The Cult of Personality

It finally happened. While I sat in my car during one of my soul crushing Southern California commutes, jammed into the I-15 freeway, paying my morning penance for living in the suburbs, it happened.  On the radio, pundits were worked into a lather, clambering about the latest runaway victory of candidate Trump. Their tone was acceptance.  Gone was the harsh warnings of the danger of nominee Trump or President Trump, dare we say. Gone was the disbelief or predictions of failure. Acceptance had seeped into their consciousness. And for the first time, I felt myself starting to normalize a Trump general election candidate-then a President Trump.  I could feel myself preparing for what that might be like. Because that’s what we do.

We humans are capable of normalizing amazing things. We can put up with a lot, if we choose to. Years ago, deployed as a Naval Officer to Africa, my team built a camp in a remote location. Within days, a massive hive of killer bees infested the showers and stung us to death whenever we wanted to get clean. I remember one time in particular after I’d showered and endured a half dozen bee stings to the face,  mumbling to a buddy heading the other direction, “At least I’m clean”.  I was willing to deal with quite a bit of downside-repeated bee stings to the face, because I was so dirty. I felt it was a fair trade off. Get clean, or don’t get stung by bees. I had no third option. Now I was normalizing President Trump, because I felt like I had not other choice.

So there I was, sitting in my car, stuck in traffic, suffering through the bee stings to the face that was candidate Trump’s victory speech in Nevada. I started thinking, “maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to have that ass hole stick it to the Chinese…maybe he might finally strike a deal between Israel and Palestine…maybe he could bully congress into doing something for once” and then I caught myself. I was surrendering. And I’m not the only one. We have entered into dangerous territory.

Here’s some background. I grew up in Atlantic City. Donald Trump has been a part of my life for my entire life. My family has worked in his casinos. I used to watch his helicopter land on the pier on the beach that I worked on as an ocean rescue lifeguard in high school. He ran those businesses into the ground and got out, in the nick of time, Trump style. Atlantic City is for losers is likely what he would say.  I don’t know him. I’ve never been in the same room as him. But I know plenty who have.  And they all say mostly the same thing about their personal encounters with him. He seems like a nice guy. He makes you feel important.  And he’s very gracious with his attention.  That’s about all I really know about him aside from the cartoon character he’s been playing in the media the last few decades. As a guy, he sounds lovely. Of course, that’s also what people said about Saddam Hussein.  About Joseph Stalin…about Hitler.  Which brings us to the problem.

Trump isn’t Hitler. He’s not Stalin. He’s probably not even Putin. But people haven’t really figured out how to articulate why he shouldn’t be president. They scream louder and louder that he can’t or won’t win and like a cosmic sci-fi movie villain, he absorbs the negative energy and grows stronger with each word of malice. I’m done predicting that he won’t win. I’m done predicting anything because I’m sick of being wrong. I won’t tell you why he can’t be president.  Because he certainly can be president. And if we’re not careful, he will. Instead, I’ll try another approach. I’ll tell you why he shouldn’t be president. But I’m going to do it in a way besides pointing to the fact that he’s Donald Trump. That’s clearly not working.

Here’s how we’ve tried so far.

He’s a chauvinist bigot. 

He might be. He might not be. I don’t believe anything he says is sincere so it could all be an act-hold that thought. He’s a 70 year old white guy from New York who was born with a lot of money so he’s probably got a little of the old white guy thing going on that we white folks know many of our dad’s generation struggle with-prejudice and sexism. Sorry folks, that may be a little uncomfortable truth for some of us. The people who like Trump-angry white people-don’t care.

He’s a dishonest demagogue that will say anything to make you support him. 

Congratulations, welcome to politics.

He’s a bully. 

See last item.

He’s a manipulator.

See last two items.

He is a lousy businessman who has filed for bankruptcy four times.

That’s actually a lot of bankruptcies. But it’s a pretty normal practice and it was chapter 11, the type where you do it so the business lives to see another day. It’s not a smoking gun.

He’s a rich kid who got all his money from his father.

Ever hear of the Roosevelts?  JFK?

He’s a draft dodger.

We’ve had one president in the last 50 years serve in combat. Thank you George H.W. Bush for your service.

You get the point.  You can play this game all day long. It doesn’t work. Trump’s most brilliant talent is staying relevant in our ever shifting culture. He started with real estate and then moved into our consciousness as someone synonymous with simply being rich in the 80’s and 90’s. Then he morphed into a reality TV star and invaded social media and now he’s impregnated our political machine with the Trump brand.

When someone becomes that ubiquitous, they become a walking talking, tweeting, insulting, bullying, Rorschac test. People start to see in him what they want. For those feeling left behind by a changing economy, he’s a business man who will solve it. For those feeling marginalized by our changing culture, he’s going to kick out all the foreigners. For those scared of terrorists, he’s going to bomb the hell out of ISIS. For those of us who want to shout down inequality and bigotry, he’s someone to hate.  He is different things to different people. Like scripture, if you stare at candidate Trump for long enough, he will tell you whatever you want. And there’s one thing you can’t argue about with someone. It’s their religion.

But that doesn’t mean we should get baptized by him. Here’s why.

There are three critically important dimensions to useful political thought.  Effective political thinkers need be equally principled, empathetic and pragmatic. Looking back at candidate Trump’s public and private life experiences, he fails this test in an extremely dangerous and troubling way. More so than any person seeking the office of President of the United States in a long time, maybe ever. After 40 years in the public eye, it’s almost impossible to point to areas where he has been a part of something bigger than himself, built on a guiding principle that made other people’s lives-people he didn’t know or wouldn’t be in a position to receive something in return from-better.

He appears to be entirely devoid of anything that mimics empathy. Heads of government need to be able to feel the pain of the people they govern as if it were their own. That doesn’t mean that they have to be selfless or even charitable. It means that they have to have the capacity to care about the outcomes of other people. Candidate Trump fails.

He does have one thing in abundance-pragmatism. Unfortunately, pragmatism without empathy towards those you govern and not grounded in principle other than self promotion is powerfully dangerous. It’s that thing that the truly dark rulers of history seem to have in common- the ability to get things done without the troublesome headwinds of principle and care for others. It’s the recipe for how the governing of man has gone horribly wrong for thousands of years.

This is usually where supporters of one candidate start to throw out the flaws of the other candidates in response. But here is where that doesn’t really work for candidate Trump. Every other candidate, on some level, does better at the standards explained above. Here’s how you can tell. Take a look at how they’ve spent their life and then look at candidate Trump. Candidate Trump was named the president of his father’s $200M real estate firm in 1974, when he was 28, six years after he graduated from Wharton.  What he’s done since, is on display for the public to see. At no point has he even appeared to serve someone else. And that’s hard to find, even for someone not running for president.

If you run the other candidates and recent presidents through that test, the difference is staggering. Hillary Clinton was one of 27 women in her graduating class from Yale Law School. She had a wealth of opportunity and chose the Children’s Defense Fund as her first professional role. Ted Cruz is the son of a Cuban immigrant who graduated from Harvard, was the editor of the Harvard Law Review and then served as a clerk for several federal judges including Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist. He’s horribly unlikable but he appears to actually believe in something other then himself. Bernie Sanders chooses to call himself a democratic socialist, something that has limited him his entire career until recently, because he believes in it. John Kasich has answered to the people of his state as the Governor of Ohio. Some are supporters.  Some are not. But at a minimum, he appears to have governed with benevolent intent. President Obama, same a Cruz, son of an immigrant, Harvard graduate, became a community organizer. Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and then governor of California. JFK was a decorated war hero as the commander of PT-109. You can go down the list and point to times, whether you agree with them or not, that other candidates have served someone other than themselves.  

But you can’t for Trump.

And this is what that means. If candidate Trump were to be President Trump, the first group of people that he will be responsible for serving, above his own interests, will be the entirety of the American people and by virtue of our standing as a global power, mankind.  And that is as strong a case as anyone can make against anyone doing anything. There’s a lot at stake here. It’s not the time to get comfortable with candidate Trump. And if he is nominated by the Republican Party to run for office in the 2016 Presidential Election, it’s not because he’s right. It’s the death spasm of a scared, angry ideology that has poisoned the conservative mind of our country. And we should think that it’s as ridiculous now as we ever have. Because it is. It’s just a lot more dangerous.







2 thoughts on “The Cult of Personality

  1. Joseph Stalin murdered millions of people in service to political consolidation and the elimination of public property.


  2. Well written. I am not sure which direction i am headed. I have had the opportunity to speak with Mr Trump a number of times in my youth. He is a strong business leader. His lack of empathy may not be true, we only get to see the man in public. He grew up wealthy as you said so did many of the presidents. What i am sure is that I in anyway can support Mrs. Clinton. I would more happily vote in Stalin than her. She is not a nice person and has been found to be a liar and a cheat to those she has served. So we will have to wait and endure another election cycle of not voting for a person but voting against a person.


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