Donald Trump and the Art of the Apology

The 45th president is a sensitive soul whose ego is easily bruised when others say unkind or disrespectful things about him.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Honestly, has there ever been a stupider nursery school aphorism? Words can be plenty hurtful, excruciating even. Just ask  President Trump.

As has become evident in his brief time on the political scene, the 45th president is a sensitive soul whose feelings are easily bruised when others say unkind or disrespectful things about him. Well, maybe not his feelings, but certainly his ego. And when that happens, Trump puts great stock in the healing power of an old-fashioned apology.

For a guy who largely treats words as meaningless, Trump is notably fixated on the ritual value of apologies––from other people, that is. He and his team are constantly calling on this person or that group to express contrition for some perceived offense. Trump isn’t much concerned about the sincerity of a mea culpa or the spirit in which it is offered. If anything, a grudging, coerced apology seems to delight him even more than a wholly voluntary one.

For Trump, apologies aren’t about resolving conflict or fostering relationships or even setting the record straight. Like so much of what he does, they are about besting someone. Trump expresses his displeasure at how he has been treated; the offending party feels compelled to make amends. An apology that requires threats or twitter trolls to extract only highlights Trump’s superior strength all the more. Your criticisms of Trump may not have been wrong. You may not feel one bit bad about them. You may loathe and disdain him even more after apologizing. What matters to him is that you have had to publicly ask for his forgiveness. Which proves you are a total loser.

Just last week, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was all over Senator John McCain to apologize for saying that the January 28 raid in Yemen that Trump ordered––which resulted in the death of one Navy SEAL, the wounding of three others, the loss of a $70 million helicopter, and multiple civilian casualties—was not a success. For some reason, McCain irritably declined.

Not infrequently, Trump, in one of his signature Twitter fits, will call for an apology on behalf of a third party. He memorably demanded that the cast of Hamilton apologize for booing Mike Pence, that MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski apologize to a Trump supporter with whom she clashed on air, and that Pakistan apologize to the U.S. for harboring Osama bin Laden all those years.

Far more often, though, Trump is seeking an apology for Trump. The legions he has called on for apologies include, but are by no means limited to, CNN’s Jim Acosta, the New York Times, the intelligence community, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Wall Street Journal, Megyn Kelly, Fox News, National Review’s Rich Lowry, former Mexican president Vicente Fox, Carly Fiorina, Univision, ABC’s Tom Llamas, and Hillary Clinton. At this point, pretty much all of the mainstream media has a standing order from the White House to apologize for everything it does.

A logical corollary of this dynamic is Trump’s pig-stubborn refusal to say he’s sorry for even his most outrageous offenses.  Mocking the disabled? Championing birtherism? Calling Carly Fiorina ugly? Suggesting Ted Cruz’s dad was somehow involved in the assassination of JFK? Trump can justify them all, or at least find a way to blame them on someone else. The one time he was essentially forced to apologize--for the infamous Access Hollywood tape revealing his penchant for pussy-grabbing-- resulted in one of those limp, sorry-if-I-offended-your-overly-delicate-sensibilities non-apologies.

This is hardly surprising when you contemplate the psychology of apologies—and the psychology of Trump. For many, many people, an apology is both an admission of wrongness and a sign of weakness. Withholding an apology, by contrast, gives people a heightened sense of power, control, self-esteem, and even integrity. In other words, doing something crappy to someone else and then refusing to say you’re sorry gives you a rush.

Considering how often Trump does exactly that, one imagines he must be high on power-tripping endorphins pretty much all the time.

I myself don’t see any point in playing these types of power games. In fact, fully aware of Trump’s sense that he is under siege by an unfair and hostile media, I have no problem issuing a mea culpa right here and now. And so:

I offer my heartfelt apologies to Donald J. Trump for the disparaging remarks I have made about him over the past couple of years. My observations about his carnival-barker persona, his piggishness toward women, his rich-boy sense of entitlement, his middle-school notions of masculinity, his grade-school grasp of governing, his moral bankruptcy, his business bankruptcies, his rank dishonesty, his swooning admiration for autocrats, his petty vengefulness, his need to publicly discuss his penis, his temperamental unfitness for office––for all these and more I am sorry. Well, not sorry for the observations, exactly, so much as for the possibility that they struck him as in any way unfair or insufficiently respectful.

Do I retract any of my comments? Absolutely not. Will I forego similarly pointed assessments in the future? It seems unlikely, barring a transformation in Trump’s personality, judgment, and character. But, make no mistake, I truly regret that such unflattering comments about the President of the United States have been––and in all likelihood will continue to be––called for on a regular basis. I sincerely wish it were not so.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Your turn, Senator McCain.