I have Asperger's (AS). If you've followed me for longer than a week on Twitter, I'm not sure how you're unaware of this fact--it's pretty much all I talk about. But if you were unaware, now you know. That's it, that's the entire post.
Just kidding, that was called a "Story Hook" opening paragraph, neat huh? Having AS imparts certain challenges, like the fact that I am incapable of deception. It's not just hard, it's uncomfortable. The feeling of being in someone else's skin is palpable and like pressure rising the longer it lasts. Unfortunately, I've learned through years' worth of hard lessons, that most people do not have this challenge. In fact, most people slip in and out of disguises as a routine part of their daily life and don't even realize it. Has your voice ever risen in order to sound more polite when ordering something from a restaurant or over the phone? Yeah, I thought so.
We are masters of disguise, and no group of people are more adept at it than politicians. Once, a while back, a therapist of mine warned me that I trusted too easily and that the default position of most people is to intuitively distrust people they meet and to require their trust be earned over time. Why? Because we don't like to be hurt. We instinctively protect ourselves from predation by unscrupulous actors everyday of our lives, and we do so almost subconsciously. It strikes me as puzzling given the natural disposition to protect ourselves from random people we meet by withholding our trust that people are so willing to trust the branding of politicians. And that's exactly what it is, don't fool yourselves.
Why, then, do people assume that Barack Obama and Donald Trump are materially different in their character as a human being? Or Trump and Bush, for that matter. Or any other politicians? Is Donald Trump the first narcissist that's ever held the Presidency? Charles Krauthammer had this to say about President Obama back in 2014:
“This is a guy, you look at every one of his speeches, even the way he introduces high officials — I’d like to introduce my secretary of state. He once referred to ‘my intelligence community.’ And in one speech, I no longer remember it, ‘my military.’ For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor, Napoleon."
Is Obama's insistence upon highlighting his own authority throughout his speeches less narcissistic than Donald Trump saying "I had the largest inauguration crowd ever!" Or is it simply a matter of recency bias coupled with the fact that Donald Trump's style is more garish than Obama's?
More importantly, however, is the question of who is the real Barack Obama. Who are any of our politicians? Are they who they sell themselves as or something different? Perhaps something worse than we can imagine? Their continued existence hinges upon their ability to convince the voting population that they deserve to keep earning their vote. Color me shocked that politicians might have an incentive baked in to the cake to misrepresent who they are as a person in order to achieve the aforementioned goal of re-election. How can one confidently assert the moral character of a politician based solely on the character they present to the masses? No, I posit that you cannot.
Sure, people will say, "but Phil, look at their actions. Actions speak louder than words and obviously Donald Trump had done X,Y, and Z which are [insert negative adjective here]. Barack Obama would never be so disrespectful, rude, lacking empathy,etc." To which I'd retort, "and you know this how?" Because you see, the Obama that we all know is the Obama that was manufactured for mass consumption, and without knowing who he is behind closed doors, no matter of pointing to his public conduct bears relevance. After all, we are rarely betrayed by the person we expect to be betrayed by. No, most frequently we are betrayed by those we trust, because they are smiling at us while twisting the knife in our backs. There is no incentive to broadcasting a betrayal ahead of time. There's also no incentive to believing any politician is who they say they are.
So far, I've made a lot of points about Obama while leaving Trump mostly alone and the AS nugget stranded at the intro to this piece, but now we're going to return to them. One of skills I've learned to compensate for deficiencies is to recognize who is the real version of people I get to know. I have never, ever, in my entire life, been able to confidently assert the true nature of a politician-- enter Trump stage left. Trump is a political enigma in more ways than one.
Many of those ways have been written about ad nauseum for years now. One of those ways is in how he presents himself. We've grown accustomed to thinking authenticity in a politician means they are passionate and consistent about their beliefs. Bernie Sanders is considered authentic because he shouts a lot and has refused to update his horrible positions for 50 years. This is an artificially low bar. We have no clue whether Bernie Sanders is "authentic" we simply know he's good at maintaining a character. Now, don't get me wrong, Bernie Sanders might be the authentically radical geriatric we all think we know, but for all intents and purposes, you don't know that and I don't know that. As if it's inconceivable for a politician to recognize that voters expect them to be something and they deliver by being that something. As if Bernie Sanders isn't aware of what leftists want to hear. No. Removed from the distorting effects of the political arena and judged solely on whether you have enough information to determine whether Bernie Sanders is a good person or not, he exists in two states simultaneously: good person and bad person. He, like Barack Obama, both Bushes, Reagan, et al. all do. And this isn't controversial.
Think about how you approach people you don't intimately know in real life. Do you frequently take their advice to heart? Do you follow what they tell you to do? Do you share personal information about yourself? No, why would you? You recognize there's a risk that someone bad is in front of you and might take advantage of your trust. You might not consciously be thinking about it, but in reality, all of us go through life assuming people we don't know could be bad or good, and it's why we take measures to protect ourselves. The same applies to politicians and it's even more important to protect yourselves from people with the power to control you and the incentive to lie to you about their intent.
Notably, Donald Trump does not have this problem. Donald Trump is not duplicitous, he is a political enigma in that he has no desire to present two versions of Donald Trump. He couldn't even if he wanted to: while Bernie Sanders toiled away as the mayor of a small city in Vermont or an irrelevant Senator with no national audience for the majority of his career, Donald Trump has lived his entire adult life under a media microscope. His every movement and comment documented. We know who Donald Trump is, he can't fool us. He has no interest in it. This is the man that has accused women of bleeding from various orifices and said he'd put his opponent in jail on a debate stage.
This is a man without a shit to give and a personality too large to constrain. In a world of unknown commodities, you get what you buy with Trump. He''ll sometimes be coaxed into some more generic political act that requires him to put on a more serious mask and you can feel the lack of comfort on his face, it's unnatural, it's obvious he is assuming a different role than he naturally feels at home in. Can you say the same about Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders? Can you tell when they are paying you lip service and when they are sincere? I don't think you can, but I think we feel anxious with the unknown so we do a nice little mental shortcut of trying to derive character out of what a politician does and says when we would never do the same for anyone else.
Ultimately, politicians are salespeople, and the product they are selling is themselves; not Conservatism, not Socialism, not Populism, not any specific policy issue, not competent governance, not peace, not unity. Themselves. When confronted with a known commodity and one that could plausibly exist as both bad and good and for which you have no way of confirming one way or the other, it's irrational--one could even argue immoral-- to not choose Trump, but to blindly choose whatever exists inside that box. No matter how much confidence you have in what you might find inside, there's always a chance that you open it to find a monster.