In the wake of the 2016 election, a number of people are getting used to the idea that we’re going to have to deal with Donald Trump for a good while longer. That’s going to involve developing some kind of system for understanding the stuff that comes out of his mouth and his Twitter feed. The strange combination of lies, bluster, wishful thinking, and catchphrases that is the communication between the inside of Donald Trump’s head and the rest of the world. At present, there are two major schools of thought on how to understand what he’s saying, both of which have notable flaws.
First up, there is the model we’ll call Oh Shit, which tends toward taking Trump at his word. When he says he’ll do horrible things, he means he’ll do horrible things. Religious registries, mass roundups, ending press freedom, all that old-fashioned fascist shit he keeps talking about. This is based on a couple of fairly good points. First, the lessons of history: heads of state who talk about that stuff tend to actually do it. Second, simple prudence: ignoring a direct threat because you think he can’t possibly be serious is how people get killed.
The weakness of the Oh Shit model, unfortunately, is that it’s literally impossible to suggest that Trump believes the things he says. Or at least, believes them in any kind of recognizable human way, i.e. a set of ideas held to be factual in reference to a consistent internal reality. He contradicts himself constantly, often not able to maintain a consistent position all the way through a sentence. If we’re to believe him when he says that he will definitely register Muslims, what are we to do when he then says he won’t? Believe him again? Disbelieve him this time because the first is more dangerous? Is that really a good way to find out the truth: simply believe whatever’s most threatening? That’s usually called paranoia, and does not historically map to reality well.
The other model is one we’ll call Bullshit, which takes a more cynical view of Mr. Trump’s mode of communication. It assumes that Trump does not maintain or understand a consistent internal reality at all. Whatever he says exists, for him, only in that moment, without reference to a past or a future or any objective facts whatsoever. He says whatever he thinks his listener wants to hear, or whatever feels good to him to say at that instant. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just make other countries give us money? Oh, that sounds nice. I’ll say I can make that happen. Or maybe that they promised me it would. It feels good to say, and it might make people give me attention and money. I like those things. We can no more derive useful meaning from his statements than we can learn about the psychology of a housefly by charting the pattern of its buzzing around a room.
The strength of this model is that it seems to map to the facts a lot better than the Oh Shit model does. Trump really does just seem to say things as they occur to him, without much interest in whether or not they’re true. It’s a matter of public record that he tells lies as though reporting on his own state of mind rather than the real world. That’s why supporters say he “tells it like it is” when that’s demonstrably false; he says things that feel emotionally true to him and to his fans. Whether they’re objectively true is not a question he ever asks. It’s also why he feels no need to be consistent in his lying; a man who will say that his net worth changes with his feelings is not a man with a grasp of external reality.
The problem with the Bullshit model is that it may be true, but it isn’t useful. It suggests that we cannot learn any actual information from the noises Trump makes. If nothing can be known, anything might happen for any reason and there’s no way to predict it. That is not a model that is useful for taking action. Worse, strict adherence to the Bullshit model requires ignoring direct threats from a person in a position of power, which, as mentioned above, is how people get killed.
I propose a third model. Let us assume that yes, Trump just says whatever it occurs to him to say, whatever he thinks people want to hear or makes him feel good. But that doesn’t make it meaningless. It tells us nothing about the real world outside Trump’s brain, but a great deal about the world he imagines he’s in. To return to the Housefly metaphor, charting the fly’s random buzzing won’t help you predict its next move, but it will tell you a lot about the size and shape of the room it’s in.
Trump’s words can help us understand which story he’s heard most recently, what emotions he’s experiencing, and what he currently thinks he can get away with. None of these may have anything to do with reality, but they can still be educational. A true narcissist doesn’t believe that anything outside himself is real, which means that anything he says is in reference to the only thing he’s capable of thinking about: himself. He really is trying to communicate, in his way. We can at least listen to him describe the inside of his head.
Photo: Getty Images