Become a Friend of BSR Today!

Support the conversation around Philadelphia's arts and culture community. We’re dedicated to providing you—and the entire Philly region—professional arts coverage without a paywall.

What Trump could learn from Emerson

Understanding Trump (yet again)

5 minute read
Long before Trump or Freud, Emerson analyzed the president in two simple sentences. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)
Long before Trump or Freud, Emerson analyzed the president in two simple sentences. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

Last week, President Trump opened his latest attack against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with this tweet:

"The inner workings of the Mueller investigation are a total mess. They have found no collusion and have gone absolutely nuts. They are screaming and shouting at people, horribly threatening them to come up with the answers they want. They are a disgrace to our Nation and don’t care how many lives they ruin. These are Angry People, including the highly conflicted Bob Mueller, who worked for Obama for 8 years."

Those hapless journalists assigned to the thankless task of fact-checking Trump’s public statements were quick to point out that Trump misstated Mueller’s background. (Mueller is a registered Republican who was nominated FBI director in 2001 by President George W. Bush; in 2011, Mueller’s original 10-year term was extended for two more years by President Obama; last year Mueller was appointed to his special-counsel post by Trump’s deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who began overseeing Mueller’s Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.)

Meanwhile, politicians and commentators scrambled to interpret Trump’s diatribe. Did Trump possess some genuine insight into the hitherto secret workings of the Mueller investigation? Did Trump’s new attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, inappropriately leak details of the investigation to the president? Was Trump simply making things up, as he often does when the going gets tough?

Demanding "decorum"

All three explanations are conceivable. But the best clue to Trump’s behavior was provided more than a century and a half ago by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character,” wrote the Sage of Concord in The Conduct of Life. “We can only see what we are; if we misbehave, we suspect others."

With Emerson as our guide, we can see how the insults Trump applies to other people can also be applied to him.

  • Days after demanding that reporters show more “decorum” toward him, Trump (via Twitter) called Congressman Adam Schiff “little Adam Schitt.”
  • During the presidential campaign, Trump called Hillary Clinton “a pathological liar” who was “really pretty close to unhinged.”
  • This March, Trump tweeted that Amazon doesn’t pay enough taxes.
  • He called Senator Lindsay Graham “publicity-seeking.”
  • He called CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta “crazy.”
  • He called Ruth Bader Ginsburg “an incompetent judge” whose “mind is shot.”
  • He called Glenn Beck “a wacko” and “a real nut job” who “has zero credibility.”
  • He called former vice president Joseph Biden “crazy Joe,” and said he was “trying to act like a tough guy” but “actually he is weak, both mentally and physically.”
  • He called Democratic interim chairperson Donna Brazile “totally dishonest.”

Shall we continue?

Depending on your (and Trump's) perspective, he's either "beautiful" Ted Cruz or "Lyin' Ted." (Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Creative Commons/Flickr.)
Depending on your (and Trump's) perspective, he's either "beautiful" Ted Cruz or "Lyin' Ted." (Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

Ted Cruz’s temperament

  • On talk-show host Mika Brzezinski: “Very insecure,” “neurotic,” and “has gone wild with hate.”
  • Ben Carson: “Incapable of understanding foreign policy.”
  • James Clapper: “A lying machine.”
  • Bill Clinton: “The WORST abuser of women in U.S. political history.”
  • James Comey: “Lied all over the place.”
  • Senator Bob Corker: “Lightweight,” “incompetent.”
  • Senator Ted Cruz: “Does not have the right temperament to be president.”
  • Maureen Dowd: “Crazy,” “wacky,” “a neurotic dope!”
  • The FBI: “An embarrassment to our country!”
  • Megyn Kelly: “Highly overrated,” “crazy.”
  • Columnist Charles Krauthammer: “Biased,” “clown,” “a dope.”
  • Columnist Bill Kristol: “Dopey,” “lost all credibility.”
  • Rich Lowry, editor of National Review: “Incompetent.”
  • Political consultant Frank Luntz: “A low-class slob.”
  • Senator John McCain: “Very foul-mouthed.”
  • TV host Meghan McCain: “Angry,” “obnoxious.”
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Ruining Germany.”

"Hatred and unfairness"

  • Evangelical leader Russell Moore: “A nasty guy with no heart.”
  • NBC executives: “Out of control.”
  • Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter: “Lowlife,” “a crude dope!”
  • President Barack Obama: “Cheatin’ Obama,” “not a natural dealmaker,” an “incompetent leader.”
  • Senator Rand Paul: “Truly weird,” “made a fool of himself.”
  • Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: “Going absolutely crazy.”
  • Energy Secretary and former Texas governor Rick Perry: “Should be forced to take an IQ test,” “doesn’t understand what the word demagoguery means.”
  • Politico: “In total disarray,” “almost everybody quitting.”
  • Former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge: “Faulty thought process.”
  • George W. Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove: “Never says anything good and never will.”
  • Congressman Paul Ryan: “Ineffective,” “disloyal.”
  • Stormy Daniels and her legal team: “A total con job.”
  • Senator Bernie Sanders: “Crazy Bernie,” “wacko.”
  • Tom Steyer, philanthropist and impeachment advocate: “Wacky,” “totally unhinged.”
  • CNN's Jake Tapper: “Watch the hatred and unfairness of the CNN flunky.”
  • Oprah Winfrey: “Very insecure.”
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren: “Goofy,” “has a nasty mouth.” “all talk, no action!”
  • The Washington Post: “Constantly quoting ‘anonymous sources’ that do not exist”; “far more fiction than fact.”
  • Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz: “Highly neurotic.”
  • Congresswoman Maxine Waters: “Crazy,” “ranting and raving,” “unhinged,” “an extraordinarily low-IQ person.”
  • Mort Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News: “Has a major inferiority complex.”

Freud in diapers

I culled these examples from a much longer list of “The 487 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter,” published by the New York Times in July 2018. I tried to limit myself to insults that function, as Emerson put it, as windows into Trump’s psyche.

Long story short: When Trump says the Mueller investigation has “gone absolutely nuts… screaming and shouting at people,” he’s probably describing his own White House as Mueller’s investigation closes in.

Emerson’s prescient observation first appeared in 1860 — that is, 86 years before Trump was born, a time when Sigmund Freud was still in diapers. Today most psychiatrists would agree with Emerson: One’s opinion of others is a reflection on oneself. That applies not only to Trump but also to the rest of us who have never come near a nuclear button.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation