Why the chaotic mind of Donald Trump is strangely and terrifyingly fascinating
My partner and I have been fighting about politics since we met in 1965. I was 13. She was 18 and my summer camp counselor. (It was another 14 years before we became a couple.) We spent that first summer arguing about the Vietnam War. I was convinced that the U.S. never should have gotten involved there. Though she agreed, she was more concerned that the growth of an antiwar movement would distract people from what she considered far more crucial to this country: the Civil Rights movement. As it happened, we were both right.
She took off that fall for college at the University of California, Berkeley, where, as she says, she majored in history with a minor in rioting. I went back to junior high school. And we’ve been arguing about politics ever since.
So maybe it’s no surprise that, since the coronavirus pandemic exploded, we’ve been fighting about the president. Not about his character (vile and infantile, we both agree) or his job performance (beyond dismal), but about whether anyone with a conscience should watch his never-ending television performances. Since 2016, she’s done her best not to expose herself to either his voice or his image, and she’s complained regularly about the mainstream media’s willingness to broadcast his self-evident lies, to cover any misconceived or idiotic thing he might decide to say at rally after rally as if it were actual news. More recently, she’s said the media should send their interns to cover his Covid-19 “news” conferences. (Of course, MSNBC and CNN now no longer always broadcast those events, whose ratings the president so treasures, in full. In fact, by April 13th, CNN appeared to have let their chyron writer off the leash to run legends below that day’s news conference like “Angry Trump turns briefing into propaganda session” and “Breaking news: Trump refuses to acknowledge any mistakes.”)
For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been watching each live broadcast of the Trump Follies, otherwise known as the White House daily coronavirus task force briefings. Readers who, like me, remember the Vietnam War may also recall the infamous “Five O’Clock Follies,” the U.S. military’s mendacious daily briefings from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, during that endless conflict. There, its spokesmen regularly offered evidence, including grimly inflated “body counts” of enemy dead, that allowed them to claim they were winning a losing war. The question today, of course, is whether the present pandemic version of those follies offers at least a small glimmer of hope that the president may now be mired in his own Covid-19 version of Vietnam.
After I’ve spent a couple of irretrievable hours of my life gaping at the muddled mind of Donald Trump, I always feel a sickening sensation, as if I’d kept eating Oreo cookies long after they stopped tasting good. But it doesn’t matter. The next day, I just turn it on again. I wonder if it’s people like me who are responsible for that TV ratings bump of his?
It took my partner a while to catch on to what I’ve been doing. The reason: like an alcoholic whose bottles are stuffed away in secret corners, I’ve been hiding this perverse habit by sneaking down to the basement and watching while working on my loom. Or I would catch my Trump fix while she was out on the streets of San Francisco taking photographs for her 10-year project to both walk and record every voting precinct in the city.
But one evening, returning a little early, she walked in on me before I had time to slam the laptop cover down. “Nobody should be watching those press conferences!” she said emphatically, when she twigged to what I’d been up to. “How can you sit there and listen to lies? Why are you exposing yourself to that crap? Anything you actually need to know you can read in newspaper summaries the next day.”
What’s the Appeal?
And I have to admit that those were fair questions. Why am I exposing myself to such a pure, unmediated stream of falsehoods, ignorance, and preening self-congratulation day after day? Why, though I loathe his lies as much as she does, do I keep listening to them in real time? As he typically said at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 6th, “Anybody that wants a [coronavirus] test can get a test”; “The tests are all perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right?... This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good." (No one knows what “letter” he was referring to, though he probably meant the summary transcript of his phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.)
Why don’t I switch the press conferences off when he begins to praise and congratulate himself as he always does? (“I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”; “Every one of these [CDC] doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should’ve done that instead of running for president.”)
Why am I fascinated by the way just about everyone on the podium fawns all over him, starting with Vice President Mike Pence, the titular head of “the president’s” Coronavirus Task Force (unless, this week, it’s Jared Kushner)? Why do I keep listening to Pence intoning, “The president has directed that...” or referring to “President Trump’s 15-day coronavirus guidelines,” as if Trump himself had written them and designed the oversized postcard outlining them, which arrived in people's mail at the end of March? Why am I mesmerized as assorted business “leaders” like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell trip over themselves outdoing each another in praising the president? Lindell, in fact, used his minute and a half of fame to tell the world that God had essentially elected Donald Trump in 2016. (I guess that explains it! I knew I hadn’t voted for him.)
I think what provides me (and so many others) with that nightly hit of dopamine is the sheer brazenness of the president’s lies on show for all to see. Not for him the mealy-mouthed half-truth, the small evasion. No, his are, like the rest of his persona, grandiose in a way that should be beyond belief, but remains stubbornly real.
Here he is, for instance, in mid-March, speaking of Americans flying back from Europe: “If an American is coming back or anybody is coming back, we’re testing. We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested... We’re not putting them on planes if it shows positive, but if they do come here, we’re quarantining.” Anyone who saw the photos of weary travelers crammed together in U.S. airports then knows that none of this was faintly accurate. But no matter.
Then there’s Trump’s use of those television performances and the audiences they garner as the ultimate measure of presidential achievement. By now, who isn’t familiar with his delight in the ratings the coronavirus press briefings have attracted? As he tweeted on March 29th:
“Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him,’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!”
So it’s no surprise that he also uses media ratings as the metric by which he judges the performance of everyone working to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. For him, governing is nothing but a performance. At his March 29th briefing, for example, he gave himself credit for the media attention being paid to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and someone he called “the General” (whose name he seemed to have forgotten). After observing that the Washington Post, like my partner, thinks Americans should shun his pressers, he pointed out that he’d inaugurated other people’s TV careers:
“We’re getting the word out. We’re getting the accurate word out. And a lot of people are happy about it, and a lot of people aren’t. But they should be happy. When I have the General, when I have Seema [Verma, head of Medicare and Medicaid Services], and when I have Tony [Fauci], and when I have our -- our incred- -- these are, like, people that have become big stars, okay?”
Then there’s the astonishing ignorance he’s so happy to put on display regularly, as at the April 10th task force briefing. Asked whether “reopening” the country would depend on having enough Covid-19 tests available to make it possible to do surveillance and contact tracing, he replied that such tests would be unnecessary in “vast areas of the country” because they don’t (yet) have outbreaks. Given that no state by then lacked coronavirus cases, it was yet one more display of his inability to grasp the basics of the potential for exponential growth in a highly contagious disease.
Finally, there’s the eternal assumption in just about everything he says that no one could possibly know more about any subject than he instantly grasps. In a terrifying exchange on April 10th, a reporter asked what metrics he would use in deciding when and how to reopen the country, a decision he had just falsely claimed he has “absolute authority” to enforce.
“The metrics right here,” he replied, pointing to his temple and, presumably, the brain behind it. “That’s my metrics. That’s all I can do. I can listen to 35 people. At the end, I got to make a decision.” He went on to explain that he had just figured out how big a decision it was. “And I didn’t think of it until yesterday. I said, ‘You know, this is a big decision.’” Who could possibly have known how big a decision it was until that very moment when the president claimed to have grasped that reality?
In the end, maybe what truly draws me to those news conferences and keeps me hooked is the cognitive dissonance of it all. I’ve never been a fan of reality TV, partly because I don’t like watching people be mean to one another, but mainly because what happens on such shows is anything but “real.” Mean (or “nasty”) as he may be, Trump’s press conferences are real. And isn’t that the contradiction, the eerie fascination, of it all -- that the unbelievable is actually true? Donald Trump is, in fact, the president of the United States, even if watching each of those televised events is like encountering a creature from another dimension, a being who simply doesn’t conform to earthly reality. And that, in a terrifying way, is fascinating. I can’t look away.
The field of mathematics called chaos theory, which deals with extremely complex, dynamic systems like the movements of liquids or gasses, has a concept called “strange attractors.” An attractor is a point that a graph of the system keeps cycling around and returning to over time. (Not being a mathematician, that’s the best I can do.) Strange attractors are fractal, meaning that each part of one of them will display the same pattern no matter how much you magnify it, no matter how deep you go -- in other words, very much like the mind of Trump.
Some strange attractors are part of chaotic systems that don’t repeat at any regular interval and will vary greatly over time. The weather is like that; a small difference in temperature or pressure at a given moment can affect whether a local change becomes a hurricane. But if a chaotic system has strange attractors, then, over many years, the same initial conditions will most often settle into one of two results, the equivalents of a clear day or a bad storm. You can’t say what will happen in any given year, but you can say what is most likely to happen over 100 years. As Wikipedia puts it, “Thus a dynamic system with a chaotic [strange] attractor is locally unstable yet globally stable.”
Should -- the gods and statistics forbid -- Trump win reelection this November, we’ll have a real-life example of a system that is locally unstable, but globally horribly stable for the next four years. In his case, of course, we’re talking about how a “very stable genius” will be able to spin the chaos he creates into an ever more authoritarian regime.
Oh, and as that Wikipedia article adds, “Strange attractors may also be found in the presence of noise...” Let me apologize instantly for perverting some poor mathematician’s meaning, but how can I not point out that our presidential Strange Attractor is indeed surrounded by the constant noise of the media, fake and otherwise, cycling around and feeding off the one constant point that is Trump in the chaos of his universe.
So who’s right, my girlfriend or me? Just as was true years ago, I suspect we’re both right. No one should engage with that chaotic noise and the strange attractor at its center. All of us should deprive Donald Trump of attention of every sort, which is the oxygen that sustains him. And yet, someone has to watch, because strange as it is, our lives depend on it.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Copyright 2020 Rebecca Gordon