The Psychological is Political

We are now living in Donald Trump’s psyche and it is a frightening place.

In my late-night reaction to Monday’s debate, I wrote:

It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.

The stress of Monday’s beating caused Trump to unravel as predicted. He initially claimed victory by pointing to Internet polls stuffed by his supporters, but when every scientific survey released mid-week made it clear he had lost ground to Clinton he abandoned his denial and started lashing out. Because there is no model in Trump’s world for losing, and certainly no model for losing to a woman, his words and actions betrayed a desperate attempt to restore equilibrium. The redirected object of his rage was Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe whose weight and ethnicity had been derided years ago by the candidate, as Clinton pointedly noted at the close of Monday’s debate. Trump spent the better part of the week re-litigating his relationship to Machado, culminating in a bizarre Twitter rant in the early hours of Friday morning, where he called Machado disgusting, urged Americans to check out her (nonexistent) sex tape, and accused Clinton—once again cast in the role of “Crooked Hillary”—of helping Machado become an American citizen in order to use her as a debate prop.

Trump’s actions baffled political professionals who accurately regarded them as self-destructive. But it should be clear by now that Trump’s campaign is a deeply personal representation of his inner life. Actions that make little sense in conventional political terms can be understood as gratifying his gaping emotional needs. He is a deeply aggrieved man, easily set off by the smallest slight, consumed by the need to assert his superiority. His rhetoric is all about being a winner, about how everyone who is not with him is a loser.

This yielded political benefits with Republican primary voters hungry for an alpha candidate. His primary campaign rallies were primal events where he would boast of victories and high poll numbers as proof of his superiority while encouraging his supporters’ vengeance against political opponents and ordinary citizens who would dare to challenge their inevitable ascendance. Politics can be cruel to someone so insecure that they need to win all the time, but in this tumultuous year, Trump’s angry inner monologue has generated unbreakable loyalty from those who themselves feel aggrieved and put down.

That long stretch of the campaign during the winter and spring must have been unbelievable for his ego. He was effortlessly winning primaries across the country almost every week. But he is not winning now. He has been losing since the general election started, when he had to confront voters who view his attempts to dominate others as boorish and belligerent. He has been losing even when the polls appeared close, and despite his initial bravado he knows he lost badly last Monday night.

What happens to someone with Trump’s emotional baggage when they’re losing? What happens when they face losing in front of the entire world? If Trump can never admit defeat, there will always have to be an explanation for his loss, someone or something to blame for his failure, like an unfair moderator or a malfunctioning microphone. If he’s losing then something has to be rigged, because he’s a winner and winners always win. The debate, the election—of course he would be winning if things were fair. How could it be otherwise? But Trump’s flailing behavior suggests he knows he is boxed in, forced to compete on a level where he does not belong. He can attack, but if his attacks fail to re-establish his dominance he may feel he has no choice but to rationalize a reason to withdraw. Two debates loom, as does the general election, and he remains in a self-destructive spiral.

If defeat comes, Trump will walk away and leave others to repair the wreckage like he has done his entire life. But this time we will be dealing with something far more serious than bankrupt casinos. What will become of his supporters who were promised victory? How would they react if the person they see as the last chance to change the direction of the country through ordinary political means is defeated at the polls? How would Trump invite them to react? The candidate can move on to another venture, but the market for his pathological campaign will remain and is far more dangerous than the imagined grievances of an imperfect demagogue.

Trump is a sideshow. Trumpism is the main event we will be living with long after the election is over.