One of the most common dilemmas that Trump watchers must suffer is to ask themselves whether Trump is an idiot or a genius. Arguments for both abound. On one hand, nearly nothing that Trump has done as President (or any other of his business endeavors) suggests anything other than unadulterated, blithering stupidity. According to most inside accounts of his behavior, be it from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or Bob Woodward’s more recent Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump is a man of frighteningly low intelligence who has trouble grasping basic concepts, much less expressing them in coherent form. His unhinged, incoherent rambles that pass as public speeches seem to be testament of this: it would actually take a supreme effort from someone of moderate or above-average intelligence to consistently speak so badly on so many topics.
On the other hand, the way in which he has whipped up such a large support base appears unparalleled in modern US political history. The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abound, and it is obvious that despite the hideousness of their policies they were quite intelligent men and crafty statesmen. Is it also common for those of us living in Britain to compare Trump with his British Tory opposite, the buffoonish Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated man born in privilege and who is just as likely to recite the classics as he is to fly on a zip line waving Union Jacks like a clown at a children’s party. Johnson is no fool, he just plays one. Is Trump a master thespian? A genius wearing a cloak of idiocy?
In my view, no, Trump is no genius. He’s merely an abuser.
The mind of the abuser
“Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.”
– Lundy Bancroft
Abusers come in many shapes and sizes. They may be dominant, manipulative men perennially gaslighting their girlfriends or wives. They may be cult leaders breaking down the psychological defenses of vulnerable young people. Terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda also resort to nearly the same methodology to obtain new recruits. One expert on abuse of this kind, psychologist Alexandra Stein (who herself was a member of a cult) calls it “totalism”, which unsurprisingly sounds like totalitarianism. Indeed, it is a sort of totalitarianism for the mind. One of the elements is charismatic authoritarianism, which dishes out a contradictory feeling of both love and fear and serves to disarm the victim. The other is isolation; the victim is forced to sever links to the outside world, making the relationship with his or her abuser the only one of meaningful value. Finally, there is the imposition of a “total ideology” which creates a fictional world of secrets and lies. Often blatantly, but rarely challenged.
Abusers do not learn these techniques from a textbook. They do not require PhDs in psychology to know how to manipulate other human beings. It is a learned experience, usually from having suffered abuse of their own earlier in life and gradually intensifying their own application of this abuse upon others. Pathological narcissists (Trump is unquestionably one) and sociopaths are particularly good at this, benefitting from a type of perverse empathy that allows them to feel other people’s suffering and exploit it without remorse. As for the victims, they are usually people whose defenses have been weakened by stress, exhaustion, loneliness, indifference, ignorance, or dependency. Emotionally resilient people aren’t Trump supporters. Trump preys on the feeble-hearted and makes allies among charming predators like himself, who relish that their behavior is vindicated by the most powerful man in the world.
The effectiveness of abusive depredation is that it makes intelligence inconsequential to success. The proliferation of sociopathy in the upper echelons of the business world (according to not one but various studies, around a quarter of top executives are clinical sociopaths) as well as the blind worship of functional, successful narcissists like Elon Musk suggests that these characteristics of human nature are far more valuable in modern life than intelligence itself, let alone other attributes like empathy and compassion which might actually be seen as weaknesses. As such, Trump is merely a product of his time and place in history. In no other country other than post-Reagan USA could such a morally repugnant and intellectually limited man like him ever become president. Even in 1930s Germany you needed at least a smidgen of intelligence to do so.
Don’t blame Trump, his voters, or his enablers for the fact that such a masterful abuser became the leader of the Free World. Blame the societal values that nurtured his success. In the age of hyper-capitalism and savage individualism, if you’re not the predator then you’re the prey.