No Growing Up

Mark Bowden, now in his mid-sixties, decided to become a journalist when, in college, he read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – an account of the odd experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters” as they traveled across the country in that oddly painted school bus and dropped a lot of acid. Bowden, however, didn’t turn into a hippie. He was just impressed with that “new journalism” thing – turning simple reporting into a full and complex narrative, structured like a novel, with all its crosscurrents and conflict, but written with attitude. Reporters immersed themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them. They stopped being invisible. They were part of the story too, emphasizing “truth” over “facts” and so on. Hunter S. Thompson made a career of that.

This was, for a time, very cool, so Bowden became a journalist – now a famous one – but one who is a bit more conventional these days. He’s written for everybody – The New Yorker, Men’s Journal, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and he’s now with Vanity Fair – but he’s most famous for his book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War – a tour de force about the mess we were in in Somalia in 1993, where things were far more complex than anyone imagined, or could imagine. Everyone felt they were under siege. Everyone also blamed the Americans, even, finally, the Americans. That happens, and in the book, every single player tells their story, and more importantly, the reader gets a sense of each of their quirky personalities – and the sense it may be that individual personality quirks drive events, not geopolitics.

Hunter S. Thompson would understand. He once wrote of Richard Nixon – “The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.”

Thompson simply imagined that, emphasizing “truth” over “facts” – but that’s the kind of guy Nixon was. Mean and humorless – that explains those six years that should have been eight years. “Mean and Humorless” should have been engraved on the bottom of the Presidential Seal for those years. Those words would have been right there on the podium. Richard Nixon had some serious quirks.

Now it’s time for Mark Bowden to do the same to Donald Trump. How could he resist? And he can insert himself into the story too, because he spent a long weekend with Trump in November 1996, on assignment for Playboy – write a profile of this guy. The guy loves Playboy:

He considered himself the magazine’s beau ideal, and was inordinately proud of having been featured on the magazine’s cover some years before. His then wife, Marla Maples, told him, sardonically, that he ought to buy the magazine: “You bought the Miss Universe Pageant; it’s right up your alley.” He must have figured it was a safe bet to agree to cooperate for my story. But well before I left him, we both knew he probably wouldn’t like the final product.

That’s because Bowden is one of those guys who reports what he sees as essential to the truth, the personality quirks that drive behavior, and he was not impressed:

Trump struck me as adolescent, hilariously ostentatious, arbitrary, unkind, profane, dishonest, loudly opinionated, and consistently wrong. He remains the most vain man I have ever met. And he was trying to make a good impression. Who could have predicted that those very traits, now on prominent daily display, would turn him into the leading GOP candidate for president of the United States?

His latest outrageous edict on banning all Muslims from entering the country comes as no surprise to me based on the man I met nearly twenty years ago. He has no coherent political philosophy, so comparisons with Fascist leaders miss the mark. He just reacts. Trump lives in a fantasy of perfection, with himself as its animating force.

And context matters here:

Before I met him back in 1996, I felt bad for him. He’d had a rough 10 years. He had just turned 50 and wasn’t happy about it. He looked soft, from his growing jowls to the way his belt bit deeply into the spreading roll of his belly. As a businessman he had crashed and burned, rescued only by creditors who had to bail him out lest they be dragged down with him. His enterprises were being run by court-appointed managers, who had put him back on his financial feet mostly by investing heavily in Atlantic City, which was then on the rise.

That, then, led to this:

He had insulated himself from failure with bluster. In public he was still The Donald – still rich, still working hard at being a symbol of excess.

That was an illusion:

I was prepared to like him as I boarded his black 727 at La Guardia for the flight to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home – prepared to discover that his over-the-top public persona was a clever pose. That underneath was an ironic wit, an ordinary but clever guy. But no – with Trump, what you see is what you get. His behavior was cringe-worthy. He showed off the gilded interior of his plane – calling me over to inspect a Renoir on its walls, beckoning me to lean in closely to see… what? The luminosity of the brush strokes? The masterly use of color? No. The signature. “Worth $10 million,” he told me.

It didn’t get better:

Time after time the stories he told me didn’t check out, from Michael Jackson’s romantic weekend at Mar-a-Lago with his then wife Lisa Marie Presley (they stayed at opposite ends of the estate) to the rug in one bedroom he said was designed by Walt Disney when he was 18 (it wasn’t) to the strength of his marriage to Maples (they would split months later).

And there was more:

It was hard to watch the way he treated those around him, issuing peremptory orders – “Polish this, Tony. Today!” He met with the lady who selected his drapery for the Florida estate – “The best! The best! She’s a genius!” – who had selected a sampling of fabrics for him to choose from, all different shades of gold. He left the choice to her, saying only, “I want it really rich. Rich, rich, elegant, incredible.” Then, “Don’t disappoint me.” It was a pattern. Trump did not make decisions. He surrounded himself with “geniuses” and delegated. So long as you did not “disappoint” him – and it was never clear how to avoid doing so – you were gold.

And this:

I watched as Trump strutted around the beautifully groomed clay tennis courts on his estate, managed by noted tennis pro Anthony Boulle. The courts had been prepped meticulously for a full day of scheduled matches. Trump took exception to the design of the spaces between courts. In particular, he didn’t like a small metal box – a pump and cooler for the water fountain alongside – which he thought looked ugly. He first questioned its placement, then crudely disparaged it, then kicked the box, which didn’t budge, and then stooped – red-faced and fuming – to tear it loose from its moorings, rupturing a water line and sending a geyser to soak the courts. Boulle looked horrified, a weekend of tennis abruptly drowned. Catching a glimpse of me watching, Trump grimaced.

“I guess that’ll have to be in your story,” he said.

“Pretty much,” I told him.

This apparently worried him, because on the flight home a day later he had a proposition.

“I’m looking for somebody to write my next book,” he told me.

I told him that I would not be interested.

“Why not?” he asked. “All my books become best-sellers.”

The import was clear. There was money in it for me. Trump remains the only person I have ever written about who tried to bribe me.

That’s kind of pathetic, but so what? Well, Bowden thinks it matters:

As I’ve watched his improbable political rise, it is clear that he hasn’t changed. The very things that made him so unappealing apparently now translate into wide popular support. Apart from the comical ego, the errors, and the self-serving bluster, what you get from Trump are commonplace ideas pronounced as received wisdom. Begin registering all Muslims in America? Round up the families of suspected terrorists? Ban all Muslims from entering the country? Carpet-bomb ISIS-held territories in Iraq (killing the 98-plus percent of civilians who are, in effect, being held hostage there by the terror group and turning a war against a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims into a global religious crusade)? Using nuclear weapons? The ideas that pop into his head are the same ones that occur to any teenager angry about terror attacks. They appeal to anyone who can’t be bothered to think them through – can’t be bothered to ask not just the moral questions but the all-important practical one: Will doing this makes things better or worse? When you believe in your own genius, you don’t question your own flashes of inspiration.

That seems to be what we’re dealing with here, and Nancy LeTourneau adds this:

As a family therapist, I occasionally worked with adolescents who struggled because they were at a point where they were ready to mature past their parent’s level of development. For whatever reason, some people simply fail to grow up. That is essentially how Mark Bowden describes Donald Trump… “When you believe in your own genius, you don’t question your own flashes of inspiration.”

Yep, that pretty well describes a lot of thirteen-year-olds I’ve met over the years. … And that last paragraph probably sums up his supporters pretty well too.

It also explains why every time I’ve read/heard someone take a thoughtful approach to discussing Trump’s outburst-of-the-moment by diving into why they are not feasible, practical, constitutional, etc., my first reaction is to roll my eyes and move on. To do otherwise assumes that he has actually given them serious thought. He obviously hasn’t.

Personally, it’s hard for me to even imagine having a parent like that. But for anyone to suggest that he should be the leader of the free world is completely preposterous.

She thinks we’re dealing with an angry adolescent, adored by millions of angry adolescents, and then there was Celebrity Apprentice. Many months ago, Kevin Drum saw how that show has shaped things politically:

So here’s how the show works. A bunch of C-list celebrities compete in teams each week at tasks given to them by Trump. At the end of the show, Trump grills the losing team in the “boardroom,” eventually picking a single scapegoat for their failure and firing them. As the show ends, the humiliated team member shuffles disconsolately down the elevator to a waiting car, where they are driven away, never to be seen again. This is the price of failure in Trumpworld.

Now, picture in your mind how Trump looks. He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him “Mr. Trump” and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous people – well, sort of famous, anyway, more famous than most cabinet members certainly – accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity.

That’s surely why this guy is doing so well:

Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people’s view of the presidency? The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn’t waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it’s all for a good cause. That’s a president.

But it isn’t:

Obviously this is all a fake. The show is deliberately set up to make Trump look authoritative and decisive. But a lot of people just don’t see it that way. It’s a reality show! It’s showing us the real Donald Trump. And boy does he look presidential. Not in the real sense, of course, where you have to deal with Congress and the courts and recalcitrant foreign leaders and all that. But in the Hollywood sense? You bet.

So keep this in mind… For the past seven years (eleven years if you count the original Apprentice show), about 10 million people have been watching Donald Trump act presidential week after week. He’s not a buffoon. He’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability, and he openly celebrates accomplishment and money but then makes sure all the money goes to charity at the end. What’s not to like?

This is what’s not to like:

If Donald Trump were to become president, he’d be starting off on the wrong foot with many of Americas’ allies.

At least that’s the indication after a number of world political and business leaders – including some of the nation’s most important allies – have spoken out against Trump since he proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States. On Friday, a member of the Saudi royal family even went so far as to call Trump a “disgrace.”

Perhaps most prominently, British Prime Minister David Cameron put out a rare statement criticizing the GOP presidential front-runner’s statements, calling them “divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong.”

Trump also ran afoul of the mayor of London, who took issue with the real estate mogul’s comments that parts of London are such strongholds of radical Islam that police won’t go into them. London Mayor Boris Johnson dismissed Trump’s comments as “complete and utter nonsense.”

And a petition to ban Trump from traveling to the U.K. had nearly 600,000 signatures Friday afternoon.

And this is telling:

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also compared Trump to the country’s far-right nationalist party, but even the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, rejected the comparison.

“Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?” she said when asked about Trump comparisons in a TV interview, according to The New York Times. “I defend all the French people in France, regardless of their origin, regardless of their religion.”

When you’re too far right for her, and her father the Holocaust denier, you’ve fallen off the end of the earth, and then everything falls apart:

The Dubai-based home decor chain Lifestyle is removing all Trump-branded products from its 195 stores across the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and Tanzania. Trump’s name and image were also stripped from his golf project in Dubai amid the tumult. Trump also received a warning that he would “not be welcome” in Muslim countries from Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who told CNN that he is friends with Trump.

“I can say that the reaction as a Muslim, I have taken offense to this, and especially when it is coming out from a friend of mine,” he said. “I didn’t expect him to be so naïve to make such statements.”

The proposal also gave fodder to countries that are not allied with the U.S., with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani calling out Trump, without using his name, during a parliament meeting.

There’s something wrong here, but Henry Alford, also writing in Vanity Fair, may be going too far:

For mental-health professionals, Donald Trump is at once easily diagnosed but slightly confounding. “Remarkably narcissistic,” said developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Textbook narcissistic personality disorder,” echoed clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics,” said clinical psychologist George Simon, who conducts lectures and seminars on manipulative behavior. “Otherwise, I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”

And they’re worried:

That mental-health professionals are even willing to talk about Trump in the first place may attest to their deep concern about a Trump presidency. As Dr. Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry and the director of the masters of bioethics program at Columbia University, pointed out, the American Psychiatric Association declares it unethical for psychiatrists to comment on an individual’s mental state without examining him personally and having the patient’s consent to make such comments. This so-called Goldwater rule arose after the publication of a 1964 Fact magazine article in which psychiatrists were polled about Senator Barry Goldwater’s fitness to be president. Senator Goldwater brought a $2 million suit against the magazine and its publisher; the Supreme Court awarded him $1 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.

But you don’t need to have met Donald Trump to feel like you know him; even the smallest exposure can make you feel like you’ve just crossed a large body of water in a small boat with him.

The details:

“He’s very easy to diagnose,” said psychotherapist Charlotte Prozan. “In the first debate, he talked over people and was domineering. He’ll do anything to demean others, like tell Carly Fiorina he doesn’t like her looks. ‘You’re fired!’ would certainly come under lack of empathy. And he wants to deport immigrants, but [two of] his wives have been immigrants.” Michaelis took a slightly different twist on Trump’s desire to deport immigrants: “This man is known for his golf courses, but, with due respect, who he thinks works on these golf courses?”

Mr. Trump’s bullying nature – taunting Senator John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, or saying Jeb Bush has “low energy” – is in keeping with the narcissistic profile. “In the field we use clusters of personality disorders,” Michaelis said. “Narcissism is in cluster B, which means it has similarities with histrionic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. There are similarities between them. Regardless of how you feel about John McCain, the man served – and suffered. Narcissism is an extreme defense against one’s own feelings of worthlessness. To degrade people is really part of a cluster-B personality disorder: it’s antisocial and shows a lack of remorse for other people. The way to make it okay to attack someone verbally, psychologically, or physically is to lower them. That’s what he’s doing.”

This goes on and on, and the names of all these experts get confusing, but it comes down to this:

Asked what they, if Mr. Trump were their patient, would “work on” with him, several of the therapists laughed. “I’d be shocked if he walked in my door,” said Behary. “Most narcissists don’t seek treatment unless there’s someone threatening to take something away from them. There’d have to be some kind of meaningful consequence for him to come in.” Simon concurred but added, “There is help available, but it doesn’t look like the help people are used to. It’s not insight-oriented psychotherapy, because narcissists already have insight. They’re aware; the problem is, they don’t care. They know how you’d like them to act; the problem is, they’ve got a different set of rules.”

That could describe most thirteen-year-old boys too, before they discover each of us doesn’t get our own set of rules. I don’t have to follow your damned rules? I don’t have to follow anyone’s rules? Thirteen-year-old boys grow out of that. They give it up. They learn better, sometimes painfully. Thirteen-year-old boys grow up.

At least some do. But wouldn’t it be cool if you never had to grow up? Many fantasize about that. That’s the reason Donald Trump is doing so well.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to No Growing Up

  1. Rick says:

    Two comparisons worth a closer examination, being between Donald Trump and (a) Richard Nixon, and also (b) Fascists:

    First, Hunter S. Thompson, who said of Nixon that he was “a man with no soul, no inner convictions”, has his own colorful memory of Richard Nixon:

    “The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.”

    That surely is reminiscent of Donald Trump recently doing his impersonation of a disabled newspaper reporter, which should help remind us of the fact that conservatives, except for a few warped examples of mockery, such as these, don’t seem to have much of a sense of humor.

    But wasn’t Nixon, as many have noted, actually just a liberal in conservative clothing, the president who brought us the Environmental Protection Agency, the famous opening up of China, and Wage and Price Controls? Liberal, Schmiberal, the man had no ideology and did pretty much only what he thought was politically expedient at the time, which is what all those programs were. For example, there were also those stories of Nixon seeking reassurance from Henry Kissinger just before the China trip that historians would indeed treat him kindly for doing it.

    And when it comes to Trump, his politics also have been all over the map, and those accusations that he was once a liberal, while having some truth to them (remember him famously telling Wolf Blitzer in 2004, back when he wasn’t running for anything, that the economy always seems healthier under the Democrats), seem to give him more credit than he deserves for thinking things through. Actually, he, somewhat like Nixon but with less thinking involved, just says what he thinks and feels, at the moment, will impress his followers, at that moment.

    Which brings us to what Mark Bowden says about what he learned about Trump from interviewing him, in his recent (and wonderful) Vanity Fair article:

    He has no coherent political philosophy, so comparisons with Fascist leaders miss the mark. He just reacts.

    Yes, he certainly does, but the Fascism comparisons “miss the mark”? Not so fast, Mr. Bowden! You may be giving into that modern-day prohibition about referencing WWII Axis-types when discussing latter day misbehavers.

    First of all, Fascism is a “coherent political philosophy”? Here’s what George Orwell said about that, in his “What is Fascism?” back in 1944, when Fascism itself was in full bloom:

    Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

    In a word, Bingo!

    The popularity of Fascism that arose after WWI was, for the most part, a reaction against the failures of the past. In the words of Wikipedia, “Fascists view World War I as having made liberal democracy obsolete, and regard total mobilization of society under a totalitarian single-party state as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and to respond effectively to economic difficulties” — not so much a coherent philosophy as merely a thoughtless gut response of lazy thinkers to the times they live in.

    That sounds pretty Trumpian, to me.

    One more irony regarding Trump mocking that disabled reporter is that, if everyone thought it was okay to make fun of people with infirmities, everyone would be making fun of Trump for his seemingly-overt “Cluster B” personality disorder.

    Oh, wait! We do!

    Okay, well, nobody’s perfect.

    Rick

  2. BabaO says:

    Some of this I very much agree with. However, it is much more simply said if one sees that Nixon was just a very strange person – probably due to his Quaker heritage, his overwhelming desire for power following a poor childhood, and the respect of his “social betters”, ie. the wealthy and “better educated and more cultured” people whom Nixon very well understood from his WWII assignment as a low-ranking Navy officer working in a department assigned to ferret out war-time profiteers, to be a bit (if not more) sleezy, but the cream of the opportunistic crop. (Hi, Bebe Rebozo, vucanizing war profiteer of the Florida wartime tire racket and to-the-death friend of Tricky. Hi, Henry K, perhaps the most seemingly civilized of major war criminals the western world ever produced – all a product of our insane up-sucking mass media.)

    Now . . . we have Trump – a simplistic public fool in any other age not so overwhelmed with wealth and “celebrity” worship. What a public jerk-off! He is a smart moron – of the most troublesome sort. And what should we have expected? Our unfortunate country is apparently afflicted by the good nutrition, and with the uniquely strange psychotic kudzu it has cultivated ever since it’s troubled Jeckel & Hyde beginnings, and paranoid latter days.

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