Does Trump Think? Part 3, 'Doers' and 'Done-Tos'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Following the previous items in this series, a clinical psychologist from a big Southern city writes:

GOP convention photo, 2016 (Wikipedia)

In your coverage of Trump’s candidacy, the discussion of how his mind works is fascinating. I’ve been interested in this and thinking about it for a while. I agree with the reader who wrote, “I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.”

I suggest that the relationships that his speech is organized around are consistently what I would call “Doer and Done-To” relationships. [JF note: Also famous in Lenin’s distinction, “who / whom.”]

Trump exploits the choreography of Perpetrator-Victim theatre to position himself as the one his listeners should align with and trust to lead them to escape the Done-To position and enjoy the privileged Doer position. Of course, there are many in America who also experience life largely through this lens and find in Trump someone they can relate to on a deeply felt emotional level.

And, there are also many in America who can reasonably assert they have been Done-To in one way or another. Not all of them aspire to simply switch positions with the Doers (“Winners” in Trump’s immature view of what constitutes a functional society) and have their turn “at the top.” But many do.

One morning a while back I found myself lying in bed (having awoken long before the alarm was going to go off) thinking about this and came up with a kind of psychological routine that I imagine Trump follows over and over again. I imagined him guided by a personal mantra: “Inflate, Ingratiate, Intimidate.”

I don’t imagine he reflects on any of this much. I think he has “way of life” that he believes in and that he believes is or ought to be the American Way of Life, but I don’t think he’s ever reflected much on any other way of being in the world or in relation to others than that which is captured in (a) Doer and Done-To and (b) Inflate, Ingratiate, Intimidate as needed.

For more in the topic of how Trump’s mind works, I refer you to this section from the wonderful book The Growth of the Mind And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence, by Stanley Greenspan, M.D. (with Beryl Lieff Benderly, 1997, Perseus Books). This is found on pages 165-167:

I noted earlier the phenomenon of projection, in which one person ascribes his own feelings to  another. An even more powerful though less recognized tendency, I believe, is the projection not simply of emotions or attitudes but of one’s own mental structure and level of awareness onto other people.

A person able to reflect in at least some emotional areas may assume that everyone else can do the same. This phenomenon is especially apparent in literary characters whose capacities for self-reflection are more similar to the author’s than to that of a typical person in the situation in question. Hamlet’s soliloquy about the value of existence surely reflects Shakespeare’s own matchless ability to translate feelings into words. In the voice of Huck Finn we hear Mark Twain’s moral reasoning about the fate of Jim. Outside of literature we might expect a boy like Huck to act at the decisive moment for reasons he does not understand and a despondent man to sink wordlessly into a morass of despair.

Many adults probably cannot reflect on their feelings to a significant degree, and many who can do so only in certain areas…. The ideal of the perfectly reflective human is about as illusory as the ideal of the perfectly fit or healthy one -- the person whose weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood count, eyesight, and the rest -- match the medical textbook model of the human body. Each of us has some physical flaws and weaknesses. Ideals of good health, or perfect weight and lipid levels, of good vision and a vigorous heart remain, however, goals that we can all keep in mind as we live our daily lives.

Where exactly do we stand on the ladder of the developmental stage? Clinical experience suggests that most of us operate in a less than optimal way. I would estimate that only a minority of adults, probably no more than 20 to 30 percent, function at the higher levels… The rest range from those who can label feelings but can’t easily see connections among them through those who react to life with polarized affects to those who live mostly in a world of behavioral discharge in which feelings are coterminous with actions or physical states. Finally, there are those who live at a level in which thinking, behavior, or both are quite disorganized….

The measure of a person’s mental functioning is how she responds to a wide range of challenges and how stable her responses remain in stress or crisis. Is she able to maintain reflectiveness when she is hurt, scared, insulted, disappointed, rejected, worried, exhausted, or rushed [or adored, worshipped, or idealized]? Or does she slip back into rigid forms of responding, polarized thinking, or concrete action modes?..

In my clinical practice I often find it useful to reflect in a particular way on what is happening in the conversations I have with my patients. I invite them to reflect on this with me and to also learn to reflect in this particular way on conversations they have with others. The question guiding this way of reflecting is, “Am I doing something To, With, or For you?”…

Collaboration involves doing something With others. Seduction involves doing something To others while fooling them into believing it’s something we’re doing With them and/or For them. Good leadership involves all three, wisely and judiciously deployed, in the service of the leader’s community, organization, or team.

Trump is profoundly impaired in his capacity to Do With others. He cannot collaborate in any meaningful way with others. He can, very effectively, seduce others into thinking he is collaborating and doing something With them but I’m pretty sure he’s actually doing something To them….

I see his psychology as highly organized around the ambition to be in the Doing To Others position in all relationships. I see him as being able to effectively mimic Doing For and Doing With behavior—so effectively that he actually feels he is sincere even when he is plainly not—and use this mimicry in his pursuit of the Doing To position.

What’s most frightening to me in all of this has to do with what Trump’s effectiveness in winning the GOP nomination suggests has happened to the GOP and to our society at large.


For the record, here is a response from a reader offended by the whole idea of wondering whether Trump really thinks:

Do your correspondents not have any self-consciousness? Do they not hear themselves? “I went to college so I’m smart. Trump voters didn’t go to college so they’re stupid. Hillary went to Yale Law School so she’s really smart and should be president. Trump went to Penn but only got in because of his father so he’s dumb.” [JF note: Disagree. The objection to Trump is based on the vacuity of what he actually says.]

But these people really believe this shit, apparently. I won’t bother trying to tell you how smart I am. But the guy who fixes your car is as smart as these people, with the bonus that he deals with physical reality, and doesn’t get paid if your car doesn’t work.

The idea that “blue state” people deal in sophisticated analytical thinking “like a surgeon” is pretty ridiculous. (Aside: This person is not smart enough to understand what surgeons do. It’s mostly just like fixing a car, but since you can die it’s done by high IQ college graduates rather than somewhat above average IQ high school graduates.) They mostly deal with soft abstracts where things are only subjectively right. Hillary probably scores pretty high on an IQ test, but even the top law schools are only teaching what the socially approved answers are, which change regularly.

Trump is not talking to you. There is no point for him to try to communicate with you because you wouldn’t support him under any circumstances so he doesn’t bother. If Jeb was now the nominee, the candidate who worked the hardest to make himself acceptable to the left, you would still be tearing him apart. [JF note: No. If Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich were the nominee, I would hope their side didn’t win, because I disagree with the current GOP stand on domestic policy, foreign policy, environmental and climate policy, budget policy, military policy, judicial appointments, and so on. But I would never suggest that these people were grossly unqualified for office, which is the case with Trump. I was glad that Barack Obama won re-election over Mitt Romney, because I preferred Obama’s policies. But no sane person could suggest that Romney was unqualified by background or unfit by temperament to be president, which again is true of Trump. Sarah Palin is much more knowledgeable (really) and would be a better president than Trump.]

So all the nice, respectable people think Trump is dumb and evil. So what? We don't care. What about this don’t you understand? I would really try to explain it to you if you really wanted to know.  

I won’t respond in kind, to this reader who writes in under a pseudonym, because I would regret doing so. I’ll say: consider the evidence and judge for yourself.

A shorter dissent:

Its obvious you think Trump is an idiot. Do you have a billion dollars and a smokin hot wife? I didn’t think who really is the stupid one?

True, I don’t have a billion dollars …