Donald Trump: Moosbrugger for President

by David Auerbach on July 26, 2016

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.”

Prisoner's Dilemma

[The standard Prisoner’s Dilemma payoff matrix.]

Prisoner's Dilemma

[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)



Frank Wilhoit 07.26.16 at 12:09 pm

Demagogy is not about the gogue; it is about the demos.


fnn 07.26.16 at 12:28 pm

But no one thinks that Hillary even has a heart.


Lee A. Arnold 07.26.16 at 1:09 pm

Great stuff, David Auerbach. Did you ever watch Rupert Pupkin?


Lee A. Arnold 07.26.16 at 1:52 pm

Thus to “commodification of attention” we should add “atomization of intellect”.


Alan Bostick 07.26.16 at 2:39 pm

This is a very long-winded and elaborate way of saying “Trump is a narcissist.”


Bill Snowden 07.26.16 at 2:56 pm


That strikes me as niggardly. “Trump is a narcissist” is not interesting.


bob mcmanus 07.26.16 at 2:57 pm

What 1 said.

The keynote for this year came in March, with “Boaty McBoatface.” It’s not really about Trump. With Trump (and to a lesser extent, Sanders and Brexit), they are simply voting for a upraised middle finger. The problem for the normals is talking people out of Boaty McBoatface or a middle finger; usually they will simply rely on force and authoritarianism.

I prefer Jodi Dean’s “commodification of affect” to Herbert Simon, Jonathan Crary and Tiziana Terranova, but they are very close.


lemmy caution 07.26.16 at 3:05 pm

“His life is devoid of meaningful accomplishments”

this is setting a high bar for “meaningful accomplishments”


Yan 07.26.16 at 3:05 pm

Well, I for one am thrilled to see Adorno’s conceptual apparatus and critical legacy being used to take down under recognized dangers like Trump. He was such a team player for the American left, after all..


Anderson 07.26.16 at 3:20 pm

Good post, though I think it may exaggerate Mussolini’s consistency. Fascism was whatever he wanted it to be at a given moment.

I read the Mack Smith bio of Mussolini a few months back, and the resemblance to Trump was striking.


David Auerbach 07.26.16 at 3:56 pm

@11 That’s a fair point, and James Fallows’ blog printed a letter that quoted Roberto Vivarelli’s assessment 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.”

I’d argue, though, that Mussolini still displayed strategic goal-oriented behavior with a consistency vastly beyond that of Trump, and that despite his early flirtations with socialism, his rough ideological adherence to a thuggish political authoritarianism was in place from a very early age. Still, Mussolini probably comes closer to Trump in his shiftability than any of the other demagogues.

Another vote for Dennis Mack Smith’s Mussolini bio here. It’s fantastic.


Underpaid Propagandist 07.26.16 at 4:02 pm

Trump DOES have an ideology. Trump DOES stand for something: Trump has always been a consistent racist, from his housing controversies to his call to lynching the innocent teens in the Central Park “Wilding” incident (all innocent), to his friendship with Roy Cohn, Roger Stone, and Rudolf Giuliani.


soru 07.26.16 at 4:35 pm

Seems to be overthinking it a bit. Politicians have previously been either professionals or occasionally amateurs. Trump is just a standard member of the US boss class, who signature feature is proud ignorance of the details of the work they direct their minions to do.


cassander 07.26.16 at 4:36 pm

> (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

How is this any different in substance than what Bernie Sanders was selling with “A future to believe in”? Granted, Sanders chose different enemies, and has a different tone, but it’s still the same substance.


soru 07.26.16 at 5:44 pm

Sanders is a professional politician, so restricts his claims to those that make sense according to his professional understanding of politics.

Just as with a doctor versus a quack, the whole _point_ is that you can’t tell the difference unless you buy into the idea of medicine enough to critically evaluate claims, which would take you half way along the road to becoming a medical expert.

Trump is not a doctor, or a even a homeopath, i.e. someone with an alternative (and presumably false) understanding of politics. He is a boss; someone who orders politicians around. As such, a display of ignorance is proof of strength.


Alex K--- 07.26.16 at 6:19 pm

The Nash equilibrium – both prisoners confess – is the same in both games unless you allow for repeats. The outcomes can only diverge in repeated games, but that is not guaranteed.

In the non-repeated, non-cooperative prisoner’s dilemma with symmetric payoffs – the one in the first chart – “confess” is the dominant strategy for either player so the Nash equilibrium has both players confessing. It is not Pareto-optimal: both are better off silent.

When you introduce a separate set of payoffs for player A (“Trump”), you’re moving away from objective payoffs to private rankings of outcomes, but the same logic applies. BTW the rankings themselves are neither rational or irrational: they are simply a given.

For Player B, the ranking is the same in both cases: (AS, BC)>(AS, BS)>(AC, BC)>(AC, BS). For Player A, it was originally (AC, BS)>(AS, BS)>(AC, BC)>(AS, BC). It means that (AS, BS) was Pareto-efficient and the second-best for both players, while the Nash equilibrium, (AC, BC), was the third-best for both.

Now that Player A has mutated into Trump, his ranking of outcomes has the second- and third-best outcomes reversed: (AC, BS)>(AC, BC)>(AS, BS)>(AS, BC). As before, “confess” dominates “be silent” for both players; (AC, BC) remains the Nash equilibrium. It’s Pareto-efficient since no two out of the four outcomes are Pareto comparable.

In a repeated game with identical players, under certain conditions, the equilibrium can shift to (AS, BS), making both better off. But in the Trump vs. B version, no Pareto improvement is possible at all.


hix 07.26.16 at 8:11 pm

There are far more narcists (including sever clinical cases) than Trumps. Its in no way a sufficient explanation.


David Auerbach 07.26.16 at 8:14 pm

@17 You are technically correct–the best kind of correct. The Stag Hunt payoff matrix, where mutual cooperation dominates, would have been a sharper example, because Trump would nonetheless defect there too given his skewed perception of the payoffs. I went with the Prisoner’s Dilemma for three reasons, though:

(1) Most humans will sometimes or often choose to cooperate in even a non-iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, and some argue this still constitutes rational behavior
(2) Far more people are familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma than any other matrix
(3) I could not find a cute picture of the Stag Hunt

I’m less concerned with Nash Equilibria and Pareto-optimality than I am with using the matrices as psychological analogies. Trump has had many singular business dealings with people in which he defected and the other did not.Given that even a non-iterated PD poses a dilemma to many, this is my explanation as to why it would not for Trump, iterated or not.


Scott P. 07.26.16 at 8:28 pm

“Trump DOES have an ideology. Trump DOES stand for something: Trump has always been a consistent racist, from his housing controversies to his call to lynching the innocent teens in the Central Park “Wilding” incident (all innocent), to his friendship with Roy Cohn, Roger Stone, and Rudolf Giuliani.”

More than that. His 1990 Playboy interview, where he applauded the Chinese government’s reaction to Tiananmen Square, and openly worried that Gorbachev would fail to do the same in the Soviet Union, shows his consistent turn toward authoritarian responses.

In 1987, Trump paid for an editorial in the NY Times where he called on America to extort more money from Europe and our other allies for our presence in NATO and in other mutual security organizations.

Trump’s been a lot more consistent than people seem to give him credit for.


Anderson 07.26.16 at 9:13 pm

I am a little surprised not to see – did I miss it? – any mention that Auerbach had a published letter in the TLS making the same point (much more concisely of course).


Chris Stephens 07.26.16 at 9:33 pm

Another semi-pedantic point (so feel free to ignore): I don’t think “Prisoner’s dilemma, as perceived by Trump” isn’t a PD at all. To be a PD, the options have to be ordered like this: DC>CC>DD>CD (where “DC” means the outcome for you when you Defect and the other player Cooperates).

In your Trumpian version, the order is this: DC>DD>CC>CD. This is sometimes known as the “Deadlock” game. As in the PD, a player does better by defecting (as Alex points out – same Nash E as a PD game), but the difference is that the players prefer mutual defection to mutual cooperation. If that is how one thinks of the dilemma, then it seems less “tragic” than a PD (maybe that’s a comfort to those who defect in such games). The two parties fail to cooperate because neither really wants to – they just want the other party to cooperate. A failure to come to some international agreement (like arms control) might be a Deadlock game rather than a PD game.


Hidari 07.26.16 at 9:47 pm

If we must talk about Robert Musil, should the most obvious comparison not be between the USA and Kakania* (dying Empires)?

*The Austro-Hungarian Empire


novakant 07.26.16 at 10:11 pm

could one of the moderators please reinforce the ban on abb1 (aka Ze K), thank you


jake the antisoshul soshulist 07.26.16 at 11:02 pm

He is not even an interesting troll. Ignore.


David Auerbach 07.26.16 at 11:31 pm

@20 You can find counterexamples for most of Trump’s supposed consistencies. He bemoaned the racism of a country club (that rejected him). His collected statements on Iraq reveal nothing that could be pinned down to neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, or any other cogent worldview.

That’s not to say that he wouldn’t rule as an authoritarian; he most certainly would. But it wouldn’t be out of an ideology but through his obsession with how he is to be perceived: as strong, as a winner. If you look at the 1990 interview, his overriding concern is not with political stability or authoritarianism, but with leaders and countries appearing weak–as losers. It is only about strength and weakness. That’s not an ideology, because his definitions of strength and weakness are purely affective, not rational. Which is arguably the scariest thing about him. His consistency exists only inasmuch as society constructs strength and weakness and winning and losing in a consistent way.

> You mean firm hand as in China?

TRUMP: When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world–

> Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?

TRUMP: I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere- which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish-their jobs.


William Berry 07.26.16 at 11:50 pm

@novakant, jtas: Ah, yes, abb1. That was the first one, right? I think it ran something like: abb1 -> Henri Vieuxtemps -> Data Tatushkia -> Ze Kraggash -> Ze K. Maybe I left one or two out.

As the cynical pose and attitude of mindless contrarianism is virtually indistinguishable from that of “kidneystones”, I propose the sobriquet “Zekstones”, denoting a kind of chimeric super-troll.

I’m not a great fan of banning commenters in general, but given the regular flouting of the site’s commenting rules (esp. Zekstones tendency to personal insult and vituperation), it would be no tragedy in this case. And, as novakant points out, abb1 has been banned before (including as Data T, AIR). Ignoring them doesn’t work, as they tend to dominate the threads in terms of sheer volume of comments. But then, on that score, there is RNB, so, there you go.

I just know that the CT threads are much less interesting with those two around.

(Cue the usual contrarian pro-troll defense from the usual quarters.)


kidneystones 07.27.16 at 12:07 am

@ Hi William, thanks for this. As for vituperation and insult I’ve certainly less to add to the mix than the standard boilerplate bigotry of all my opponents are racists, or belong to the Klan. You’re personal term for me, I believe is ‘it.’

So, if we’re going to be banning on the basis of insult and abuse, where would you place yourself on that list.

More seriously, we can fully expect more pressure from what I hope is a relatively small number of contributors to erect ‘free speech zones’ of the kind we see here and there as the election date gets closer.

Heresy will be identified as such and heretics banned/burned at the stake for the edification of any who may wish to deviate from, for example, getting the neocon in a dress elected.

You can relax, btw, William. Your dehumanizing rhetoric and willingness to take a lead role in the excommunications go a long way to making my argument for that even here, there are a few trying to silence dissent.

I don’t expect a reply, btw, your style is run out from the crowd – throw a stone – and then run back into the pack quickly. There are three words for that behavior that jump to mind – let’s just hold them in our thoughts for a moment and think – William Berry.

On the OP, the David makes some very good points. I’d still like to see a good post on the DNC and how this changes/doesn’t change the landscape, but will surely have to wait.


Layman 07.27.16 at 12:16 am


Medication deficit detected!


kidneystones 07.27.16 at 12:27 am

David. The re-read unearths the real strengths of this assessment and makes the OP one of the most cogent and well-grounded critiques of the phenomena and person of Trump, I’ve read to date.

Each paragraph has its merits offers plenty of fodder for detailed discussion. My only question/quibble (so far) is with this assertion: “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.” (your italics) I’m not sure how you arrive at the ‘mistaken’ part of your claim.

There are, as you know, two clear recent political parallels to the phenomena of the politician as blank page/mirror upon which voters/admirers discover/inscribe their own aspirations and fears – Reagan and Obama, both highly skilled rhetoricians who manage to make very little sound substantive.

You’re right, however, to focus on Trump as performance artist, I think, rather than as politician. Van Jones makes the same arguments. Trump hasn’t so much entered the political arena as dragged the political arena into the world of the Apprentice – the Republican primary being essentially an Apprentice show for political aspirants. Trump won the contest because he alone understood the rules and dynamics. The debates began and continued off-stage and on camera as Trump dominated the news cycles with very little, as you so effectively detail in your piece.

Anyway, it’s great. Much appreciated and I certainly hope you’ll consider offering something similar at least once more. Cheers.


faustusnotes 07.27.16 at 12:32 am

Once again I have to ask: How is calling someone a racist “dehumanizing” them? You “dehumanize” someone by calling them a rapist, a murderer, subhuman, criminal, worthless to society. You don’t dehumanize a person by saying they don’t like a class of people, or taht what they’re saying is offensive to a class of people.

But of course zekstones is thin-skinned.


William Berry 07.27.16 at 12:35 am

“your style is run out from the crowd – throw a stone – and then run back into the pack quickly.”

Anonymous commenter has the chutzpah to talk about the commenting style of others.

No, Zekstones, the thing is, I actually have a life. I manage to find the time to read CT and a handful of other sites, but I don’t have hours to spend every day sitting at a keyboard banging out invective and infecting comment threads with my sour, misanthropic rants.

Get over yourself. No one really cares what you think. It’s s just that you manage to be such a tiresome pest saying it.


kidneystones 07.27.16 at 1:05 am

Comments: 25, 26, 27, 29, 31, 32 make no passing attempt to discuss the OP. Add my own here and 30. Waste of my time and yours, not to mention thread derailment. Thx!

Great post and comments up to 24. Look forward to reading more.


Yan 07.27.16 at 1:27 am

“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?”

Weird passing, admittedly (sorry!) off OP thought: reminds me of being an academic, especially in philosophy, that instantaneous from cutthroat adversarial stance to dolce vita lunch and wine gentlemanliness. Is this one of the reasons we (academics) have such a deep seated almost pathological repulsion for him. Is he a funhouse mirror in which we catch inflated, distorted but recognizable glimpses of ourselves?


F. Foundling 07.27.16 at 1:38 am

Re the alleged ‘trolls’:

Both Ze K and Kidneystones often hold unpopular positions, but certainly not *mindlessly* contrarian ones, and I don’t think either one of them is literally ‘trolling’ in the sense of saying things they don’t believe in order to provoke people. Only one (the latter) has a tendency to insult people openly more than this is done here on average, but I’m not sure it’s sufficiently strong to be seen as ‘trolling’ and merit a ban – perhaps a warning or something? Anyway, I’m not sure that anything unites these two besides their current support for Trump – as well as an attitude towards racists that is more tolerant than average, but they share the latter with others whose banning nobody has demanded.

Ze K very often expresses some kind of allegedly left-ish version of the mainstream position of the Russian establishment and that is valuable as a counterweight to the mainstream position of the Western establishment, since the latter is already expressed by many other commenters. Kidneystones very often expresses some kind of allegedly left-ish version of a mainstream conservative position, and I think this, too, is valuable as a counterweight to the predominant views on the blog, including mine. I generally find both profoundly unsympathetic and would describe Ze K as a smug and slippery quasi-fascist, and Kidneystones as an anti-humanist reactionary curmudgeon, but this doesn’t mean that they never make sense, and it should be made clear what arguments their side has to offer. I’m glad I can hear what arguments an intellectual in the Trumpist camp can muster, and I’m glad other people can hear what arguments an intellectual in the Putinist camp can muster. The truth is reached through debate, and people with ideological positions profoundly different from yours will not always be wrong about everything they say.

And if one finds certain people’s comments worthless, one can always just ignore them.


Lee A. Arnold 07.27.16 at 2:20 am

They aren’t coherent ideological positions, though.


LFC 07.27.16 at 2:22 am

@Wm Berry
Maybe I left one or two out.

Left out Mao Cheng Ji.

Even though Ze K has accused me fairly recently of “slime-ball slurring” and heaven knows what else on no good grounds, I say, basically, let a thousand schools of thought contend, let a hundred flowers bloom… (or whatever).

p.s. Will offer a brief comment on the OP before the thread closes, I hope. Have been otherwise engaged.


William Berry 07.27.16 at 3:21 am

Mao Cheng Ji, of course!

In general, agree on the not banning (see my above).

Sitting here in Lima, Peru watching the DNC on CNN International. Struck by the parade of people of real quality— M. Streep, Alicia Keys. et al— compared to the Repug horror show. Sometimes it feels good to be a mushy liberal!


Bill Snowden 07.27.16 at 5:08 am


Such nuance, such detail! Were we watching the same show? Or did you have a more detailed program?


TM 07.27.16 at 8:06 am

Trying not to feed the trolls but the bit about “heretics banned/burned at the stake” is just classy.

From “if you don’t wish to abide by the site rules, leave us alone and post elsewhere, there are plenty of right wing forums to hang out at” to “heretics are burned at the stake” – that in a nutshell is the victimhood fantasy of today’s right wing extremists.


J-D 07.27.16 at 9:02 am

Ze K 07.27.16 at 5:57 am
@27 all the pop-psychology and mind-reading aside, his judgment is independent, concise, and, most importantly, absolutely correct.

Trump observed, correctly, that the Chinese leadership did things that were good for them, even if they were bad for other people, while Gorbachev did things that were bad for him, even if they were good for other people.

So, if Trump is elected President, will he do things that are good for him but bad for other people, or things that are bad for him but good for other people?


J-D 07.27.16 at 9:05 am

kidneystones 07.27.16 at 12:07 am
You can relax, btw, William. Your dehumanizing rhetoric and willingness to take a lead role in the excommunications go a long way to making my argument for that even here, there are a few trying to silence dissent.

Sometimes silencing dissent is the wrong thing to do; sometimes silencing dissent is the right thing to do.


novakant 07.27.16 at 9:30 am


you really think we are all completely stupid, it doesn’t take advanced stylometrics really


J-D 07.27.16 at 10:16 am

Ze K 07.27.16 at 9:14 am
@43 No, I think it’s perfectly clear to any unbiased observer that the things turned, correspondingly, good and bad, exactly as he predicted, for the countries in question, and their populations in general.

He is quoted as saying of the Chinese government that ‘they were vicious, they were horrible’, but not as saying that was good for the people of China (or anywhere else). He is quoted as saying of Gorbachev that he was ‘destroying the Soviet Union’, but not as saying that was bad for the people of the Soviet Union (or anywhere else).


Alex K--- 07.27.16 at 11:29 am

@19: Thanks – I think understand your points better now. I agree that a stag hunt would be more instructive: it has two NEs and both players are better off in the cooperation (silence) equilibrium than in the defection (confession) equilibrium. If you change the prison terms from (0, 20) and (20, 0) to (2, 20) and (20, 2) – actually, any number larger than 1 but less or equal than 5 will do instead of zero – you’ll have a stag hunt in your first payoff chart.

But, as Chris Stephens (23) noted, Trump would still be playing Deadlock.

You are assuming that there is a true payoff matrix, which is a stag hunt or a prisoner’s dilemma. It is correctly observed by player B, who is playing the “true” game. You are also assuming that Trump misreads the payoffs because he is not a “rational actor,” and he is playing Deadlock because his delusionary vision (wrongly) perceives a Deadlock payoff matrix.

I would suggest a different approach. Everyone reads the actual payoffs exactly as written, but not everyone ranks them in the same order. Such rankings, by themselves, are neither rational nor irrational, neither right nor wrong, but fixed features of the actors’ identities. Player B ranks the outcomes solely by the length of the prison term he would be facing: the shorter the better. He’s like most of us. Player A, in contrast, ranks the outcomes solely by the length of B’s sentence: the longer the better.

That’s Trump’s outcome ranking as shown in your second chart, based on B’s prison terms as shown in the first.

What can we say about Player A then? Perhaps he’s an aggressive misanthrope, driven by nothing but the wish to make others suffer. Perhaps he’s representative of a culture of envy and resentment.

But let’s say player A is a tough guy with an acute sense of justice. He thinks B deserves to be punished severely for B’s crimes. A is also ready to pay for B getting a longer sentence by doing more time himself – A’s tough, he can handle it.

As a disclaimer, I see these games as potentially interesting thought experiments. As for Trump’s “true” nature, I am skeptical it is penetrable. However brilliant the observations and parallels in the OP, its conclusions are unfalsifiable, so everyone remains entitled to their own opinion on the man.


J-D 07.27.16 at 12:24 pm

Ze K 07.27.16 at 10:50 am
@47 Okay, sure. Anyhow: I read it (though not the whole thing), and I get the impression that the 1990 version of the Donald is an independent thinker (no bull), not stupid, and has good instincts. Also his rhetoric seems surprisingly consistent with the 2016 version (I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but it means something). Obviously, YMMV.

None of that has any bearing on the question I asked earlier: would a hypothetical President Trump do things that are good for other people, or things that are bad for other people? You can be not stupid and still do either; you can have a consistent rhetorical style and still do either.


David Auerbach 07.27.16 at 5:17 pm

@44 Right, I think that’s a good approach. To take the Stag Hunt case, here are Trump’s reactions in order of preference:

DC: Look at my rabbit, you loser. You stupid loser.
DD: Thank god I didn’t go after that stag, or else that bastard would’ve backstabbed me. I hope he chokes on his rabbit.
CC: I have to split MY stag with THAT loser? After all I did for him? Why did I bother?
CD: This is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone.

So for the PD, in Trump’s case I’d say it’s not even maximizing B’s sentence that’s the issue. It’s simply making sure he does better than B, regardless of the differential or payoff. So I’d argue that Trump would seek a smaller differential if it provided a guaranteed win over a larger differential at the risk of a loss.

This reminds me I have to read Skyrms’ book on the Stag Hunt and PD.


Paul Davis 07.27.16 at 8:16 pm

J-D @ 45: I’m no Trump supporter, but that question is a bit too hand-wavingly empty of reality to be worth answering.

Most US presidents, like most leaders of large and powerful countries and perhaps like most human beings, will do things that will (a) vary in the way that other people characterize them (b) will vary in the way that even a single ideologically uniform set of people will characterize them. Did Obama do things (… case A …) or (… case B …) ? The answer is obviously BOTH. I don’t want to see a Trump presidency, but if we do, I imagine that he will also do a mixture of things, some of which will be good for him and bad for others, and some that are not so great for him, and better for others.

But let’s hope that we don’t actually to discuss the distinction with regards to any actual presidential decision making by Trump.


PGD 07.27.16 at 11:08 pm

Auerbach @25 — Re the Trump quotes on Russia/Gorbachev and China/Tianemen Square — you claim that these comments are ‘affective, not rational’ but there is a good argument that Trump was right, or at least had a point. Look at the history of Russia and China since 1990. Gorbachev’s government fell apart, was replaced by the rule of a feckless drunk controlled by U.S. advisors who took apart the Soviet system with nothing to replace it, leading first to millions of excess deaths and much human suffering, then to a new authoritarian leader (Putin) when people lost patience with incompetent governance. China stayed authoritarian, granted, but posted the highest economic growth rates ever recorded with significant apparent improvement in living standards. To the degree we can tell the Chinese government appears to be pretty popular.

Trump has had a consistent set of beliefs for a long time and not all of them are irrational. He seems wildly tempermentally unsuited to be an effective president, especially an effective change of course president (which demands more intelligence and competence, not less) but the eagerness to pigeonhole him as Hitler/Mussolini or psychologize him as a madman seems to miss something.

The other effect of the refusal to admit Trump as some form of rational interlocutor is to double down on the idea of current US status quo governance as rational and moderate, whereas I would instead argue that the U.S. government has mastered the rhetoric and affect of rationality and moderation without the substance of it. In fact, I think what we may be looking at is not a single-dimension contest between ‘more’ and ‘less’ rational or ‘more’ and ‘less’ authoritarian ideologies, but a contest between two forms of authoritarianism with complex differences between rhetoric, goals, and structure that are hard to sum up on a single dimension. The current U.S. centrist bipartisan consensus has, after all, stood for imprisoning a larger proportion of its population than any government on earth, building the largest surveillance infrastructure ever created, pursuing foreign policies that have led to at least two million deaths in the “war on terror”, historic levels of income inequality, and insisting on unilateral global hegemony supported by military forces larger than the rest of the world put together.

This is not an argument for Trump as automatically being better, things can always get worse. But portraying Trump simply as an irrational madman opposed by the forces of rationality tends to cast his opposition as the forces of rationality. (Indeed, the anti-Trump wing is using peoples’ horror at Trump to try to cast policies like expansionist aggression toward Putin’s Russia as prima facie reasonable).


eddie 07.27.16 at 11:51 pm

Still better than hillary.


Alpha-Centauri male 07.28.16 at 3:49 pm

“Donald yells at you, basely, abusively”
I briefly worked for a screamer, but fortunately had little contact with the screamer.
Even in civilized mode, the screamer had little charisma.


Jack Morava 07.28.16 at 5:15 pm

Moosbrugger (and the association with Musil in general) is inspired; but Larry David’s version of George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld may be another classical model.

Trump makes me take the question of the existence of philosophical zombies seriously;
but if he is one, he seems to be a special subtype. It seems to me more likely that he is
just in the early stages of dementia.


Alex K--- 07.28.16 at 9:14 pm

@46: That’s another interpretation of the bad guy’s choices, and it also leads to a non-cooperative outcome. Special thanks for the book recommendation.


Austin Loomis 07.29.16 at 2:42 am

Jack Morava skrev:

Trump makes me take the question of the existence of philosophical zombies seriously;

The very thing occurred to me as I read this post. Indeed, I made a pun which, until now, I have spared anyone else from seeing: “If Moosbrugger is the man without qualities, is He, Trump the man without qualia?”


GHG 07.29.16 at 5:35 pm

As for fictional precursors: Charles Foster Kane? Narcissist, desperate to be loved by the masses and his intimates, but also desperate for power and control (after a loveless, unstable childhood). As Jed Leland says at one point: “He married for love – That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough. He wanted all the voters to love him, too. All he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story – it’s the story of how he lost it. You see, he just didn’t have any to give. He loved Charlie Kane, of course, very dearly…”

And as his first wife, Emily, says: “Why would anyone vote for him? He’s made it quite clear to the people what he thinks of them. Children – to be told one thing one day, something else the next, as the whim seizes him. And they’re supposed to be grateful and love and adore him – because he sees to it that they get cheap ice and only pay a nickel in the street cars.”

Not to mention Kane’s interest in locking up his political enemies, as he shouts to “Boss” Jim Geddes: “I’m no cheap, crooked politician, trying to save himself from the consequences of his crimes… I’m going to send you to Sing Sing, Geddes, Sing Sing!”


js. 07.30.16 at 12:30 am

This is an interesting take — not sure I’m completely convinced by the argument towards the end, but worth thinking about. Mostly though, loving the game theory subthread.


Alex K--- 07.31.16 at 10:02 am

Belated notes on the Trump-Mussolini parallel.

“Fascism was whatever he [Mussolini] wanted it to be at a given moment.” (10)

Fascism the movement, hardly; fascism the ideology, yes but within certain limits: Mussolini wanted as much flexibility for himself as possible but would not shake the pillars of the creed, such as modernizing nationalism and anti-liberal corporativism.

“…despite his early flirtations with socialism, his [Mussolini’s] rough ideological adherence to a thuggish political authoritarianism was in place from a very early age.” (11)

I would say personal and cultural rather than ideological. He was a ruthless operator in a society where violence, both private and social, was far more common than in France or Britain. (My source on this is R. J. B. Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy.)

On a personal level, there seems to be little in common between Mussolini and Trump. Mussolini was born into a provincial family struggling to be respectable. He was a social climber who not only enjoyed politics and journalism but actually became a competent journalist, editor, newspaper manager and orator. It seems that he actually enjoyed literary work – he translated Italian poetry into German in his final days.

Reviewing Bosworth’s bio of Mussolini, Claudio Fogu of UC Santa Barbara summed up the portrait drawn by the biographer:

…a provincial intellectual seeking fame beyond the restricted boundaries of his Romagnole origins. Armed with self-delusional intellectual ambitions, a Machiavellian view of politics, and a Darwinist conception of humanity, Mussolini rose to power but failed to revolutionize the lives of Italians or to pave a third way between liberal capitalism and state socialism. He fell prey to his own existential pessimism and the sociohistorical forces that have shaped Italian history for centuries.

I can see how “intellectual ambitions, a Machiavellian view of politics, and a Darwinist conception of humanity” as well as “existential pessimism” apply to neo-reactionary, or alt-right, thinkers and preachers. But to Trump? An intellectually ambitious pessimist? No presidential candidate can yet afford to be that.

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