To a first order of approximation, everything that Donald Trump has said about his opponents should be understood as projection, in the psychological sense of the term. That is, any defect Trump has complained about in his primary or general-election opponents, is more likely to seem an obvious flaw in himself.
Trump called Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” and Cruz has his moments. But no other politician of any party approaches Trump’s level of nonstop falsehood on matters large and small. Trump says that Hillary Clinton is secretive and scheming, and she too has her moments. But no other modern politician has matched Trump’s secrecy about his business operations or his taxes. He is hyper-attentive to other people’s weight gains, but is quite pudgy himself. On through the list, as an AP story has usefully catalogued: Trump has said that Hillary Clinton is turning the campaign negative through personal attacks rather than policy. That she’s skating through without offering substantive details. That she’s race-baiting and dividing the country. That she is not as respectful of women as he is. That there’s something wrong with her physical and mental health. And, most of all, that she has bad judgment and a risky temperament.
Whether these and related attacks are a shrewd preemptive strategy against Clinton (“She’s going to say I don’t know policy, so let’s get to her first!”) or simple reflexive “projection” in the classic sense, I can’t say. (My guess, of course, is the latter.) Either way, after the election I think we’ll look back to see the striking correlation between the flaws Trump calls out in his adversaries, and the flaws everyone else sees in him.
With that buildup, here is the latest what the hell? moment from the Trump campaign: his suggestion today in New Hampshire that the candidates take a drug test before the third and final presidential debate. As reported in the NYT:
Escalating his criticism of Hillary Clinton’s debate performances [JF note: And just think about this itself as an example of projection] Donald J. Trump came to a state battling a drug epidemic and suggested without any evidence Saturday that his opponent had been on drugs during their second debate. ...
He continued: “We should take a drug test prior, because I don’t know what’s going on with her. But at the beginning of her last debate — she was all pumped up at the beginning, and at the end it was like, ‘Oh, take me down.’ She could barely reach her car.”
I have no grounds for suggesting that Trump himself needs to be tested for drugs. But if anyone were to suggest that, wild claims like this would be part of the case.
Now 23 days and a few hours until the election. Still no tax information forthcoming from the man with the most problematic financial history of any major-party nominee in modern history. And, we can’t say it often enough, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and most of the existing GOP establishment are all still saying: This man should become commander-in-chief.
No he should not, and they should be held accountable for what they are trying to do.
Update A reader who is a lawyer on the east coast writes in about the “projection” hypothesis:
The projection theory is interesting. What I can’t tell is to what extent Trump is aware that he’s just throwing feces against the wall. How much of this does he believe—rigged election, international media conspiracy, Hilary belongs in jail, etc. To what extent does he believe that attacking the looks of his various accusers is a sound strategy? How delusional is he?
I think it’s impossible to tell. An obviously undisciplined guy, ever since the first debate he’s become completely unhinged, making just about every bad choice he could make in his campaign, shaking off the advice of the campaign professionals, listening to Bannon and the other hardcore crowd (and it’s not clear that they care about winning as much as they care about trashing Hillary).
It’s impossible to tell if he thinks he actually has a reasonable chance to win this election. It appears than none of the GOP “leadership” thinks he can win, the major polls indicate he can’t, the big GOP funders have walked away.
There is a real possibility that what we are seeing with Trump now is mental breakdown, but again, it’s impossible to tell if that’s what’s going on or what we’re seeing is his sociopathic character coming out as the setbacks and pressures mount.
I understand the dilemma that Ryan and the other GOP elected officials and RNC officials face. But at what point, if any, are they obligated to disavow Trump? Perhaps their thinking is that they don’t need to court this sort of controversy within their party, since he’s going to lose anyway.
As noted before, I’m wary of speculating about whether what we’re seeing from Trump amounts to some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. Obviously I couldn’t presume to judge from a distance, and fundamentally it doesn’t matter. Whatever the explanation, his words and actions are unacceptable.
It’s also clear to me that the entire Republican establishment now assumes (and probably hopes) that he is going to lose. Maybe that makes their endorsement of him less damaging: it’s not going to make any difference. But I still think it’s squalid. This is as clear a test of country-before-party as any of us has seen in our lifetimes. And I think the Republican establishment will regret the choice so many of its members are making now.