DONALD TRUMP AND VLADIMIR PUTIN: SEEKERS AFTER GLORY
With Donald Trump we are facing something unique. If we look back at the presidents within living memory, all have lived by a certain code. They were, with the exception of Eisenhower, fascinated by and experienced in politics. They understood and expected that a certain level of conduct was demanded of them. Even those of them who tended to be profane in private (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon come to mind), were scrupulously profanity free in public (Lyndon Johnson became unctuous “Uncle Lyndon”). And, though some might have been less than faithful husbands they were careful to act as faithful family men in public. There is little evidence that they were financially dishonest. Even the Clinton’s White Water Scandal came to nothing.
The vast majority of people seem to develop a moral code at least by adolescence. The brain takes in constant electronic messages. Those messages fit into a pattern that dictate to us what thoughts and actions are, for us, acceptable. If we violate that built in moral code the result will be anxiety. We label that anxiety our conscience. As we grow older those messages remain and act as guide to our conduct. They also help to provide a moral framework which explains our relationship to the larger world and to the other people in it.
Donald Trump does not appear to have developed that conventional moral code. Sent off to military school by his father because of his uncontrolled behavior Trump did come to enjoy the ability to command. He never did seem to develop the kinds of internal restraints that others did. Instead, young Trump always seemed to think of himself as the center of his own universe. Things seemed to be right or wrong depending on how they served grandiose Donald Trump and his greater glory (slava for our friend Vladimir Putin). In that universe there really was no right or wrong in the conventional sense. Whatever made Trump a winner was right. Befuddled observers commonly say that Trump’s only real loyalty seems to be to be to his children. To Trump, his children are a part of himself. It’s still really him.
Presidents have, up till now, shared a fairly common value system based on ideals centered on service and on love of country. Those values are shared by almost all the people in the upper levels of our political system. That moral system is now clashing with the very different value system embodied in Donald Trump. Of the two value systems, the traditional one is the more vulnerable. Trump’s value system is really impervious, protected by his psychological isolation. So long as he can look out on his world and remain in control his value system can continue to function. The danger is that his system tends to contaminate the traditional one. Every time someone lies or reshapes the truth to protect the President, those traditional healthier values begin to break down. Thanks to Trump, we have begun to consciously think in terms of a world where words have no fixed meaning; where there are no real facts. Forty nine Senators just voted for a health care bill that they all knew was a damaging fraud. To Trump it appears that the content (the facts) of the proposed health care law never mattered. He never seemed to have been interested in what was in it. What mattered was winning.
With General John Kelly this week becoming the President’s Chief of Staff, the two value systems will be in direct confrontation. Kelly comes from a world steeped in values, discipline, and honor. A four star general with long experience in command, Kelly confronts a person who is almost a perfect opposite. It will amount to a contest between two very different value systems. Donald Trump has the Office. General Kelly does not suffer fools gladly and is used to being in command. It could become a truly consequential psychodrama.
Commentators often seemed puzzled by the affinity Donald Trump feels for Vladimir Putin but it should be no surprise. Putin could argue that his one man rule is justified by the need to quickly revive the glory (slava), that Russia has lost. It must be difficult for Putin (a small man with a limp), looking out on the vast Moscow Kremlin not to believe that some of that glory should really be his own. Donald Trump seems to worship wealth. Vladimir Putin is far richer that Trump ever was. Putin’s real estate, his twenty massive homes (including the one billion dollar Putin’s Palace in Praskoveevka on the Black Sea) have to elevate him in Trump’s eyes. For both Trump and for Putin, the world they have been allowed to create really centers around themselves. For Donald Trump, unable to relate to others normally, the world must sometimes seem a lonely place. Having Vladimir Putin out there means that he is not alone. There is someone else like him.
All this should not be taken to mean that Donald Trump cannot do good. He is a strong personality. He has abundant energy. The Republicans in Congress are for the moment lost. They have become so enamored with obstruction that they now keep busy obstructing each other. Donald Trump seems to have no loyalty to them. In a way, their ineffectiveness sets him free. He could listen to the better angels of his being and really do things that would help some of those less well off people who helped him gain the nomination. He could then do something that would, in the end, really be to the greater glory that he seems forced to seek. For now, the drama continues.