Over the course of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has shown himself to be vulgar, ill informed, vindictive, and at least mildly bigoted. But what really sets the Republican frontrunner apart from the last century of men who have occupied the Oval Office are the profound insecurities he has revealed over the course of his ten-month courtship of American voters. Like him or not, he is too emotionally fragile to handle the pressures of being commander-in-chief.
Of course, we’ve known all along that Trump has the kind of petty, garden-variety insecurities that often propel talented people to celebrity stardom. His life of unabashed, conspicuous self-aggrandizement (“The gentleman protests his greatness too much,” psychologist Steven Berglas wrote in 2011.) is a paradigmatic projection of one who is uncomfortable in his own skin.
More unusually, Trump sees red whenever he must suffer those who demonstrably do not embrace the exalted public image he tries to project. Last November, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter recounted Trump’s reaction to his use of the term “short-fingered vulgarian” to describe the mogul in the late 1980s. “To this day, I receive the occasional envelope from Trump,” he wrote. “There is always a photo of him — generally a tear sheet from a magazine. On all of them he has circled his hand in gold Sharpie.” The last, which arrived earlier last year, contained the handwritten words, “See, not so short!”
While most celebrities try to at least appear more altruistic and magnanimous the more successful they are, Trump instead delights in hurting people, most notably by ridiculing the physical appearances of everyone from ex-lovers to a handicapped reporter. Deeply insecure people relish demeaning others “because they instinctively know how powerful those insults can be,” observes Marc Ambinder.
This obsession has grown more acute on the campaign trail, where Trump’s expressions of contempt for others span entire ethnic groups, religions, and genders. So sensitive to slights has he become that he cannot hide his affection for supporters who violently accost hecklers and protestors, let alone forcefully disavow such behavior. His crude prediction that there will be riots if he is outvoted at the Republican National Convention may have been more a boast than a threat, but it suggests the worst may be yet to come.
Although some see the making of a neo-fascist in Donald Trump, his insecurities seem to preclude sustained non-self-referential commitments. When Florida Senator Marco Rubio ridiculed Trump’s “small hands” at a February 28 rally, adding “and you know what they say about guys with small hands,” Trump appeared to think of little else for days, repeatedly bringing up the subject of his hands in interviews and speeches, flexing his outstretched fingers and bragging about how far they can hit a golf ball. And each time claiming that he has never heard of anyone else calling his hands small (“What happened is Marco just made it up out of nowhere”), despite the fact that Carter’s account of their feud had by this time been widely reported in the mainstream media. Then topping it off with an emphatic denial that he is poorly endowed sexually during a televised debate. Trump must have wanted the world to stop thinking about his hands, yet couldn’t stop reminding us of them every chance he got.
In a similar display of self-absorption weeks earlier, Trump’s inability to stomach the presence of Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly led him to pull out of a critical debate before the Iowa caucus, likely costing him victory there. Trump could have waltzed to the nomination if he’d been able to exercise a bare minimal level of self-control most of us take for granted.
Truth be told, Trump’s cartoonish egocentrism never held him back as a professional wrestling promoter or beauty pageant owner, still less as a reality TV star. Nor has it hurt his electoral appeal among millions of Republican voters who feel betrayed and marginalized by well-composed Washington elites. That he has made it this far in the presidential race says a lot about us.
But there is little in the aging celebrity’s behavior to suggest that he is capable of handling the pressures he would face as leader of the free world, when every American adversary on the planet will be trying to push his buttons. It’s time for those of us who should know better to stop cheering him on.