Every time I think of Donald Trump a Peanuts cartoon pops into my mind. It has Lucy holding a football for a field goal kick from Charlie Brown. Just as Charlie goes to put toe to pigskin, Lucy pulls the ball away and good ol' Chuck goes flying off his feet. Lucy then walks off the field with her right hand index finger held high: The caption reads: "We're #1." Forget the facts, forget the circumstance, Lucy wants to think of herself as number one. Deep need trumps the truth.
Some say Trump is smart. Others say Trump is crazy. As someone who is trained in cognitive science and anthropology, and studies the fit or mismatch between leaders and the cultural context they exist in, I think it's not informative to think about whether Trump is a brain or not. It's more instructive to view Trump as doing what we all do -- he's being himself. Temperament -- a personal structuring that predates personality -- is something none of us can get away from.
Trump is acting out his own temperament -- being a spectacle, startling people, dominating people...before they do it to him. Trump is all about preemptive strikes. It's a perversion of the Golden rule.
In one sense, there is no difference between Trump and the man in Tiananmen Square who walked out from the sidelines to stand in front of a military tank moving towards him. That wasn't a thought-out strategy by that Chinese young man. It was an instinctual expression of his inner being that he couldn't control. It was an enactment, that if aborted, would be tantamount to psychological suicide.
Fitting Your Context
There is another lesson from Tiananmen. A person, product or idea vying to be the leader becomes popular by fitting into the context of the times, therefore gaining the largest possible followship. That Chinese young man momentarily halting the system was one of the most projected images worldwide that year. I interviewed people in a sampling of cities around the world, asking why this photo was so often in the media. The answers I got back were encapsulated by one particular answer: "I know what that photo stands for. That's betrayal. Everyone has the experience of someone in their life whom they thought was with them, turns out to be against them. We all see a lot of that these days."
The Current Context Is Fear
The American context Donald trump is currently riding is FEAR. Fear of jihadis, fear of terrorists and terrorism, fear of horrific death, fear of randomness and -- because of 911 and 2008 -- fear of seeing one's future receding into the distance.
Much of the media likes to criticize Trump, but his attentional pull is that he's going with the contextual flow. It might seem as if the media likes politicians who swim upstream, but it's the same affection bears hold for migrating salmon. Presidential candidates cannot change the contextual climate. The national agenda is increasingly impervious to campaign stratagems or economic, social or moral crusades. Candidates must swim with the tides.
One can reasonably speculate that Mr. Trump incurred or witnessed some slight in his early years, and the impact was fundamental. So he erects the biggest buildings, flaunts the biggest lifestyle, has the biggest hairdo, and trash talks the loudest. His ethic is BE BIG and steam-roll over others. Trump doesn't care about the details of geopolitical and domestic policy. In the place of policy he inserts a way of behaving, and that way is performance -- condense and exaggerate everything and display it exclusively for communication purposes.
In the age of the internet, voters choose presidents like Hollywood bestows Oscars -- based on a portfolio of performances, past, present and imagined. "Persona" is the real issue. Candidates do not "run" for president, they audition for the part. The ones that exude confidence in debates and vigor on the stump, are usually victorious. Jeb Bush may exhibit empathy with children, but his persona is one of being too weak. He can't win. Marco Rubio's persona, regardless of his thoughtful rhetoric, is blemished by his boyish looks. He lacks the gravitas to win, now. Maybe in eight years he will age into the part.
Donald Trump seems to fit today's bill, perfectly.
The Danger of Fear and Humiliation
Yet, there is a problem. At rock bottom, presidential campaign 2016 is about humiliation -- either the fear of humiliation or the felt humiliation of those who feel modernity has disqualified their ancient civilization. The difficulty with humiliation is its buried deep in the most ancient part of the brain -- the "reptilian" brain.
Do we want our next president to see everything as a reptile, as a high-noon battle? Fear vs s. Hope. That's the choice American voters will soon make. Their task is to fit a square peg into an Oval Office.