‘Understanding’ Trump: What the Press Can Do

Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment
Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment (Kevin Fogarty / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to this item yesterday, “There’s No Understanding Donald Trump,” other readers weigh in.

As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.

1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:

I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.

You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported.  Absolutely a reality show.

All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.

The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member.  These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about.  But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.

Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.

2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:

Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."

I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.

Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.

For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?

I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.

And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.

3) Actually, there is a strategy. From another reader:

He does want to get reelected.  His strategy with Kim Jong Un is to serve that purpose and that one alone.

He's gonna say "Vote for me or Kim is gonna nuke us if the Democrats win the White House"  and he alone has cultivated a relationship with the deranged dictator and he and he alone can prevent war.  That's why he walked into N. Korea without asking for anything from Kim.  He plans on scaring the voters by nuclear holocaust if he isn't reelected.

I'm as obsessed with this surreal nightmare of a presidency as anyone else and am surprised to not have seen this take anywhere.

4) Looking deeper. This last note of the day begins with a point that members of the press have discussed at great length, ever since Donald Trump got in the race. That is whether there is any point in “medicalizing” a discussion of his traits. The reader’s message:

Your reader in “There is No Understanding Donald Trump” is right. It’s a show for shows sake. But there’s more. And it runs deeper.

When our president was elected, I contacted the smartest person I know (novelist) to explain the man. Easy, he said: go to the DSM (the volume that describes mental illnesses) and look up narcissist.

I did. And everything since has made absolute sense - a sense that runs deeper than the reality show metaphor, which could be construed as simply self-aggrandizing. We're in a lot worse shape than that.

The thing that puzzles and infuriates me is how the press continues to cover things in their commonsensical way (as your reader suggests). It drives me crazy to see dozens and dozens of reporters covering this administration. Why? What on earth for? As your reader has suggested, that just plays to The Show.

Given that the record is, in fact, important, I've suggested to friends in the media that one pool camera should follow this man around, and everyone just share the feed. Those who are thus liberated from covering The Show can now investigate his taxes, finances, relationships with Russia, etc. much better use of resources.

But please, stop asking intelligent questions. They have no relevance to someone who is so deeply mentally ill.

On the opening theme of this note, about mental status, let me give the two-point summary of the very long discussion nearly every member of the press has gone through in the Trump era.

Point one: It’s perilous, and in any case pointless, to attempt “diagnosis at a distance,” and attempt to give medical names and conditions to traits the public can observe. It’s perilous for obvious reasons, and it’s pointless because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. Supporter or critic, everyone knows what Donald Trump is like.

And point two: As a description of widely observed behaviors, it’s fair to note how closely what Trump does matches the standard checklists of narcissist traits. (One such list, from the Mayo Clinic, is here. Its first marker is that narcissists “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance; Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration.”) But, again, observing this pattern gets us only so far, since nothing Trump does should surprise anyone any more.

The action-point, in the end of this reader’s note, is worth serious consideration by the press—and is related to note Number One. That is, the press should spend less time on the daily spectacle of Trump himself, and more on the actions and effects of the administration as a whole.

5) Update: In Trump’s Defense.  Yesterday’s item has apparently circulated among Trump-supporting groups, as I have received a large number of messages like the one I am quoting below.

I explicitly don’t intend to host an online equivalent of a cable-TV panel show, with one person saying “Trump is terrible!” and then someone else snapping back, “No, he’s great! You’re the one who’s terrible.”

But as a one-time-for-now sample of the opposing line of reasoning, I quote parts of the message below. The sender identifies herself as a PhD. I assume she is sending this from a phone, and I’m quoting it as-is (rather than going through to spell out what she obviously meant as abbreviations) not to undermine its credibility but just for labor-saving on my end, and because the sender’s intentions are clear.

Here are selections from what she sent in, representing views I am hearing from many others:

It is so true tht persons do not ‘get’ T

Even psychologists, the greatly left leaning bastion these days, has its collective hair standg straight up as it gasps w exasperatn

Then there is the pathetic psychiatrist who pursues the idea tht T’s  mentl hlth is an issue

Poor souls to hav nevr known a person to b so bold, pragmatic, & steadfast in wht he wants to do

T is a very modern character, a person for the times: totally atuned to digital media, totally comfortable & brazen, CANDID, in the limelight, speakg extemporaneously to any of the persons who besiege him to talk  – AND – greatly abl to tolerate the humongous slop & ill treatmt he receivs as is proven in his non-stop pursuit of gettg thgs done in his job – a job tht he sees as the ultimate test for a ‘stabl genius’

He uses his mktg & TV experience, speakg hx, etc to totally great effect & he has truly remarkabl energy

Wait: T is breakg all the rules of how thing shud b done!  Stop it, stop it

T is clear, concise, & keeps his eye on the ball.

How lame r ‘reportrs’ when they cry tht T has not made Kim giv up nukes, eg, –

Oh yeah, - magic – he meets Kim, K givs up nukes & the NK prob is ‘solvd’

But T is playg the long(er) game & his events w Kim happn to b huge steps in somethg requirg ever so many many steps, tests, time & ea step helps

As T himself has statd, he has common sense.

T is flexibl to the extent tht he will not hold a doctrinaire point of view & will change course as events, info, perceptn, dictate

T knows his mind & wht he wants to achiev & he keeps his eye on the ball, many balls, which we wud all c if the press wud report all the thgs he is doing every day

He wants ppl to lov, respect & admire him precisely thru showg them wht he can do for them & the country

The press is so-o-o mean in its grievous underreportg, misreportg, & UNreportg of the many things he is doing everyday & it is reponsibl for fomentg & magnifyg citizen animosity…

Hey, tht’s wht T is: remarkabl

Contrary to the writr whose words u relay, T IS a thinkg person - & a deep person (he prefers to no ‘go there’ in all likelihd as he does not wear his private sentimt (abt thgs like livg, dyig, meang, etc) on his sleeve