How To Nussbaum a Trump


Photo by Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Trumpology, the still-nascent study of Trump, is an interdisciplinary pursuit. I have nothing to add to what many pundits and social scientists have observed about Trump’s politics and policies (such as they are, or as they might come to be). But I do think that philosophers have contributions to make to the field (beyond pointing out that Trump’s tweets are a virtual cornucopia of ad hominem fallacies). For instance, there have been several articles on how Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit seems to apply to Trump’s rhetoric, including this piece by Jeet Heer at the New Republic. (By the way, for an entertaining if over the top primer on Frankfurt’s view of bullshit, see this video). Others have noted how Trump may be the first post-modernist president, which is richly ironic, given how Republicans have vilified post-modernist academics for so many decades. But as far as I know, no one has yet noted how Martha Nussbaum’s “moral psychology” – a type of philosophy that focuses on the psychological determinants of moral and immoral behavior – might help to explain the authoritarian (or, if you prefer, the bullying) aspects of Trump’s personality. I have no reason to think that she had Trump in mind when she developed the ideas I discuss below (why would she have, unless her TV happened to be tuned to The Apprentice while she was writing), but that just makes their “trumpological” relevance all the more remarkable. I also don’t know whether she would agree with how I am applying a very small part of her framework to our new President. Although she made a few remarks about Trump in the context of an interview on anger at The Atlantic, she did not mention how her broader view of the authoritarian personality might apply to him.

The central ideas of Nussbaum’s moral psychology are defended in depth and detail in her Upheavals Of Thought (2001). However, if you lack the time or patience to read that 800+ page tome, many of the same general ideas can be found in her much shorter and more accessable Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). I highly recommend either book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll focus here only on the ideas as they are expressed in Not For Profit.

As with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Nussbaum’s brand of moral psychology has been criticized for over-emphasizing early childhood development. However, Nussbaum regards her developmental views as constituting a mere “narrative”, rather than a scientific theory. As such, she feels little need to present experimental evidence (although she does present some). Rather, she argues that her speculations are well-supported by ordinary experience (including memories of one’s own childhood, observations of other children, clinical observations offered by psychotherapists of their patients, and the deep-dives into experience that the best novelists are capable of. In any case, the question here is not whether her narrative is generalizable, but rather whether it is applicable to the quite particular case of Donald Trump. After all, although Trump’s political ideology and policy prescriptions are far from clear, his personality has been in the spotlight for at least a year and a half, and I believe that Nussbaum’s view of how such a personality might be produced can shed some light on the authoritarian tendencies Trump has plainly displayed. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way of accounting for Trump’s personality… But it’s a possible starting point for biographers and other Trumpologists to consider.

As Nussbaum’s narrative is condensed in Chapter 3 of Not For Profit, it begins with two main observations. First, “Human infants are born, helpless, into a world that they did not make and do not control”, and second, infants (and even newborns) are born with, or else rapidly develop, a significant amount of emotional sophistication. Since for Nussbaum – as for many other philosophers and psychologists – emotions are cognitions or judgments of a situation’s value relative to the subject’s goals or preferences, this implies that young children, infants, and even some non-human animals have a more sophisticated mental life than one might suppose. In the case of most humans, first comes anxiety, which is caused by the infant’s expectation that their immediate needs and desires will be satisfied, along with the fact that sometimes – perhaps often – this expectation is not met. More controversially, perhaps, Nussbaum asserts that this anxiety is accompanied by a primitive type of shame that is caused by the (non-verbal) realization that “one is not in fact omnipotent”. Narcissism, a trait characterized by an obsessive self-focus and an ongoing desire for completeness, power, and control, emerges as a reaction to the primitive anxiety and shame. Complicating matters further, the shame that began as a result of dependency on others is soon joined by disgust at one’s own bodily waste products – an emotion often triggered by toilet training. That disgust, combined with a growing narcissism, leads to projection. We observe this when children stigmatize other children as “having cooties”, but that relatively innocent sort of game can turn much more serious when social influences focus the projection onto subordinate groups. At that point whole populations can be bifurcated into the “pure” and the “impure”. Later, particularly among adolescent males, peer pressure based on socially accepted conceptions of “the real man” (that include unrealistic norms of perfection, invulnerability, and control) tends to further exacerbate the narcissism that began in infancy. Finally, given a social milieu in which most people tend to defer to authority, acquiesce to the dehumanization of vulnerable groups (e.g., the widespread objectification of women), and fail to raise critical or dissenting voices, and the authoritarian personality grows and thrives.

Obviously, this narrative is controversial. I should also stress that it is only a very partial representation of Nussbaum’s view, as she gives an equally detailed analysis (in Upheavals of Thought) of competing developmental processes – involving innate and learned capacities for empathy and compassion – that allow people to avoid developing intense narcissism or an authoritarian personality. However, if this view of authoritarian personality development is right, its value lies in how it can reveal junctures at which parents and societies can intervene in the process to disrupt it, and (on the positive side of the ledger) to encourage the development of an empathetic citizenry capable of participating in a genuine democracy. To that end, Nussbaum goes on to point out ways of countering projective disgust, the pure/impure bifurcation, narcissism, and unrealistic norms of perfection and invulnerability.

So to what extent can Nussbaum’s narrative help to explain Trump? First, Trump’s having been for most of his life the head of a highly successful (whether multi-million or multi-billion dollar) company seems likely to have involved the social factors that could nurture his authoritarian personality, once it had already started to develop. That is, in such a situation, Trump would likely have been surrounded by people who would defer to his authority, and who would feel uncomfortable voicing much dissent. Also, at some point prior to this, Trump, like most other Americans, would have been exposed to the prejudices, racisms, and misogyny that have always permeated American culture. Indeed, these were more intense during Trump’s formative years than they are now. And here is where the rubber really meets the road. For if Nussbaum is right, it was those influences that shaped and amplified Trump’s projective disgust, which was so amply manifested during the campaign. Consistent with the observation that he is misogynistic, it began by his singling out women as targets. For instance, as Alexander Hurst noted in The New Republic:

Last week, Donald Trump was once again disgusted. Commenting on Hillary Clinton’s awkward bathroom break during the last Democratic debate, he said, “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.”

It’s not the first time that Trump has been perturbed by a bodily function. As Frank Bruni noted in his New York Times column, Trump has been publicly disgusted by Marco Rubio’s sweat and by the idea of pumping breast milk. Then there was his notorious comment about Fox News host Megyn Kelly, in which he conveyed an almost visceral revulsion: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

The Trump campaign has stunned bemused pundits by growing in strength with every controversy and outrageous policy proposal, like banning foreign Muslims from entering the United States. It has finally forced them to admit that his success comes not despite these things, but because of them.

What if disgust is a distinct part of that?

What if, indeed?

Similarly, Trump repeatedly manifested the adolescent norms of “real manhood” in his dealings with the other candidates. Perhaps these were cemented into his personality during his years at the military academy he attended, which he fondly remembers as being quite formative. In any case, we all recall how Jeb Bush (and later Clinton) were accused of having “low-energy”, and how Marco Rubio was nicknamed “little-Marco”. Ted Cruz escaped this direct form of belittling, perhaps because Trump sensed that Cruz has narcissistic tendencies (“leadership qualities”?) similar to his own. However, Cruz did have to deal with insults against his wife, which is not surprising on a Nussbaumian analysis. For according to adolescent male ideals, the more attractive a man’s wife or girlfriend is, the more “manly” the man is. If Trump intuited that Cruz shared his own adolescent conception of a “real man”, he also might have supposed that he could successfully attack Cruz by insulting his wife. He did, and it worked: Cruz got suitably rattled. “Real men” don’t get rattled. Finally, when Rubio tried to strike back at the same adolescent level by insinuating that Trump’s little fingers indicated that he has a little penis, Trump proudly remarked that that was certainly not the case. (That’s how “real men” respond to an insult, not by getting rattled but by doubling down). And that response worked, because Rubio was trying to out-bully Trump, a hopeless task given that it takes a lifetime to develop an authoritarian personality of Trumpian proportions, and it was obvious that Rubio was not that type of guy (and Bush was even less so). Commentators, of course, decried the level on which this discourse played out, but that level could have been predicted (and explained) by Nussbaum’s narrative.

Finally, Nussbaum’s narrative might be useful in explaining Trump’s “bromance” with Vladimir Putin. For on that narrative, authoritarian bravado masks a deep insecurity born of unresolved anxiety, shame, and disgust. Trump’s oversized self-image needs constant feeding to counterbalance those negative emotions or self-judgments (this, of course, helps to explain his thin skin). Who better to supply this feeding than a fellow authoritarian like Putin, himself a role model of “male perfection” (as Trump may view him). There might of course be many other factors at work here, including the fact that Trump would feel a natural affinity for another authoritarian who projects disgust at a shared “out-group” (Muslims). The danger, however, is that two authoritarian narcissists make for a very unstable couple. We can only hope that they can resolve whatever problems arise between them by directly comparing their genitals, rather than by launching missiles at each other (and at us).

At this uncertain moment of history, at the very beginning of the Trump Era, my hope is that the authoritarian tendencies Trump has displayed, the obvious (Frankfurtian) bullshit he has spouted, and the negative emotions he has projected, have been mostly for show. Perhaps he is actually more intelligent and compassionate than he seems. Barring that, I hope that he has grown-ups around him – perhaps some of his children! – who can help to mitigate his worst instinctive reactions. The best that can be said of Trump is that his thought processes seem not to be orderly enough to sustain a coherent ideology (for evidence, just try to make sense of his meanderings during this New York Times interview). However, we can only hope that a disorderly mind is not a precursor to a truly disordered one. If it is, philosophy might be our only consolation.