After having watched the Netflix documentary, “Trump: An American Dream”, chronicling the rise of Donald Trump until the beginning of his presidency, something uncomfortable began to happen inside my mind. I started cultivating a different perspective towards who I believe Donald Trump to be, but more importantly, what he represents. Trump is the manifestation of the American dream.
Let me begin by clarifying that I absolutely despise Donald Trump and will never forgive him or his enablers for the damage done to our democracy, foreign relations, and our society at large. Trump is an untethered narcissist. A mimic, void of most innate human qualities. I initially began watching the Netflix documentary as a psychological case study…I get bored sometimes, however, what I discovered shocked me. Trump is smarter than I’ve given him credit for.
It’s easy to write Trump off as an bumbling idiot, which he certainly is in many respects, but he did manage to become president. It’s not that he is smart in any academic or intellectual sense. He is smart in how he is able to market and sell a brand…primarily himself. Trump has a well-developed and unique set of social skills, or what I refer to as antisocial skills, which western culture is both an advocate for and victim of. The American dream as only capitalism can provide.
“There’s a sucker born every minute” is a phrase commonly associated with P.T. Barnum (though there is nothing to validate this claim) and refers to the gullibility of consumers to buy whatever can be sold to them and who deserve whatever consequences that result from their naivety. This is the realm of Trump and the art of manipulation (or art of the deal). While Trump may not be capable of independently orchestrating many of the heists committed against our democracy since he was inaugurated, he does demonstrate an uncanny ability to sell a product…again, this product being himself. Trump realized that repetition, familiarity, and association are fundamental components needed for one to be viewed upon favorably within a society, at least to some degree.
Trump meticulously worked to sell himself to the American public throughout his career in real estate and later in showbusiness. By projecting an image of himself as successful, powerful, calculated, decisive, etc., Trump was able to become a household name and thus familiarize himself with the American public over time. This is referred to in psychology as the mere-exposure effect, where people develop a positive association towards a stimuli they have been exposed to repeatedly. Much like Reagan, Trump was smart enough to capitalize on this phenomena (his narcissism definitely helped) and he began to construct an image of himself that helped prime the American public to view him as someone capable of being our country’s leader. While Trump marketed himself through print media and public relation stunts through the 80’s and 90’s to propel an image of himself as a savvy, cut-throat business man, it was the advent of reality television coupled with social media which presented the perfect opportunity for Trump to sell himself to the masses.
In Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet”, extroverts are described as more socially dominant individuals, commanding the social spotlight by being the louder voices in the room. What is an interesting aspect of this social behavior is that people tend to believe what the speaker is saying to be true the more confident they appear and louder they are. If you were to talk about something you had little knowledge of, but did so in a way that demonstrated confidence and strength, most people would tend to believe what you are saying is true and take you at your word. For a salesman and trickster, this is a priceless skill to develop, a characteristic which Trump was seemingly instilled with at birth.
In Kurt Anderson’s book “Fantasyland”, Anderson talks about how America was not only founded on the belief that individuals are free to belief whatever subjective reality they choose to, but if you can make a profit by selling your beliefs to someone else, well that’s even better. Capitalism has enabled our ability to sell our personal nonsense to the masses and further blur the lines of reality with fantasy. While his book chronicles the history of Americans procurement of unique and ubiquitous delusions, the concept of fake news as it emerged throughout our history laid the groundwork for Trump to invent, question, and dismantle our collective sense of what is real and what is not. Again, with a trained level of salesmanship, our institutions of education, news/media, and history have been undermined as Trump bends reality to fit the narrative he is writing. This takes the form of “alternative facts”, “fake news media”, “radical left”, and so on.
Our country’s collective psychological defenses are becoming impaired the more we are subjected to such a multitude of ideologies which are far from being evidenced or reality based. This is demonstrated by a disconcerting increase of people who subscribe to insane conspiracy theories, making critical decisions based off their “gut” or subjective emotional experience, “cancelling” anyone with presents opposing views, incoherently agreeing with others solely based off political leanings, etc. There is a pervasive level of entitlement we Americans continues to inject into our social milieu. We as Americans have the freedom to construct our own subjective perception of reality, which many believe needs to be respected as equal to our collective and objective perception of reality, regardless of the consequences. Of course by selling our subjective beliefs to others we inadvertently begin to normalize and integrate a little more nonsense into the world we live in, making it a little bit harder for an objective reality to be shared by all. At one time our elected leaders and government officials were those boy scouts who kept the raft tied to the shore of reality. Trump is trying to sever that rope as he knows better than anyone that perpetuating divisive delusions (many he created) and marketing a product only he can sell (himself) to solve or enhance such delusions is how he can continue to satisfy his sociopathic needs as dictator in chief.
Why is this the American dream? Well, the “melatonin” helping us fall asleep are the beliefs that social mobility is achievable, accumulation of wealth equals success, capitalism is “rugged” and is a sink or swim system (unless you’re a corporation, already wealthy, or have the right political connections), and to win at all costs. As we know in the game of capitalism, there can’t be winners if there are no losers. Trump is someone who knows that in capitalism, the bottom line is the only thing that matters. Trump has demonstrated his ability to be cut-throat, empathetically shallow, selfish in his pursuit for accumulation of wealth and notoriety, and unfaltering in his determination to put himself above all others. This is what capitalism breeds. It is an illness.
While Trump’s insatiable thirst for greed is an undeniable staple of our economic system, the other very American quality that Trump exemplifies is his desire for attention, fame, and celebrity. As a culture, we fetishize celebrities to a disturbing degree. Our obsession with actors, musicians, artists, and other entertainers impacts our ability to separate delusion from reality. Much like the mere-exposure effect, we become familiar with well-known celebrities and tend to view them favorably, even incorrectly giving them credit and opportunities to become involved in matters outside their scope of experience. We believe what our eyes see on television, even when we know it’s scripted. Trump pursued a career in television (The Apprentice) which specifically cast Trump as a successful, powerful, decisive, intelligent businessman, and Trump knew this would help him politically. Our culture is largely focused on image, regardless of whether or not that image is real or not (look at Instagram of Facebook). This preference towards simulacra further blurs what is real and fantasy making it easier for a salesman like Trump to sell the public what they prefer to see (the fantasy).
We are all guilty. This is the culture we have bought into and enabled throughout our lives. It was only a matter of time before someone came along who could manipulate our societal vulnerabilities to serve their own interest. In the pursuit of wealth, notoriety, fame, excess, and immortality, Trump has succeeded in achieving the American dream through our American ideals. He is still an idiot. One of the most vile and destructive forces to the country he inhabits, but also someone who won the game for himself by embodying the true spirit of American capitalism. It is for this reason my cognitive dissonance persists. Sociopaths like Trump will always have an intrinsic advantage over those with the smallest detectable levels empathetic residue existing in their hearts. Maybe that’s my resentment. While I know there are plenty of examples of people who’ve benefited from our capitalistic system and did not turn into monsters, Trump to me is inevitably where it will always lead if capitalism is left untethered. Hopefully 2016-2020 will serve as a case study and reminder for us as a nation as to what happens when we put profits ahead of people and maybe be a push for us to reevaluate our collective values as a nation.