Trump’s nihilism of ideas

So, I just posted on what Trump “believes” about the economy (and, really, I’m pretty sure he believes these horribly misguided things), but this David Roberts piece on Trump’s lack of beliefs is simply amazing.  Honestly, one of the best explanations I’ve read for trying to understand the craziness that is the mind of Trump.  So deserves to be read in full.  But, since what I always do is excerpt my favorite parts after I say that…

What gets somewhat lost in the media coverage of this back and forth is that there is no answer to the question of whether Trump opposed the war in 2003. In fact, the question itself is a category error — one the media and political class cannot help making toward Trump.

The question presumes that Trump has beliefs, “views” that reflect his assessment of the facts, “positions” that remain stable over time, woven into some sort of coherent worldview. There is no evidence that Trump has such things. That is not how he uses language.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind… [italics in original; bold is mine]

It’s not that Trump is saying things he believes to be false. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have beliefs at all, not in the way people typically talk about beliefs — as mental constructs stable across time and context. Rather, his opinions dissolve and coalesce fluidly, as he’s talking, like oil on shallow water. That’s why he gives every indication of conviction, even when, say, denying that he has said something that is still posted on his Twitter feed…

What he’s doing is trying to establish dominance — to win, in his words. That’s what he uses words for. That’s how he sees every interaction in which he is involved. He is attuned only to what the words are doing, whether they are winning or losing, not to what they mean…

This point helps explain why Trump cannot ever admit a mistake or an error. He can only process accusations — of dishonesty, of cruelty — as social gambits, not as factual claims. To him, the demand that he apologize or admit error is nothing more than a dominance play. Apologizing is losing.

It helps explain why Trump has focused so much on trade, and why he sounds so much stronger and more confident talking about it than on almost any other subject. It’s not that he knows anything about it. He doesn’t. It’s just that he sees all international relations — trade deals, climate deals, NATO, whatever — as zero-sum contests, negotiations in which the only relevant question is who will dominate, who will win. And he gets that. It’s his whole life!

You get the gist.  And let me know if you’ve actually seen a better explanation for Trump’s personality and beliefs.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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