Trump's Healthy Humiliations

Was Jackie Gleason a narcissist? Gleason was a wonderful comedian at a time of genuinely funny comedy in America. In the classic television series "The Honeymooners", Gleason (as Ralph) and his no-nonsense wife (Alice) played off each other in funny and innocent ways -- with none of the sadistic cruelty peddled by our late-night comics. Jackie “The Great One” Gleason played a boastful egomaniacal bus driver, who got his comeuppance from Alice at the end of every single show.

Boastful men who get their just rewards for big audience laughs have been a comedy staple for centuries. Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman is a very funny early modern play that still works for us because the Gentleman is a proud fool who gets suckered over and over again by a pompous scholar, using big and impressive words. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is another famous example. Mark Twain used the boastful dunderhead motif for the two con men in Tom Sawyer, a phony Duke and an even phonier Dauphin. 

Jack Benny used the same gag over and over again, and managed to make it seem new for decades. Laurel and Hardy used it. Charlie Chaplin did it in The Great Dictator

It’s the ancient tale of hubris and nemesis. It’s the biter bit. It’s pride before a fall. And every boaster needs a trickster to set him up. The vaudeville pratfall is a pure physical comedy gag, but the idea is still the same. The more pompous the character, the bigger the pratfall. 

Humans have an endless appetite for tricksters and their puffed-up targets. 

Enter Donald Trump, and now the big, big question is whether he’s dropping his media bombs as a trickster or not. Trump goes for audience laughs in his reality shows. But real narcissists are not famous for their sense of humor. 

I have a clear mental image of Obama’s instant heavy frown when Paul Ryan questioned him several years ago on television. Obama does not tolerate dissent, according to many sources. He does not take advice, period. His mind is amazingly rigid, and one reason is that he does not know how to listen and learn from dissent. That classic bit of microaggression on television has probably been studied all over the world -- it is just so revealing. 

Since most people have no control over “leaked” facial expressions, Obama’s instant frown was probably the real Obama. I don’t think he can control his personality. He certainly can’t laugh at himself. Like some Stanislavsky Method actors, Obama becomes his own spinning narrative from day to day. 

(Obama quote: “You know, sometimes I believe my own bullshit?”)

I have a great deal of admiration for Dr. Sam Vaknin, one of the world’s experts on narcissism -- a hugely important topic in politics today. True narcissists can be very dangerous in positions of power. Josef Stalin was actually diagnosed as a narcissist by a Soviet psychiatrist who knew him personally. (The doctor was assassinated the next day). 

Dr. Vaknin makes a case for Trump as a genuine case of NPD. (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). Vaknin’s observations are true enough, but the tricky question is whether Trump is playing Jackie Gleason or not. 

Or -- is Trump simply using the same old comedy gag that brought him national fame in show biz? Trump usually starts his shows as a boastful bad guy (You’re Fired!). By the end of the show he turns out to be good old lovable Uncle Don, the Boastful Ego, but we guess he’s really okay. His audiences love the extended gag, and they keep coming back for more. People in show biz recognize it for what it is, because it’s an ancient formula. 

Would Trump pull essentially the same gag at the start of his election campaign, when every candidate has to go for the biggest screaming headlines? Early in the election game there’s no such thing as bad publicity -- but at some point presidential candidate must act presidentially. 

The key question is whether Trump will gradually drop his bad guy act when he needs to prove his seriousness. If he can't do that, the voters are likely to switch to Ted Cruz. 

My guess is that Trump was a badly spoiled brat, a kind of would-be narcissist. His father sent him to a military academy, where every cadet is humiliated over and over again, and then built up by earning respect for meeting tough challenges every day, like Marine Corps training. 

The only thing that can cure NPD is a long diet of bloody noses. They don’t respond to talking therapy, but let them run into the same brick wall over and over again, and they can learn to grow up. Trump entered the military academy as a snot-nosed troublemaker, and four years later emerged as the head of the cadet corps. It took a lot of bloody noses to get there. 

Trump has written another (!) autobiography on that theme, called The Art of the Comeback, all about his humiliating failures, and his ability to bounce back. Trump’s business career has been a repetition of military academy. His giant failures are at least as important as his successes. Without repeated failures and comebacks, Trump would be another Obama. 

The difference from Obama is that long history of painful setbacks and comebacks. Obama has always been surrounded by adoring fans, and still has genuine trouble dealing with setbacks. What Freud called the Reality Principle is the key to responsible adulthood. 

Reality is what happens whenever you run into that brick wall. Again.

Differential diagnosis is very hard -- which is one reason why politicians get away with lying. But there is a reality test: If the Jackie Gleason script is correct, Trump will start to change his public persona soon, until the average voter has forgotten how obnoxious he’s been. 

If he can’t act like a responsible adult, we will know it very soon. 

I’m betting on good old Uncle Don emerging some time soon, just like his television routine. But the proof of the pudding… we should know the answer very soon. 

Trump is now running out of time to prove himself to the voters. 

I think he’s planned this provocative performance all along, and if I’m wrong about that, I’ll vote for Ted Cruz. 

It’s nice to have a choice. 

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