This has been a bad week for Donald J. Trump. But what shouldn’t be lost is that it’s been a bad week because of Donald J. Trump.
That’s not how Trump sees it, of course. In his wild, conspiratorial speech yesterday, he blamed a “concerted, coordinated, and vicious attack” by the media and the Clinton campaign. He explained that his campaign represented an “existential threat” to “those who control the levers of power in Washington” and “the global special interests,” and it was their counterattack that was behind his current troubles. If he loses, he said, it will be because the system is “rigged.”
The only person who doesn’t know what’s gone wrong for Trump’s campaign, it seems, is Donald Trump.
None of Trump’s errors were forced. None of his problems were out of his control. He wasn’t buffeted by bad economic news, or a staffer who said something dumb on television, or a change in geopolitics that undercut his campaign.
Instead, the last week has been driven by three characteristics that are purely Trump’s: his absence of impulse control, his overwhelming desire to be and to seem dominant, and his tendency to lash out counterproductively and personally when attacked.
Donald Trump has no impulse control
On August 6, 2014, Trump tweeted some good advice. “Discipline is a key ingredient for success,” he wrote. “It will build character, motivation and bring opportunity.”
He’s right. Too bad he doesn’t have any discipline.
At the core of Trump’s current problems is that he’s a man completely without impulse control. This is the fundamental weakness, the basic failure in his programming, that the Clinton campaign recognized and learned to exploit.
It began at the first debate:
CLINTON: And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman "Miss Piggy." Then he called her "Miss Housekeeping," because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.
TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?
CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.
TRUMP: Where did you find this?
Eighteen days later, Trump is still struggling in the trap Clinton set for him, and it’s because he cannot control his reactions. He couldn’t stop himself from taking the bait in the days after the debate. He couldn’t stop himself from an all-night tweetstorm that included this now legendary missive:
Did Crooked Hillary help disgusting (check out sex tape and past) Alicia M become a U.S. citizen so she could use her in the debate?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2016
He couldn’t stop himself from retaliating at the next debate by bringing Clinton accusers Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick to sit in the audience — a move that made it much easier for the press to report on the unproven, but numerous, allegations of sexual assault against Trump himself. He couldn’t stop himself from declaring war on Paul Ryan in response to Republican defections against his campaign. He couldn’t stop himself from threatening to sue the New York Times.
A disciplined politician — or simply a disciplined person — wouldn’t have done any of this. He wouldn’t have taken the bait around Alicia Machado. He wouldn’t have opened a line of attack that he was more vulnerable to than his opponent. He wouldn’t have started a war with his own party at a moment when he desperately needed party unity to defeat a Democrat. He wouldn’t have threatened a laughable, sure-to-lose lawsuit that his target would love to fight for both marketing and discovery purposes.
A disciplined politician would have spent the past few weeks executing a strategy that played to Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities rather than his own. He would have focused on the WikiLeaks emails, and on his best messages. He would have dismissed accusations against himself as efforts to change the subject, and then moved on from them. He would have worked overtime to shore up support among wavering Republican politicians.
Of late, Trump’s behavior reminds me of the Joker’s epic speech in The Dark Knight. “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just … do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer.”
That’s Donald Trump. A dog chasing cars. A guy who just … does things.
You see this in the accusations against him. Over and over again, Trump puts everything at risk to feed his impulses. His alleged assault of Natasha Stoynoff — the People magazine writer on the Trump beat — is perhaps the clearest example. Aside from his cruelty, his violence, what stands out in her story is his all-encompassing recklessness:
Our photo team shot the Trumps on the lush grounds of their Florida estate, and I interviewed them about how happy their first year of marriage had been. When we took a break for the then-very-pregnant Melania to go upstairs and change wardrobe for more photos, Donald wanted to show me around the mansion. There was one “tremendous” room in particular, he said, that I just had to see.
We walked into that room alone, and Trump shut the door behind us. I turned around, and within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat.
Stoynoff was there to write a puff piece on Donald and Melania Trump’s first year of marriage. Melania Trump was pregnant and in the house. The interview wasn’t even over. But Donald Trump can’t control himself. That’s a scary quality in a president.
Trump’s demand for dominance is a disaster — for him
Back during Trump’s cosmically counterproductive attacks on Khizr Khan, Josh Marshall wrote a summary of Trump’s psychology that I’ve been thinking about ever since:
The need to assert dominance is at the root of all of Trump's actions. His whole way of understanding the world is one made up of dominators and the dominated. There's no infinite grey middle ground, where most of us live the vast majority of our human relationships. That's why even those who are conspicuously loyal are routinely humiliated in public. In that schema, Trump simply had no choice but to lash out, to rebalance the equation of dominance in his favor. It's an impulse that goes beyond reason or any deliberation. That's what left so many would-be or maybe allies flabbergasted at how or why he would have walked straight into such a buzzsaw of outrage.
This basic impulse explains Trump’s actions both backward and forward. Take his noxious comments to Billy Bush. “When you're a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Trump waves them away as “locker room talk,” even though he wasn’t in a locker room — he was on a television set, wearing a microphone, speaking to a television host. This is weird. I’ve made a lot of pre-TV hit small talk in my day. None of it required revealing explicit details of my sex life to Chris Hayes. There’s something deeper behind why Trump said what he said, what he thought he could get out of this kind of confession made to a man he barely knew and rarely saw.
This is the small talk of dominance. It’s the chatter of a man whose sole sorting mechanism for people is “winners” and “losers.” It’s one wannabe alpha male telling another wannabe alpha male exactly how alpha he really is, even though no one actually asked. It’s asserting dominance — they let me do anything I want, do they let you?
None of the subsequent allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump have been surprising. They’ve been horrifying, yes, but not surprising. Trump had already admitted to sexual assault. And, more than that, he had already admitted to a kind of motive for sexual assault: Another way of saying “when you’re a star, they let you do it” is if they let you do it, it means you’re a star.
Sexual assault is about power, not about sex. Trump doesn’t seem to be a guy who ever lacked for willing partners — if all he wanted was to get laid, he had ways that were less reckless, less dangerous, and less cruel. What Trump always seems to have wanted was power, and society’s recognition of it — the proof that he was a star, the proof he could do what he wanted, the proof that he was truly dominant.
Now think about that driving impulse to prove dominance in a context where Trump’s dominance is really being threatened — where he’s being challenge by Hillary Clinton, by Paul Ryan, by the New York Times, by the knuckleheads on CNN, by the polls. Imagine what that’s like. Imagine how that feels. Imagine how painful it is to watch the entire country come to view you as a loser.
You have to fight it. You have to. Your whole sense of self-worth hangs in the balance. And so you find the polls that show you actually won the debate. You swear to take your revenge on the Republican traitors who abandoned you. You promise to bankrupt the outlets that humiliated you. You rally your faithful, recede into a protective cocoon of sycophants, friendly crowds, internet surveys, and golden toilet seats.
We aren’t watching Trump’s campaign strategy play out. We are watching his psychological defense mechanisms play out. We are watching him try to restore balance to his own self-worth, not to the polls.
Now imagine those qualities, those reactions, in a president. Imagine them playing out when the antagonists are ISIS, or China, or Russia, or his domestic political opposition. It’s scary.
Trump attacks to inflict pain, not to advance a strategy
Trump is Old Testament. He believes in an eye for an eye. It’s often remarked that, when attacked, he counterattacks on precisely the same ground, accusing his opponent of whatever he’s just been accused of. On Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin, playing Donald Trump, satirized the tendency aptly:
“I have the best judgment and the best temperament. She’s the one with the bad temperament! She’s always screaming, she’s constantly lying, her hair is crazy, her face is completely orange except around the eyes where it’s white…”
With Trump, you see this constantly. He’s attacked for demeaning, objectifying, and groping women? Then he attacks Hillary Clinton on the grounds that Bill Clinton demeaned, objectified, and groped women! Republicans abandoning him because it looks like he’ll lose? Then he attacks them for being hopeless losers who don’t know how to win! Hurt his business by pulling out of his hotel because the things he’s said appall your staff? Then he’ll sue you and hurt your business!
Disloyal R's are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win - I will teach them!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
Whatever pain you inflict on Trump he wants to inflict back on you — precisely, exactly, he wants you to feel what he felt. He does this completely without regard to overall strategy or his own incentives. He doesn’t care if hurting you helps him; he just wants to make sure he hurts you. For Trump, the right response for so many of Clinton’s attacks would have been to ignore them and just keep running his own campaign. But he can’t ignore anything. It’s an eye for an eye, always, and he will never stop.
Imagine this man as president
One of the most telling moments of the campaign came at the end of the first debate. Clinton had brought up Alicia Machado, and Trump was struggling to respond. For some reason, he decided to attack Rosie O’Donnell. And read what he said closely.
“Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
This read as funny when Trump first said. It even made it into the SNL skit. But read it again.
“Everybody would agree she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
Imagine saying this in a presidential debate. Imagine holding a grudge for this long, based on a 10-year-old segment on The View.
Imagine being so unable to see past your own pain, your own humiliation, that you think the entire country agrees that 10 years later, it is completely justified for you to be slandering, embarrassing, and bullying a female comedian on national television.
No one made Donald Trump say any of this. It all came from him. It all came from a man who can’t control his impulses, who is obsessed with perceptions of his own mastery and dominance, and who can’t help himself from trying to humiliate anyone who he feels humiliated him.
This was a bad few weeks for Donald Trump, and it’s because of Donald Trump. It’s not the media, it’s not Hillary Clinton, it’s not the Republicans, it’s not the Democrats, it’s not international bankers. It’s him, and who he is, and what he does and how he reacts.
For Trump, the first step toward righting his campaign isn’t admitting he has a problem but admitting he is the problem.