There is a void at the heart of Donald Trump. The critic Carlos Lozada found it by reading all of his books:
Over the course of 2,212 pages, I encountered a world where bragging is breathing and insulting is talking, where repetition and contradiction come standard, where vengefulness and insecurity erupt at random…But, judging from these books, I’m not sure how badly he really wants the presidency. “For me, you see, the important thing is the getting, not the having.”
Trump has spent his life building a brand, not defining the brand. The Trump brand is Donald Trump, master of the amorphous “deal.” All that matters in the deal is that you win, or more precisely, that you are seen to win. That he no longer owns most of the buildings bearing his name is of no matter; that most banks and developers refuse to work with him is irrelevant. That he has failed to accomplish much of anything besides being known is exactly his goal. But it raises an irksome question around his political candidacy: how do you build a cult of personality around someone without a personality?
Sure, Trump is a businessman. He fancies himself a winner, an alpha male, a big-dicked dominator. But these are not personality traits, only costumes, since there is ample evidence of him being civil and even affable when it benefits him. An anonymous real estate professional gave Talking Points Memo a chronicle of a typical Trump dealing:
Donald yells at you, basely, abusively, wholly out of character to the rich gentleman you broke bread with and made the deal with…How could this be the guy who was so nice when he picked up the check at Per Se?
There are very few constants to Trump’s personality. He is at the extreme of what David Riesman termed the other-directed personality in The Lonely Crowd: “The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed. While all people want and need to be liked by some of the people some of the time, it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity.” Trump takes this to an extreme: he has produced nothing he can be esteemed for. His life is devoid of meaningful accomplishments. Yet while the common emotional mechanism for other-direction is empathy, Trump possesses a peculiar form of it that depends instead on fame, bullying, and dominance: being liked not for caring, but for winning.
Trump is one of the neediest figures in American political history, yet most of his fans and many of his detractors fail to realize this. His candidacy was spurred when he found a political niche he could inhabit that would draw the greatest, easiest adulation. This turned out to be the disaffected Republican base. Had he found an easier one on the left, he would have taken it. Unfortunately for all of us, Trump’s path of least resistance has turned out to be a dangerous, nativist, xenophobic, and unconstitutional one—yet that does not make those traits innate to him. It only displays how indifferent Trump is to the content of his adulation. As long as it takes the form of love, or fear, or anything short of dismissal, he’ll take it. As Trump’s ghostwriter said, “Trump didn’t fit any model of human being I’d ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn’t care what you wrote.” This is the truth behind his convention mantra, “I AM YOUR VOICE.” He will play the ventriloquist’s dummy to anyone and anything as long as he is the star. He doesn’t care about the words, nor any consequences they might have.
Pundits have compared Donald Trump to every raging demagogue in history. There’s Hitler of course, or George Wallace if you’re feeling less hyperbolic, Athens’ Alcibiades or the Roman consul Cinna in ancient history, or what about Mussolini? James Fallows printed a letter from a reader who quoted Roberto Vivarelli’s description of Mussolini:
From the very beginning, for example, the relation between words and deeds among Mussolini and his followers was very peculiar, and words were used not to state any firm conviction, nor to outline a definite political program but, rather, to arouse emotions that would generate support for a changeable line of action.
Yet Mussolini was a paragon of consistency next to trump, whose agenda only seems guided by raw self-aggrandizement. Mussolini may not have plainly advertised his political program, but he most certainly had one. The historian Daniel Leese points out that these earlier fascists, as much as they relied on populist demagoguery, hewed to an ideological program far beyond anything Trump has ever committed to:
Even the architects of the massive leader cults in Nazi Germany or Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy tried to quell the impression of having deliberately relied on the emotional appeal of personalized politics and symbols. Instead, they tried to emphasize the scientiﬁc nature of their ideologies. Adolf Hitler thus in a talk with two leading apologists of his personality cult, Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler, explicitly warned against transforming national socialism, which he described as “a cool and highly-reasoned approach to reality based on the greatest of scientiﬁc knowledge,” into a mystic cult movement.
It’s a bit off the mark to call Trump a fascist, because, in the immortal words of Walter Sobchak, “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.” Trump’s campaign is defined by the absence of a consistent ideological agenda, in favor of (1) raw venom at his (and therefore America’s) enemies, (2) sweeping though incoherent criticism of the status quo and the establishment, and (3) a commitment to Making America Great Again so vague and apocalyptic that it borders on millenarianism. It adds up to a gigantic middle finger that many dispossessed are happy to get behind in the mistaken belief that it’s pointing at the objects of their resentments.
Even calling Trump a con artist seems an injustice, for a con artist has an ulterior motive. Trump has no motive other than to be the conman, not the conned. (For Trump, you are always one or the other. The Apprentice should have been titled The Subordinate.) The GOP convention parades a roster of fearmongers designed to put people in a desperate and receptive frame of mind, all the better to paint Trump as their savior. Yet Trump offers no concrete plan of action, nor does he secretly possess one: he offers only himself. The border wall and the ban on Muslims were sheer rhetorical moves to be discarded as soon as they had served the purpose of attracting devotees—perhaps they will be resuscitated, perhaps not. Trump supports the Iraq War, then attacks Iraq War proponents, then picks one for his vice president. He is pro-choice then anti-choice, Democrat then Republican, neoliberal then protectionist. He takes you out for lunch, then stabs you in the back. He sucks up people’s hopes and fears and pays them back in Monopoly money. If he won the presidency, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. (Except, as he has hinted, give it away.) He feels no allegiance to his past promises, nor any commitment to overriding values. There is only Donald.
Trump stands out from other demagogues in that he did not seek political power until late in life. His is a political vanity project akin to Ross Perot’s—“I’m running because the people deserve better”—but what’s different is the sheer extent of the vanity. Trump’s overriding concern is not power, but love: being loved, specifically. For most demagogues, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Putin, love and devotion serve power; here it is the other way round. It was only when America’s culture of celebrity became so overwhelming and vacuous that this reversal of the equation even became possible—or else Trump’s lack of political ambition would have prevented him from even entering the arena. Trump possesses not a Will-to-Power but a Will-to-Fame.
On a fundamental level Trump does not compare to any other politician, because he simply is not a politician. He is something else—or perhaps not a something, but not a nothing either. Being a politician requires some conception of bargaining and mutual benefit, which Trump lacks utterly. In game theory’s Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, most people are willing to live with the two tied outcomes of mutual cooperation or defection. Not Trump: for him, the only acceptable outcome is the one where he wins and you get screwed. Hence his refusal to commit to defending NATO’s Baltic states from a Russian attack, until he sees what they’ll do for him. Trump always defects, pathologically—though he doesn’t always win. This fundamental inability to negotiate in good faith and honor agreements makes him more of a force of nature than a human being. He can only be truly grasped through the inhuman “objective attitude” P. F. Strawson describes in Freedom and Resentment: “though you may fight with him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.”
[The standard Prisoner’s Dilemma payoff matrix.]
[The Prisoner’s Dilemma, as perceived by Donald Trump: Mutual-cooperation appears as a worse outcome than mutual defection. In this grid, Trump will always confess, making the mutual-cooperation payoff impossible even in the iterated game, to the puzzlement of B, who rationally observes the first grid. Unlike the assumed rational actor, Trump always defects because he wants to maximize how much worse you do than him—not because he wants to maximize his own payoff.]
To find a personality that captures the sheer inhuman vacuousness of Trump’s anti-ideology, we have to look to literature, and specifically to Robert Musil’s masterpiece The Man Without Qualities. Written during the interwar years and left uncompleted at Musil’s death in 1942, The Man Without Qualities is an autopsy of the varieties of European intellectual pretense and folly in the years leading up to World War I, as well as a search for a more viable alternative. The character who concerns us is Christian Moosbrugger, a working-class murderer of women who becomes an object of fascination for many of the characters in the novel and of the Vienna they inhabit. During his trial for the brutal murder of a prostitute, he becomes a celebrity, due to his cavalier and eccentric manner.
During his trial Moosbrugger created the most unpredictable problems for his lawyer. He sat relaxed on his bench, like a spectator, and called out “Bravo!” every time the prosecutor made a point of what a public menace the defendant was, which Moosbrugger regarded as worthy of him, and gave out good marks to witnesses who declared that they had never noticed anything about him to indicate that he could not be held responsible for his actions.
The rationale for his behavior, Musil explains, is Moosbrugger’s own overwhelming neediness, to have himself recognized by others as something superior and winning. Trump and Moosbrugger are both amoral ciphers, pursuing self-aggrandizement in the absence of any substantial self.
He was clearly ill, but even if his obviously pathological nature provided the basis for his attitude, and this isolated him from other men, it somehow seemed to him a stronger and higher sense of his own self. His whole life was a comically and distressingly clumsy struggle to gain by force a recognition of this sense of himself.
Moosbrugger will go gladly to jail as long as it makes him the object of fascination. Likewise, Trump would work as a salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross for free. Yet this formal need for adulation is not backed up by any fixed essence. Empty inside, Moosbrugger suffers the same shiftable tendencies as Trump. There is a hole at the core of his being.
“Did you feel no remorse whatsoever?”
Something flickers in Moosbrugger’s mind—old prison wisdom: Feign remorse. The flicker gives a twist to his mouth and he says: “Of course I did!”
“But at the police station you said: “I feel no remorse at all, only such hate and rage I could explode!’” the judge caught him out.
“That may be so,” Moosbrugger says, recovering himself and his dignity, “it may be that I had no other feelings then.”
He is tormented by resentment toward anyone who might claim intellectual or moral superiority over him:
He could rise to the heights of a grand theatrical pose, declaring disdainfully that he was a “theoretical anarchist” whom the Social Democrats were ready to rescue at a moment’s notice if he chose to accept a favor from those utterly pernicious Jewish exploiters of the ignorant working class. This would show them that he too had a “discipline,” a field of his own where the learned presumption of his judges could not follow him.
His “discipline” is akin to Trump’s nebulous “art of the deal,” not a teachable trade but an esoteric, innate property that makes him better than others—a Macguffin. Trump is not a murderer; unlike Moosbrugger, he does not need to be. Trump was fortunate enough to begin with his father’s millions and the ability to achieve dominance without physical violence. For Moosbrugger, violence was the only option available to him. Moosbrugger is no more a “murderer” than Trump is a “politician.” They perpetrate amoral (not immoral) acts not out of their characters but out of a lack of character.
Possessing the same Will-to-Fame as Trump, Moosbrugger embarks on his course as though guided by outside forces.
In the judge’s eyes, Moosbrugger was the source of his acts; in Moosbrugger’s eyes they had perched on him like birds that had flown in from somewhere or other. To the judge, Moosbrugger was a special case; for himself he was a universe, and it was very hard to say something convincing about a universe.
Musil’s core insight is that Moosbrugger possesses a cosmic sense of himself that removes him from the world of human agency and responsibility, akin to Strawson’s objective attitude. Moosbrugger’s indifference to all values and to the very idea of values threatens yet fascinates, since it offers us the freedom to give voice to our most egregious selves and see them reflected back at us not as human qualities but as forces of nature. So it is with Trump, a catalyst that transforms resentment and worship into fame. Elsewhere, Musil describes Moosbrugger’s dissolution of self into universe in this way:
Anyone can conceive of a man’s life flowing along like a brook, but what Moosbrugger felt was his life flowing like a brook through a vast, still lake. As it flowed onward it continued to mingle with what it was leaving behind and became almost indistinguishable from the movements on either side of it. Once, in a half-waking dream, he had a sense of having worn this life’s Moosbrugger like an ill-fitting coat on his back; now, when he opened it a bit, the most curious sort of lining came billowing out silkily, endless as a forest.
This is a kind of super-solipsism, not just a conviction that no one else exists but an inability to conceive of one’s own self as a separable agent in the world. Trump’s psychology only makes sense after this traditional conception of ego is discarded. I do not think that the ADHD-addled Trump cares how he is remembered; all there is for him is the attention, the worship, the now. For Trump, who defines himself only against his immediate surroundings, liminal forms of relating take precedence over any and all values, facts, or even goals. This lack of temporal awareness and planning may be his downfall, since all he knows is immediate escalation and pandering in pursuit of the immediate win. If he amassed an army of brownshirts, he couldn’t be bothered to give them orders.
As cosmic entities, Moosbrugger and Trump are only human as far as we perceive them to be. As raw forces of narcissism, they demand that we perceive them. And yet because they are empty, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should tend to accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for.
So there he sat, the wild, captive threat of a dreaded act, like an uninhabited coral island in a boundless sea of scientific papers that surrounded him invisibly on all sides.
In an unpublished passage, the maid Rachel falls deeply for Moosbrugger and projects a form onto him that he easily fills with his cosmic unpersonhood.
Rachel saw in Moosbrugger not a hero without his peer on earth—for comparison and reflection would then have killed the power of imagination—but simply a hero, a notion that is less definite but blends with the time and place in which it appears and with the person who arouses admiration. Where there are heroes the world is still soft and glowing, and the web of creation unbroken.
Moosbrugger becomes her voice. This is why Musil concludes, “If mankind could dream as a whole, that dream would be Moosbrugger.” An empty vessel holds projections best, and only an empty vessel could reflect back such a collective dream. For her part, Rachel satisfies Moosbrugger’s need to be adored; he puts off killing her, content to beat her regularly.
He knew from experience: if you want to get anywhere with women you have to act as if you aren’t even aware of their existence, at least in the beginning; that had brought him success with them every time.
Trump, who not coincidentally shares Moosbrugger’s disgust with women’s bodies and their fluids, does not respect those who vote for him and support him, but he does lay off of them, because they feed his need. He’ll screw them over later, just as Moosbrugger will inevitably dump (or kill) Rachel, but for the time being they are useful.
For Musil, Moosbrugger’s fame indicates the social order of the 1913 Austro-Hungarian Empire moving toward collapse. He is a symptom of a sick society vomiting up its professed values. So it is with Trump, who rode petabytes of free publicity to his nomination while hardly spending a dime. (Spending money on a political candidacy is for rubes, you see.) A narcissist needs a mirror and we have gladly provided it. Contrariwise, the shiftable Trump has become the mirror of America’s own lumpenproletariat, casually breaking whatever barriers of hypocrisy buffeted against the blunt incursion of religious discrimination, rampant xenophobia, gleeful torture, and thuggish violence into popular discourse. Since becoming the voice for these tendencies produces the adulation that Trump gladly mainlines, he had no compunction in proposing an idea like the Great Wall of Mexico or the ban on Muslims, nor does he care that people were dumb enough to take those ideas seriously. When it comes to any political content, he has to be a mirror, since he possesses no content of his own. We failed to hold the government accountable for the Iraq War; we failed to hold Wall Street accountable for the crash. It hardly makes sense that we would hold an empty mirror accountable for anything it shows us, or an amplifier responsible for what’s played through it.
Trump’s political rise is a product of the commodification of attention. As the ballooning of new media and analytics have facilitated the microscopic examination of consumer attention, the analysis has been performed with indifference to the consequences of that attention. Just as Donald Trump does not care why he is loved, worshipped, and feared—no matter what the consequences—we have seen massed content production turn to clickbait, hate clicks, and propaganda in pursuit of viewer eyes. By mindlessly mirroring fear and tribalism, the new media machine has produced a dangerous amount of collateral damage.
Georg Simmel wrote in 1900 that money serves as the abstract form of valuation, making all values commensurable while emptying the metric of any specific content. So it is today with attention: we have moved on from commodifying value to commodifying human attention. In the metrics of pageviews and clicks, the reasons for the attention and its consequences fall away. And so a fame generator like Donald Trump becomes not just a symptom but a catalytic attractor: the news media turned him into a phenomenon in pursuit of attention to their properties, even as the “serious” members of the press denied he could ever become a candidate. After all, he was a strategy for attention, devoid of any political program. Alas, such a distinction between politics and attention is no longer meaningful.
Only in a world where raw attention is an ultimate end could Trump have become a presidential nominee. (Yes, money is a secondary end, but there are many today who sacrifice financial self-interest in exchange for a modicum of fame, and the monetization of much of this attention remains entirely hypothetical.) By being deaf to all ulterior motives beyond self-aggrandizement, Trump is oddly incorruptible, apparently unwilling to be tamed by Teleprompter or Svengali. Incapable of possessing principles, Trump cannot be manipulated through them, nor can he betray them. Trump’s secret is that there is no secret. Trump is the Pollock canvas on which we’ve flung our collective vomit and feces. In it we can almost make out our reflection.
[You] say, I am [fostering] a personality cult. Well, you Americans really are [cultivating] a personality cult! Your capital is called Washington. The district in which Washington is located is called Columbia. … Disgusting! … There will always be people worshipping! If there is no one to worship you, Snow, are you happy then? … There will always be some worship of the individual, you have it as well. (Mao Zedong to Edgar Snow, 1970)