Knowing Trump’s reflex is to lash out, aides have in the past warned him that character assassination is a bad idea. They told him to avoid savaging Special Counsel Robert Mueller, for example, advising that it would do him no good. Trump didn’t listen, treating Mueller as another in a long line of antagonists to be trampled.
“He’s a street fighter,” said a former senior White House official, who like others I talked with this week spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s personality. “He’d rather be tearing the head off a rooster than putting caviar on a cracker.” A Republican senator told me the president “has two speeds: hostile, and hostile on steroids.”
Another president might try to avoid the scrum and argue his position on the merits. That’s one more norm Trump has effaced. A 2017 paper in Political Science Quarterly showed that Trump, more than his predecessors, uses hostility as a rhetorical tool. “Although personal attacks are a longstanding and indispensable part of politics, in recent times, those seeking the presidency have typically avoided ad hominem,” the authors write. “Not so Trump.”
Why exactly does Trump behave this way? Some mental-health professionals who have studied him—and a few politicians and aides who have worked with him—describe him as a narcissist whose self-image is mortally threatened by criticism of any sort. For Trump, criticism seems to amount to “an attack that is lethal to the public veneer,” Seth Norrholm, a neuroscientist who’s written about Trump’s mental state, told me. The invariable response is “not just [to] extinguish the threat, but to humiliate and destroy the threat.
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“Some of this comes from immaturity—you can imagine a person who’s narcissistic, but has the intelligence and brains to back it up,” said Norrholm, who believes that Trump is unfit for office. “But there’s not a lot of firepower behind [Trump’s] narcissism, so you end up with grade-school nicknames and playground-level insults.”
It would take far too much space to recount the long list of people demonized by the 45th president in recent years. But one family’s remembrance is especially revealing. Khizr Khan is the Gold Star father who pulled a copy of the Constitution from his jacket pocket at the 2016 Democratic convention, in Philadelphia, and dared Trump to read it. In an interview later with ABC News, Trump suggested that Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq, was parroting Hillary Clinton’s talking points. “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s scriptwriters write it?” Trump asked. Trump also questioned why Khan’s wife, Ghazala, stayed silent during her husband’s speech. He suggested she had not been “allowed to have anything to say,” the implication being that as a Muslim woman, her speech was stifled for religious reasons. In fact, she had told her husband she was too distraught to talk publicly about her fallen son.