Manipulating Trump

Trump’s Tower of Vulnerability – Part 5

Trump’s psychological profile points to several ways in which he can be manipulated to meet the purposes of others, adversaries or allies. Tactics of manipulation can be divided along two general paths, depending on the aim of the potential influencers – whether they want to get Trump to help them or to damage himself. Many actors with many varied interests and motives – individuals, domestic groups, or foreign governments – may want to pursue either of these paths for different reasons.

Although Trump has many weakness and character flaws that can be exploited to the benefit of others, three critical points of vulnerability stand out from his profile:

  • his need for praise
  • his need to be seen as smart
  • his need to be right

To paraphrase the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. For President Trump, it will be his unknown unknowns that make him such a fertile target for manipulation. Although it is now common knowledge and easily extracted from his public biography, Trump does not know he is a narcissist. He does not know his need for praise and admiration is rooted in deep unconscious feelings of worthlessness. He does not know he is not nearly as smart as he believes he is. He does not know that many of  his most cherished beliefs and understandings of reality are dead wrong. He does not know that most of the people he relies on for advice and counsel are third-rate minds fueled by resentment, racism, bigotry, and little relevant experience. Any of these unknown unknowns can be leveraged to manipulate Trump.

Getting Trump to do your bidding

First, it is worthwhile to note that Trump is unlikely to be swayed by moral arguments or admonitions to “do the right thing.” His narcissistic self-centeredness and lack of empathy for others will automatically render such arguments suspect in his eyes. His natural inclination will be to assume they contain hidden interests that may run counter to his own.

In order to get Trump to do what you want him to do, you must first convince “conscious Trump” that the proposed action will benefit one or more of his three personal objectives: wealth, status, or fame. Although President Trump will always be the highest-status person in the room, and probably the most famous person in the world, proposals that he believes will increase his standing with the public or enhance his personal legacy as a great President will attract his attention. And of course any proposal that promises to increase his wealth and enhance his family business is also likely to get a favorable hearing.

The key to getting through to “unconscious Trump” is flattery. One of the most revealing aspects of Trump’s performance during the election campaign was his obsession with flattery, whether as an interpretation of his poll ratings (when they were high) or as an endless recitation of compliments he had been paid, such as Vladimir Putin’s supposed statement that he was “brilliant” (in fact, Putin apparently only said he was “flamboyant,” but that didn’t stop Trump from repeating the claimed compliment over and over again).

Flattery is most likely to be effective with Donald Trump when it provides him with external validation of his deepest unconscious vulnerabilities. He has a bottomless need for praise and appears to be susceptible to even the most sycophantic and obsequious forms of idolatry. His need for praise is so great that he seems to have no internal capacity to separate sincere compliments from even the most insincere flattery. Foreign governments are already taking this vulnerability into account as they prepare for upcoming interactions with President Trump.

In summary, manipulating Donald Trump to either reward you or agree with you is most likely to succeed when your approach includes the following elements (exemplars in parentheses):

  • Frame your proposal explicitly in terms of his own self-interests (Steve Bannon).
  • Pretend you are awed and honored to be in his presence (Mike Pence).
  • Tell him how great he is – how admirable, how smart, how prescient. No amount of praise, no matter how insincere or artificial, will be too much (Rudy Giuliani).
  • Make it clear that you are his inferior and can in no way threaten his preeminent status (Rance Priebus).

Getting Trump to self-destruct

Many people want and expect Trump to fail as President. As noted above, his narcissistic personality disorder will take him a long way toward that eventual result, even in the absence of provocation. But many feel that Trump is so dangerous, to both the country and the world, that any efforts to accelerate his collapse should be encouraged and promoted.

The keys to attacking Trump were put on full display by Hillary Clinton in the three Presidential debates. Clinton did not just defeat Trump intellectually, she baited his emotional fragility, forcing him into self-defeating responses by targeting many of his deepest vulnerabilities and triggering his most offensive behavioral propensities: bullying, insulting, demeaning, lying, and revenge-seeking. The result was exactly what Clinton intended, a clear demonstration of his unfitness for the Presidency.

Unfortunately for Clinton, Trump still won the Presidency, despite her successful efforts (along with those of many journalists) to expose the full extent of his debilitating character and personality flaws. What Clinton and her supporters did not realize, and what cost her the election, was the fact that a good portion of the electorate did not care that Trump was unfit for office, or chose not to believe the allegations. Why Trump won the election, despite being the least fit major-party candidate in Presidential history, is a topic for another time. The important point here is that Trump’s electoral victory occurred at the hands of others – as uninformed, misinformed, or fully-informed as they may have been – but his success as President will be fully in his own hands, depending on his ability to lead and influence within a universe of political actors far more sophisticated, skilled,  motivated, and self-interested than any of the citizen-voters he cajoled into voting for him.

For those political actors who want to manipulate Trump by intimidating him, distracting him, triggering his worst behavioral tendencies, or otherwise throwing him off his game, his psychological profile offers a number of suggestions:

  • Question his wealth.
  • Question his legitimacy.
  • Question his intelligence.
  • Expose his ignorance.
  • Call out his lies.
  • Insult him.
  • Fail to show him deference.
  • Withhold acknowledgement of his status.
  • Ignore him.

For anyone considering these tactics, keep in mind that they will most likely trigger a withering Presidential assault on you and whatever interests you represent. Unless you are prepared to withstand the full force of an unhinged counter-attack by the most powerful man in the world, you should think twice about launching any of these challenges.

Final thoughts

Donald Trump’s psychological profile reveals a number of vulnerabilities that make him both more predictable and more susceptible to manipulation than any American President in recent history. Just as Trump failed to “pivot” time and again during the campaign, there is no reason to expect him to become more “presidential” and alter either his motives or his default behaviors once he assumes office. Leaders around the world are being told that Donald Trump is a pathological narcissist who is oblivious to his own weaknesses, biases, and ignorance. They are being told he is subject to irrational outbursts that can threaten his own goals, his country’s well-being, the interests of other countries, and the stability of the world.

Donald Trump is about to become the most minutely observed narcissist in history. His ability to withstand such scrutiny seems minimal. What we are likely to see in a Trump Presidency is four years (more or less) of conflict-of-interest scandals, constant personnel churn, policy paralysis, broken promises, and unending feuds with all manner of enemies, including the media, political opponents, and foreign governments, both allies and adversaries. How this will all end is anyone’s guess, but those who can predict and manipulate Trump by understanding his psychological profile will be best positioned to take advantage of Donald Trump’s tower of vulnerabilities.

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