and he has. He just hasn’t gone all the way to the core of the problem because while he has spoken out against the political elite, he hasn’t done much about the financial elite that he is part of. Furthermore, the ideological basis for the income inequality is neoliberalism and I am not aware Trump has spoken out against that.

Americans have an unrealistic view of their president

After I moved to the United States I was surprised to learn that Americans have a different view of their president than what you find in Europe. Encouraged by most of the media and Hollywood, Americans tend to view their president as someone who has the power to do anything he promises them. It is almost as if the president is like the kings that you found in Europe centuries ago. The reality is of course that the Founding Fathers designed the Constitution deliberately to limit the power of the president by making the three branches of government co-equal. They wanted to make sure that an American president could never become like the King George who almost killed them and the new nation. So most Americans don’t see their president as the Constitution does.

This has led to a situation where the only way to become elected as president is to promise the people that you will do something for them. But if you understand the Constitution, you know it is impossible for you to fulfill those promises. Trump has taken advantage of this before he got elected by promising he would make America great again and drain the swamp. He has reinforced it over the past four years by claiming he has been so successful as a president and that any failures to deliver are fake news. In a sense the media has also reinforced this view because the anti-Trump media has painted him as a monster and the pro-Trump media has painted him as a hero. Yet both of them reinforce the image that the monster and the hero can do whatever he wants.

Trump may have promised to drain the swamp, but in order to fulfill that promise, he needs the cooperation of the other two branches of government and the bureaucracy. But this is of course what he calls the swamp. So how likely is it that the president can get the swamp to agree to his draining project?

I don’t see it as being of epic importance who becomes president. The claim that if Trump isn’t reelected, the country will be destroyed simply ignores the political realty defined in the Constitution. There is a need for a debate about this so Americans can have a more realistic expectation of what the president can and cannot do. That way, they can evaluate who makes the most realistic promises. They can also avoid being pulled into a vortex based on the belief that because it is so important that Trump is reelected, it justifies violence.

The president is really not that important

I see that the president really isn’t an all-important figure. The president has influence, but the very fate of the nation can never depend on who is president because any president has limited powers. Yet Trump has done more than most presidents to make himself seem like such an all-important figure. He has promoted the image that the 2020 election was all-or-nothing. If he wasn’t reelected, it would have epic consequences for the nation. Simply not Constitutionally possible.

So why does Trump have this need to present himself as an all-important figure, as the center of attention and as a great president, possibly the greatest president since Lincoln—or ever. My philosophy is that we are all psychological beings so everything we do relates to our personal psychology.

The psychology of the president is important

While the president himself is not that important, his psychology is, because it determines how he executes his office. I don’t think anyone can deny that Trump has a very specific temperament and personality or that it has had a huge influence on his presidency. This points to the need for people to become more aware of how the psychology of a candidate might influence his way of executing his or her office. Here are some points I see about Trump’s psychology:

    • He has a need for attention and knows he can best get it by being provocative and challenging, even abrasive.
    • He has a need to feel that he is important and successful, even great.
    • He often talks about himself and praises his abilities and accomplishments.  This means his image is important to him, and he is not going to leave it to others to give the praise he feels he should have.
    • He has stated himself that he is the same person today that he was when he was five years old. By that time he had learned that the best way to get other people to give him what he wanted was to intimidate them. 
    • In his business dealings in New York, he was known for being ruthless to those who opposed him. For example, he would hire lawyers to personally discredit or harass anyone opposing him in a lawsuit. I see him using the method of intimidation as a president.
    • He has a black-and-white view of himself. He thinks he is right in an ultimate way, which means those who disagree with him are absolutely wrong. You are either for him or against him.
    • His black-and-white view also means that he must never lose. His father instilled in him that the worst thing for a person was to be a loser. Trump must be right and he must be reelected because if not, he is a loser.
    • He demands absolute loyalty from those who support him. If he doesn’t get it, he is quick to turn on them and either fire them or publicly scold or humiliate them. Just look at how he treated Mike Pence when the Vice President refused to to that Trump wanted but which the Constitution made impossible.
    • He is only loyal to family members. There is a consistent pattern of Trump praising a new appointee because he expects that this person can give Trump what he wants. But when the person fails to deliver, even after having made great personal sacrifices. Trump has no loyalty and will fire or humiliate the person. For Trump, loyalty is a one-way street.
    • He shows little empathy for people in general but especially not for his opponents or even people who are not loyal or who have failed to fulfill his expectations. His response to the pandemic does not show great empathy towards the general population.
    • He tends to form unrealistic expectations. Again, there was no legal or Constitutional basis for thinking Mike Pence could reject the electoral votes and make him president.
    • He has a mercurial temper and will on a regular basis yell at, swear at or criticize his own advisors and helpers.
    • He has a tendency to alienate most people who get close to him. In the last weeks of his presidency, many among the White House staff had resigned and the rest avoided him as much as possible.

I do not think the election was decided by voter fraud. Trump lost because he didn’t get as many votes as Biden. This means that for over two months Trump has been waging a campaign to overturn the election (including whipping his supporters into a frenzy that led to the Capitol incident) yet it was not based on reality or facts. It was purely a product of Trumps psychology that made it impossible for him to admit the outcome because it would make him a loser. Trump seems to have many absolutes in his psychology but the dominant one is that he can never be a loser. So the chaos seen over these past months is simply the product of Trump’s psychology.

Where does this lead? Well, in my view Trump fits the psychological profile of a narcissist, something many psychologists have said. To me, this points to the need to debate whether a narcissist is suited to be a leader of a democratic nation or whether it is too risky because such a person may not have sufficient respect for democracy to preserve it. Narcissists tend to see themselves as the center of their world with everything else revolving around their needs and perception. For a narcissist, the presidency is simply an extension of his needs, such as the need to promote a certain image of himself. Some people say narcissists make efficient leaders. I say that efficiency is less important than dedication to democracy and the people. A narcissist cannot have either.

The danger of narcissistic leaders

I think it is important to recognize, again, that many people voted for Trump because they have legitimate and important concerns. The danger of ignoring the people’s needs is that they can become so angry that they become open to a narcissistic leader. He does not hesitate to promise them that he can give them what they want and he gives them an outlet for their anger. He essentially says that their situation is not their fault and that he will fix it if they are loyal to him.

In exchange, those who follow the narcissist give him what he craves, namely attention and a sense of importance and greatness. He gives them a sense that they are wise, even superior, because they recognize him. The leader validates the followers and they validate him. It becomes a codependent relationship.

Many of those who follow a narcissistic leader have a specific psychology, and it can make them unbalanced or radical. I understand that most Trump supporters did not participate in the break-in of the Capitol. Yet the incident shows (no surprise) that some of Trump’s most loyal and enthusiastic followers have become radicalized. 

Some Trump supporters and some republicans seem surprised at this and tend to want to ignore or explain it away. Yet the existence of this radicalized subculture among Trump supporters is no surprise to those with knowledge of psychology or those who watch radical groups. Many experts were not surprised by the Capitol riots. They had seen it coming for months and consider it a logical consequence of the pressure Trump has been building, especially since the election but truly for the past four years.

This points to a need to create more awareness of this, perhaps a process for evaluating the psychological fitness of people running for office? I realize this is not an easy process, but an ounce of prevention may beat a pound of cure. Speaking of which . . .

Is it possible to find non-violent solutions?

In my view, Trump has created a situation in which a substantial number of people think democracy has failed, the election was stolen and their opinion should decide the future of the nation regardless of what the institutions of society say. At least some of them are radicalized and weaponized and seem to delight in the possibility of an armed confrontation. This leads to the question of whether it is possible to resolve this situation with non-violent means?

Yet this leads to an even broader question. I grew up in Denmark, which is a small and fairly homogenous nation. I always looked at America as an amazing nation because it is made of people from all parts of the world and they still manage to live together peacefully. After I moved to America, I realized that although they do manage to still live together, the peaceful aspect was probably a little naive on my part.

It was shocking to see how many different groups there are in America and how many of them are willing to use violence to get their way or defend their interests. It is an open question to me whether America will be able to resolve these many conflicts in a non-violent way.

Now, I don’t think Trump has created these divisions, but I do see him taking advantage of them to get himself elected. Many of the members of such groups are open to the us-versus-them mentality or already have it. And it was surprising to me how many of such groups saw non-violent conflict resolution as a weakness or as inefficient. They prefer violence and force.

Again, I think Trump has indeed stirred some of this followers into an unhealthy state, but beyond him, societies all over the world have become polarized over the past several decades. This has become worse because of the Internet and conspiracy theories. This is not Trump’s doing and he has only reinforced an existing tendency

The lesson is that all democratic nations need to address the increasing polarization and radicalization of their own citizens. If they don’t, the tendency will continue to escalate and more violent incidents are sure to follow. More radical leaders are sure to emerge and gain a following.

Intolerance is anti-democratic

As I said, my native Denmark was very homogenous (more polarized today but nowhere near the U.S.) so intolerance between different groups of people was very low. I assumed that Americans had great tolerance for each other. It didn’t take long to shatter this belief once I came to the land of the free and home of the brave. 

I moved to America because I was a member of a spiritual group that had recently bought a large ranch in Montana and moved its headquarters there. This ranch was (surprise) in an area dominates by large cattle ranches that had been run by the same families for over a century. I was shocked at the level of intolerance that these people had towards a bunch of Californians moving to their state. It was simply unbelievable, yet there it was for all to see, but of course none of the locals could see it. They considered themselves to be good Americans, even patriots defending the Constitution, they just didn’t believe Constitutional rights applied to these New Age cult members in their state.

When I see how many Trump supporters show intolerance towards those who do not share their view of Trump, I see the exact same facial expressions, hear the same tone of voice and feel the same emotional energy as I experienced in Montana. As I said, intolerance has been a factor since the foundation of America. In some periods it has resulted in major problems, such as the civil war and segregation. The question is whether Trump and his supporters have brought intolerance to a level where America can no longer afford to ignore it? 

I think Trump and his followers have made visible the need for America to explore new ways of addressing intolerance, especially as it undermines democratic rights and freedoms. I know much has already been done, but more is needed. What is the level of intolerance where democracy starts breaking down? And has America already passed that threshold.

Parallel realities

One of the most baffling lessons of the Trump presidency is what to do about the fact that there are now large groups of people living in the same country, but they might as well live in parallel universes. Of course, there are many groups that have their own information universe, but let us focus on those who believe Trump and those who don’t. These two groups have fundamentally opposed views of Trump. They get information from different sources and they evaluate information differently. How can society breach this gap? How can America be governed if the population is so divided that there effectively is no longer a shared fount of knowledge and facts that are considered reliable by most people?

Obviously, this is a problem that goes back to before Trump. Part of it started with the JFK assassination and all of the theories that sprang up around that. But you even find traces of it earlier, such as the topic of UFOs and Roswell. I think it would be relevant to consider whether Americans are more susceptible to extremist theories and views than other people in the democratic world?

Even though Trump didn’t create this phenomenon, he has taken advantage of it and used it. One reason is obviously to bind his supporters more tightly to him. He has consistently sought to discredit the media, government institutions and basically anyone who disagrees with him. If you fully believe Trump, you will believe no one who doesn’t agree with him.

Another likely reason for this is that Trump has some awareness that he can’t fulfill all of his promises. He has crafted the view that there are these (sometimes defined and sometimes not clearly defined) forces that are opposing him, and the media that is seeking to discredit him. So if there is something he can’t do, it is because the democrats or the deep state are opposing him. If information comes out that is not favorable to him, then it is fake news and the mainstream media seeking to destroy him. This is typical of narcissists. They want to seem like they have power, yet they don’t take responsibility for not being able to produce the promised results. 

The real question here is how a democratic society can deal with the fact that there are groups of people who do not accept common facts and who have a distrust in the government, democracy and the media. Chased by the specter of propaganda and censorship, a democracy wants to give people freedom to seek information, to share information and to decide what is reliable information. Yet it is actually this freedom that has allowed certain forces (from crackpots to Russian and Chinese intelligence) to plant a lot of disinformation and manipulate social media to make it popular.

How does a democracy deal with that, especially considering how far this has been taken by Trump and his followers? I lived in Utah for five years among Mormons. Mormons have some unusual beliefs in their religion so in a sense they live in a parallel universe. Yet they still share basic facts about many things with non-Mormons and they have a belief in and devotion to democracy and its institutions. So there is no major tension between Mormons and the government (as there was in the late 1800s). 

One effect of the information barrier, almost like an Iron Curtain, is that peaceful conflict resolution is near impossible. Those who believe in Trump are absolutely sure that they have the only right information and that the government, the media and all other people have been manipulated to believe in lies. So no matter how anyone seeks to reason with them, they can refute, discredit or ignore any information that could pull them out of the vortex. Their absolute belief is that Trump cannot be wrong. They have literally gone into a parallel universe, locked the door and thrown away the key. 

This is obvious to me in the whole election fraud debacle. First of all, Trump has been talking about fraud since way before the election. The result is that many more people than normal have been aware of this. As several experts have said, this has been the most closely scrutinized election in history. So to me, Trump has actually disproven his own claim by focusing so much attention on it. 

Then there is the moving goal-post of different kinds of fraud. It started with dead people voting, and when that was discredited, it became voting machines. Now it is certain unspecified kinds of fraud or statistical anomalies. Yet the scale of the fraud has also increased from thousands to hundreds of thousands to million of votes. The problem here is that the more scrutiny on the election and the greater the scale of the fraud, the more difficult it becomes to keep this secret. It is simply very unlikely that if there was massive fraud, it would not have been found and publicized by election officials, judges, Fox news or the Justice Department. Yet there seems to be nothing anyone can say to make Trump believers even consider this.

The effect is that Trump followers are unreachable by anyone outside their circle. In a way, writing this is a waste of time for me. Any Trump follower who might read it would either refute everything I say or ignore it. They would discredit me personally the moment they realize I don’t look at Trump the way they do. And those who are not Trump followers don’t really need to read it. 

I am not saying I know how to deal with the lessons I have described or how society should deal with them. I am only saying that society needs to at least debate this and look for new approaches. Personally, I think the only solution is a raising of the collective consciousness so it becomes easier for people to move out of these vortexes or avoid going into them in the first place. I am optimistic, but I am not holding my breath. I think we are looking at a long process.

The short-sightedness of the power elite

I earlier talked about the report from the RAND Corporation on income inequality. This points to the fact that there is a power elite in America, that they have power over the political process and that they are incredibly short-sighted. Take the financial crises in 2008. The unrestricted greed of a small number of people became a threat to the global financial system.

The fact that Trump attracted so many followers and that they have such a distrust for the normal political process, shows me that this power elite is very short-sighted and that many politicians have also been blinded by the elite view.  The French Revolution took off because people in Paris did not have bread. If the rise in income inequality described by RAND had not happened, would Trump have had as many followers and would they be so dissatisfied with politics as usual? If most of these people had steady jobs and an abundant income, I think they would have enjoyed the American dream and not been open to Trump’s message.

Now, perhaps it is necessary that many people become dissatisfied in order to overthrow the dominance of the power elite. I just don’t think this should be done by some violent revolution but by using the democratic process. I don’t see  that Trump has done much to overthrow the dominance of the elite because he sees himself as part of it. Instead, he has reinforced division within the people, and I think the people will have to be far more united in order to tackle the elite.

I think the only viable means is to raise the collective consciousness so the existence of a power elite becomes obvious to more people, who also see how this can be done with non-violent means. And it must be done by dealing with the power elite and not by blaming another group of normal people. I believe that when enough people become aware that the real problem, is the power elite, change will happen.

 

Copyright © 2021 Kim Michaels