The Making of Donald Trump’s Mind

An Opinion Piece by German / American Interculturalist Patrick Schmidt

Back in the “Golden ’fifties”, the world was in awe of the American Way of Life. Elvis Presley, the Fleetwood Cadillac and “from dishwasher to millionaire” all reflected the culture. Fulfilling desires was a perfect response to life’s challenges and the formula quickly spread around the world.

Business Education Group

But this perception has changed radically since Trump’s election. The U.S. is no more seen as a model for the rest of the world, with Donald Trump’s shallow intellect, public bullying, disdain for facts, and nihilistic decision-making in the service of an us-against-them celebration of “America First”.

“America First” means only a certain America. Ironically, it resembles the media images alluded to above — TV from 50 years ago. Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, immigrants of any kind are virtually invisible, as are homosexuals and anyone else seen as too different to fit in (hippies, socialists, atheists, the handicapped).

Donald Trump personifies a sizable segment of “Middle America”, people who avoid complicated questions, prefer simple answers and some form of instant gratification. This gradually withers the ability to think beyond an elementary — and subjective —worldview. Hence, the preference to bomb the hell out of anybody who doesn’t agree with us rather than spending time reconciling complex problems.

But what have been the cultural factors that created such a self-absorbed, ignorant wannabe showman and allowed him to get to the number one position in American society?

Donald Trump, like myself, learned early that what made the country unique was that it was the “land of the free”. Citizens were free to be and do what they wanted — it was a nation of unlimited opportunities, a beacon for people all over the world, which rebelled against the traditions of the Old World and greeted new ideas with enthusiasm.

One in particular was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy that if man decided to believe in the good of others, society would become highly efficient and dynamic because trusting people would eliminate the time-consuming process of doubting and judging. It was exactly what America needed to develop itself; when building a nation, decisions have to be made quickly. “Time is money.”

This simplistic notion of life ignores complexity and nuance and has created the typical American trait of being unsentimental, inherent in a people wishing to break away from the past and march into the unknown. It also paved the way to a certain superficiality in human relations, which magnified itself with increased material prosperity.

Rich natural resources, Yankee ingenuity and shrewdness, few real historical tragedies, and militant individualism, all in the “pursuit of happiness”. It’s no wonder America transformed itself into the most powerful and influential country in the world. The belief that anyone could evolve from “rags to riches” allowed millions of poor immigrants to move up the social ladder. These were the seeds that gave birth to the “happy ending” myth.

This belief, however, sends the childish message that good guys always win and bad guys lose. That’s all fine and dandy for a 10-year-old but when a complicated problem arises, Americans often refuse to see it from every aspect. This is the result of always wanting to believe in the inherent good of everything. When TV was introduced in the 50s, it reinforced this mindset.

By the time Trump hit television in 2004 with his ersatz “reality show”, things were far more cynical. TV had long been used to transform complex issues into superficial images but “The Apprentice” went one step further. It was a Roman circus spectacle for peasants in which a series of victims are humiliated (“You’re fired!”) over the course of a season before one winner is crowned…and given a job. Trump’s audience saw the process like a sports contest, mirroring a simple-minded attitude toward life.

 

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“The Apprentice” provides us a look at Donald Trump’s idea of reality. (Photo Wikipedia)

Now that he’s in the White House, Trump prefers watching cable TV to reading government reports and meeting with advisers. Not only does he not read newspapers, he gets most of his worldview from Fox News reports, which pander to the people who voted for him.

But how has this numbness to real survival issues come about? Excessive material wealth, technology and consumerism may provide a clue.

At the end of WW II, the U.S. found itself in a unique position in the world — unlike Europe and Asia, its massive production facilities were virtually untouched. It converted its manufacturing potential into peace-time goods and catapulted the country into a consumer paradise of unbelievable dimensions.

Add to this the technological revolution, which has profoundly altered our ways of feeling and thinking. Take the pocket calculator, for example. At first glance, it saves an enormous amount of time and frees you from laborious mental calculations. What we forget is that it leads us one step further toward non-involvement.

The long-term consequences of passively consuming technological goodies (from TV to the iPad) have slowly resulted in a couch-potato lifestyle, exemplified by Homer, star of “The Simpsons”.

Worship for both consumerism and technology creates insecurity by sheltering us from real-life experiences. We notice far too late that our thinking and judgment have gradually diminished. This is clearly noticeable when you meet a person who exclaims “wow” as a reflex but can’t explain why. One gets the feeling that this person doesn’t want to pursue the thought any further and is perhaps unable to communicate in any real depth. A high degree of non-involvement often generates a half-developed personality.

Trump’s rallies, both before his election and since, regularly feature primal chanting and barely-disguised racist themes. Trump’s own speech patterns are similar, as well as the lack of detailed thought. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

In the early ‘70s, I already sensed the symptoms of a non-involved lifestyle. Growing up in the southern California, I experienced the era of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”, pushed to the extreme. California was engrossed with hedonic “wow” pleasures and far more advanced in material consumerism than the rest of the country.

The Eagles’ song “Hotel California” articulates this perfectly. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew a society couldn’t last long if its highest goal was only that of continuous pleasure.

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The Eagles’ worldwide hit describes a consumer society gone amok. (Photo Wikipedia)

Those were the conditions when I left the country at 23 and ended up in Stuttgart by sheer accident. It was such a sharp human contrast — Germans were still recovering from the horrors of WW II and displaying unusually sincere feelings. Human interactions were more real and done with the goal of the betterment of the community. It was like living in the States in the late 1930s as the country was coming out of the Great Depression.

Two generations later, Germany and most other western European countries enjoy a high standard of living but are showing signs of social fatigue, though not to the extent that we see in the U.S.

Each generation of humans has to face circumstances not of its own choosing, where character is measured and spirit is tested. In the last 70 years, the American mindset has embraced an almost magical consumer lifestyle. Many people live a make-believe existence, where real crises can be denied and reality is replaced by a virtual world of memes, tweets, Facebook.

In a fragmented, attention-challenged America, Donald Trump has now become, if not the norm, the President.

Patrick Schmidt Author About the Author – Patrick Schmidt is an intercultural trainer, past President of SIETAR Europa and author of such books as; Understanding American and German Business Cultures (1999) and In Search of Cultural Understanding (2007).

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Trump – What Now? An Opinion Piece by Matthew Hill

Conflict Theory applied to the White House

Having returned from New York last week after the Inauguration and the Women’s Marches, I have digested some of the conversations we had over there and wanted to note a couple of observations from a cultural and conflict resolution point of view.

The White House, US president's residence, in Washington DC

It’s not him

The incongruence between DJT’s place in the White House and his level of communication (enthusiastic schoolboy) proves that he did not get there by merit of his ideas or solutions alone. Let us remember he is result of a large group of Americans who have lost a lot in reality and even more in their imagined mythical version of 1950’s America. Their frustration at the inability of any political party to do anything for them, to listen to them or to understand them is why they voted against politics and why we are here today.

Labels

The most frequent diagnosis of DJT I heard whilst in New York was “Psychopath”. A couple of Facebook posts have supplied compelling arguments for a label of Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Upgraded this week to Malignant Narcissist by one leading psychiatrist.

My issues with labels are that they excuse behaviours. They dissociate the conscious person and the decisions they make from accountability. To take the cultural community view of helping someone with difficulties is not a promising start for the next 4 years – as that person has the nuclear codes.

Macchiavelli

The author of the Prince – the ultimate cynical leader’s handbook would have advised sweeping away the old guard and launching a Blitzkrieg of radical policies that will have everyone reeling in their seats. Job done. The acting Attorney General is on her way and the Ambassadors around the world are packing up too and the intellectuals are failing to process the torrent of proposals leaving the White House.

Statue of Niccolo Macchiavelli in Florence

Niccolò Macchiavelli – The Cynic’s Guide to Leadership

Let us side step the shock and awe phase, get over our feelings of outrage and insult and attempt to be consequent.

Protest

Meeting and talking with the Marchers was the highlight of the trip – The atmosphere was one of an optimistic and loving community validating and celebrating the existence of a vast collection of people with healthy values and a positive spirit. Values based more on love and less on fear.

More on the problem with protest in a moment (1.7 million people in the UK signed a petition this week to reverse the Queen of England’s invitation to DJT for a State visit to the UK with golden carriages, full military honours and the rolling out of the great and the good of Blighty to put in a show for the new leader of the free world.)

Racism

DJT’s bizarre Black History Month breakfast was an historical denial on a grand scale as well as being a denial of DJT’s own baggage. His spinning of the contribution of African Americans – that their hard work laid down the foundations of modern America missed the point by many a mile. They were enslaved.

The point here is that there is no dialogue to be had. No numbers, facts, logic or reason will work against someone with zero interest in empowering the oppressed or curbing the dominance of the dominant. No argument will succeed. This is beyond debate, dialogue and exchange.

Conflict

From the perspective of Conflict Theory, we have moved passed dialogue and beyond cold conflict and are heading towards bipolar antipathy where exchanges are no longer listened to, reason has been thrown out of the window by both parties and negative emotions are triggered by simply seeing the other side or hearing their voice.

There is only one advantage to the HOT conflict phase – it gets dealt with – passive aggression can rumble on for years but when the furniture begins to fly then action is not far behind.

What is to be done?

Classical work on conflict suggests a starting point where energy is spent and attention is focused on the most leveraged areas where change is achievable and victories can be attained.

The post-election wounds are now healing and some brave commentators have uttered the bitter and necessary truth. The educated group who waged intellectual battle have missed the key point – it is not the content of the campaign, it is not the content of new policy – it is the cultural cause of our current situation that must be addressed.

We must give up the right to be right. We must come down from the hill of moral superiority – nothing will be heard from that altitude. It is about acting locally and moving beyond the facts (in Post-Truth America, facts are soooo last year.)

It is about new norms – America gets it political opinions from Netflix, Amazon Prime and Fox News. It is about creating stories, of creating characters with values that mean something. It is about starting an exciting narrative through the medium of drama / faction / story telling. That is the way, over time to tackle the fear that is driving the current political agenda and to move the majority toward a position of hope again.

Travel Ban

Shopping

A tragic example of this fear is the travel ban – with no statistics to back it up an overnight moratorium came in banning Muslims travelling to the US from the 7 Middle Eastern countries – The point is this – The move has the approval of the majority of Americans. They have swallowed it whole. They have heard the messages of fear and most currently choose to believe them. It is not true, but for them in this instance, action beats inaction – This myth provides a little comfort for them in dark times where their own personal reality seems so bleak and unending.

(The ban has been reversed by the courts and is being appealed now by DJT.)

Comment form Milton J. Bennett – Hello Mathew. Writing from the US, where I’ve been since Jan. 20., I’d like to comment on the purpose of the “psychopath” label regarding President Trump. People I have spoken with post shock are seriously considering two things: 1) how to keep the embers of a progressive agenda glowing during what will be a concerted move to the right (beyond the mandate of that slim electoral college win), and 2) how to mitigate the diplomatic credibility damage that is already being done by impetuous executive action. For instance, Khamanei has just said that Trump shows the “true face” of the US. The allegation of mental instability is an attempt to separate Trump from the US image. Some people I’ve talked to who supported Trump (either actively or by inaction), hoping that he would change or that that he would be restrained by “the system,” are now joining in the labeling. The move to the right will continue, but I guess there will be increasingly serious attempts to isolate or remove Trump