Why (Oh Why!) Trump Does and Says What He Does

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Boris Johnson, the UK’s new Foreign Minister, who shares a New York City birthplace with Donald Trump and a tonsorial flair as well. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

In response to this item last week, about Donald Trump’s occasional shift from arresting, can’t-not-watch spontaneity to unsettling, am-I-really-watching-this?? apparent loss of control, readers weigh in on the explanations.

It’s harder than it looks. A reader says that the strain is showing:

It takes an extraordinary talent to run for president (let alone be president!). It is a level of stress and demand that could break most people, even most high-performing people. In Trump, we actually have little evidence that he is extraordinary. Yes, he has an extraordinary level of narcissism and an extraordinary knack for entertainment and self-promotion. But in terms of the qualities, talents, and temperaments that get tested in a national presidential election, he is far from exceptional.

Combine this with the fact that his limitations (and struggling poll numbers) are being exposed on a national stage—which must at some level, even for Trump, be causing cognitive dissonance and a challenge to his delusional self-regard—and the campaign is simply starting to break him.

We may not witness a full “breakdown,” but I think we’re seeing early warning signs. People fight off breakdowns every day and there is no reason to think it couldn’t happen to a presidential candidate, especially one so ill-equipped to the task.


‘Craves attention — and acceptance — like normal people crave oxygen.’ Another hypothesis:

Let me be roughly the 10,000th reader to attempt to explain Trump (which is a fun parlor game, but less fun when talking about one of two people who will be the next leader of the free world, but I digress).

Trump craves attention like normal people crave oxygen, but he also craves acceptance. He’s started several controversies by promising to “look into” or “look at” patently crazy or racist ideas (like the lady who wanted Trump to force TSA agents to take off their “hibby jobbies”).  I bet Trump would never actually force the TSA agents to take off their hijabs. But he is incapable of politely telling the woman that her idea has no merit, a task that any skillful politician learns to do….

He’ll engage in that kind of disagreement with a hostile interviewer, like a network correspondent, because for whatever reason, he isn’t trying to curry favor with them and realizes that his real audience is not the correspondent, but the viewing audience. But in all other situations, he will never object to a “friendly” statement or question; his need for immediate acceptance is too great.

A raucous political rally is addictive enough for any “normal” politician; it gives them energy and it comes through in their performance. Like musicians, theater actors or athletes, a good politician will feed off the energy of a great crowd. For a narcissist like Trump, this is the emotional equivalent of mainlining heroin. He is savvy enough that he realizes, on an intellectual level, that the TV audience for his rallies dwarfs the in-person audience. But in that moment, on an emotional high, he can’t help himself but to pander to that in person audience and give them what they want and build that feedback loop. He’s making it up as he goes to fit the in-person audience of a particular rally

The irony is that he is falling into a trap that snared many a politician when the TV era started. In person, a lot of those fiery Southern politicians of yesteryear were amazingly effective political speakers (think Huey Long). They could play on emotions and make their constituents laugh and cry and leave the rally fired up, like they just left a great tent revival. But on TV, that same speech came across as grotesque, exaggerated and cartoonish. TV favors the subtle and the soundbite. Trump, despite all of his media savvy, is allowing himself to fall into this same trap.


The problem is capacity—and advisors. Another reader:

I’ve come to the conclusion that Trump just isn’t very smart—shrewd about some things—but not particularly smart.  And he is absolutely convinced he’s the smartest guy in the room at all times.  He has these rallies, his fans love the performance, and he believes that everyone giving him advice about shifting his style and tactics is wrong because he’s smarter than them, he’s been successful thus far and the fans love him….

After all, who are the folks he acknowledges as advisors?  His kids?  Among the three adult ones, there isn’t an iota of political experience or knowledge.  Ben Carson—seriously?  Is there a single, respected and experienced political operative in the inner circle?


Brexit is not an omen. One of many readers emphasizing that the Brexit vote in the UK was not (contrary to Trump’s assertions) an omen of his success four months from now:

Re Brexit, but its worth pointing out that the electorates of the US and the UK are very different. While the categories don't align, whites make up 92% of the population in the UK (and probably more like 94% of the voting population) but only 64% of the population in the US (and maybe 70% of the electorate)….

Somewhere like England, Trump could gin up a lot of white support without having to worry about also moving a lot of minorities to vote against him because there just aren't that many minorities to vote. In the US, the non-white electorate is nearly an order of magnitude larger, and as you point out, the comparison may not be terribly apt.

Another way to put it: In the US, the electorate is pretty evenly split between white women, white men and minorities (36-33-31, based on 2012 and given current trends). In the UK, it's 47-47-6. In Britain, a Trumpian UKIP candidate could write off minorities and only have to win 54% of the white vote to prevail. In the US he'd have to win 73%.

Now, let's assume a candidate in the UK looks to win by writing off minorities and only winning 50% of white women (there is no way that Trump comes close to winning 50% of women, by the way). In the UK, he'd only have to win 56% of the remaining white male vote. In the US, to build the same coalition, he'd have to win 98% of white males: basically every single one. This is simplified, but it's pretty close to the coalition Trump is setting himself up for. It's not a winning hand.


And more on the UK/US difference. Another reader:

If the UK had had some version of our electoral college, the Brexit would likely have failed. (Or at least Scotland and Northern Ireland would perhaps still be part of the EU.)

Trump's success should scare the living hell out of anyone with an understanding of world history, not to mention American history. (And the Constitution.) And one never truly knows how any election is going to go until it's over. But while Trump's support is unsettling—especially if one considers there might be some kind of Bradley effect in...uh, effect—our electoral college makes his changes extremely unlikely. It's awfully hard to look at the maps of Obama's wins and figure out which states Trump could flip, while it's not that hard to look at those maps and figure out which Clinton might be able to flip.

That Trump wasn't bounced in the first round is amazing and frightening. But our stupid, outdated, anti-democratic electoral college is, for once, acting like a bulwark against disaster.