Just look at us.
Donald Trump has turned the political press into a scrum of two-bit armchair psychologists: grabbing at table scraps of information from the Trump campaign and dissecting them for clues as to what on earth Donald Trump is thinking.
Usually, the incessant focus on what’s in a politician’s head — what he really wants and cares about, what sort of person he is deep down — is a sign of very bad political reporting. It’s actually been one of the great triumphs of online journalism (with no small credit due to people like my colleagues at Vox, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias) that, over the past decade or so, political journalism hasn’t spent quite so much time trying to guess about politicians’ psychologies, and has instead confined ourselves to the truths we can see.
But Trump is different. It’s hard to look at the Republican National Convention and ask "What message is the party trying to project? Will the convention help them in November? What does America think of Mike Pence?"
Instead, the rolling disaster that has been Trump’s convention prompts one question above all: "What does all of this really say about Trump and what he’s thinking?"
When asked what he hoped people would take away from the convention, Mr. Trump said, "The fact that I’m very well liked."— Eric London (@elondon) July 21, 2016
We usually read convention speakers as a hint into the issues the party thinks are most important to America this election cycle, and the interest groups the party is most keen to represent. The 2016 RNC’s lineup was only intelligible when analyzed through the lens of Trump’s previous life as a reality TV host — which speakers are in with Trump, and which are on the outs?
And tonight, as Trump prepares to give his own convention address, the question isn’t what policies he’ll highlight — it’s whether he’ll be able to resist the temptation to strike back at Ted Cruz for snubbing him; at the reporters who discovered his wife’s speech had plagiarized Michelle Obama; at the observers who’ve noticed that Donald Trump’s convention speakers often don’t seem to like Donald Trump very well at all.
When it comes to Donald Trump, armchair psychology really is the best available way to analyze the decisions of the presumptive Republican nominee for president. That’s not just because Trump isn’t a typical politician, with decades of public service and an army of campaign surrogates to articulate what he really means.
It’s because Trump’s ego is a constituency all its own.
Psychologizing politicians is usually a bad idea because politicians’ desires are less important than their incentives
In my first two years as a political journalist, I’d often get questions — from readers, interviewers, friends at parties — along the lines of "But what does Politician A really think about Issue B?" (Given my beat, the most common form of this was "But President Obama really doesn’t want to deport unauthorized immigrants who haven’t committed crimes, right?") The answer always started the same way: "I don’t really care what’s in his heart."
I didn’t need to! I had all the information I needed at my disposal.
I had a record of the politician’s votes, proposals, and statements on the issue, expressing the view of society the politician was dedicating himself to work toward.
I had knowledge of the effects of the policies the politician had supported in the past, and whether he’d used those effects to show that the policy "worked" or had (in a sign that he felt the unintended consequences weren’t worth the intended ones) quietly distanced himself from it.
I could examine the politician’s work by its fruits — and when the effects of a policy were clearly different from the goals the politician had set out for it (the Iraq War) or seemed unnecessary to begin with (the 1994 crime bill) I could interrogate those differences.
When it came to how a politician might make a decision in the present, history only gets you so far. But I had information about what sort of factors the politician would consider — without needing to make guesses about what the politician really felt or believed.
Politicians aren’t just human beings. They’re avatars for the coalition of interest groups, voting blocs, and ideologies that got them there. They’re trying to make the best decisions for their constituencies.
Politicians’ choices are almost always the result of analyzing the costs and benefits a given option would have for those constituencies. And you can know a lot of that cost-benefit analysis just by looking around. If an interest group normally allied with a politician is lobbying heavily against a bill, that’s a pretty big cost the politician would have to shoulder if she chose to vote for it.
This all sounds super obvious. But it covers the overwhelming majority of choices a politician actually has to make over the course of her career. Sure, there are cross-cutting issues where there will be potential costs and benefits associated with each choice, but usually the bottom line favors one choice over another.
It is extremely rare that a politician is free to make decisions based on what is in his heart. It only happens when the costs and benefits are genuinely, 100 percent even — or when the politician is done trying to build power. And politicians are never done trying to build power. Even when a president’s won reelection, he’s still responsible for his party’s performance in the following midterms; even after the midterms, he still needs to keep government running and try to get the next class elected.
Robert Caro’s mantra, in his great ongoing biography of Lyndon Johnson, is that "power doesn’t corrupt; power reveals." What he means by that is that a politician can only feel free to act based on his own desires once he’s already climbed the ladder. But few politicians ever feel free to rest.
Donald Trump doesn’t have obligations
To state the obvious: Donald Trump doesn’t have a voting record. He’s never been scored by the NRA or Planned Parenthood. Of course, this isn’t the first time that Donald Trump has sketched out a vision of what he wants for America, but it’s the first time he’s ever (possibly) been in a position to deliver on it. (And it’s hard to take, say, Trump’s 2000 book as a guide to his beliefs when Trump himself doesn’t appear to do so.)
More importantly, Donald Trump doesn’t have political obligations. Or at least, he doesn’t think he does, which is the same thing.
Despite what Trump himself often says and might believe, he didn’t win the Republican nomination on the sheer force of his personality. He won it thanks to the support of some key figures (like talk radio hosts) and the ineffective opposition of others (like the entire Republican establishment). Most importantly, he managed to stumble onto a constituency of racially conservative voters who felt Trump expressed their anxieties more directly and sympathetically than politicians ever had before.
Most politicians would see this as a mandate to represent those people’s interests. Donald Trump sees it as a vote of confidence in Trump himself. The way Trump has conducted his campaign is consistent with the principle that once you have endorsed Trump, he has all the power in the relationship and you have none. He owes you nothing. (I personally believe that immigration policy is the single exception to this— that Sen. Jeff Sessions and others have accrued enough power in Trump’s inner circle that he’s going to end up having to follow through on his promises if elected whether he currently wants to or not. He has also been remarkably consistent on this issue throughout the years. But I could well be wrong.)
Instead of the NRA lobbying Trump to change his mind when the two disagree on a proposed gun-control proposal, Trump (unsuccessfully) lobbies the NRA. When Chris Christie endorses Trump, he gets sent on errand runs. When Trump’s supporters prove their loyalty, he jokes he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and they’d still support him.
We could try to use typical politician calculus to figure out what Trump will do as a candidate or as president, but it wouldn’t work, because that’s not the calculus he uses.
Trump’s constituency is his ego
Donald Trump doesn’t have a record. What he has is a brand: a "Donald Trump" persona that’s been honed in public for decades, and is now, belatedly, being turned to political ends.
That brand is ego.
"I’m a greedy person," Trump has said on the trail. "But you know what? I want to be greedy for our country."
Trump’s been remarkably transparent about how he constructs his own brand — read any of his books and you’ll see that he knows his surname is his most valuable asset, and he doesn’t mind you knowing he knows that. Sometimes this comes off as postmodern; sometimes, it might seem simply dishonest. But time and again, over the course of his career, Trump’s made it clear that he makes decisions based on what’s good for the imagined larger-than-life "Donald Trump."
He’s given us his own decision calculus.
This isn’t to say that Trump is always being hardheaded and strategic about his decisions. He pretty clearly is not. But whether Donald Trump is making a decision based on the impulsive needs of his enormous and slavering ego, or based on a careful analysis that this is the best thing for Trump in the long run, ego is the deciding factor either way. Whether he wants to do something because he genuinely wants it or because he thinks it will suit him is irrelevant.
Ego is different from id, and Trump has surprisingly good control over his id (even his well-noted obsession with women is, in some way, a macho persona play). He is all ego.
The fact that I find myself resorting to Freud to explain how Trump works is, of course, a perfect illustration of this dynamic. The way to understand how Trump works is through psychology. This doesn’t mean that hard-nosed journalists like me have gone back on our principles; it means that we need to evaluate the Republican presidential nominee on his own terms.