The Preacher said there is one wellspring to human folly. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” And the aphoristic Duc de La Rochefoucauld echoed the sentiment, deciding all human behavior came down to amour propre, that is self-love. But those, like our president, who are insecure about their worth are particularly prone to a grotesquely exaggerated search for validation. The signs are everywhere. For example, as La Rochefoucauld notes, “men talk little when vanity does not prompt them.” And Trump never shuts up.
At first Trump’s neediness seems like a peculiar problem for a boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his bullying, judgmental millionaire father who saw the world divided into killers and loses bent this twig into the warped shape of today.
So, Donald was driven to please the old man by emulating him, by being a killer while his weaker, less pliant, alcoholic brother was doomed to play the loser in this family drama. Trump has spent his life trying to surpass his father – Manhattan instead of Queens, billions instead of millions, conspicuous consumption rather than penny pinching.
But no amount of striving, conniving, bragging silences the critical voice of the father’s ghost in his head. So, he is ever needy for praise, fawning sycophants, wins. And he is ever touchy about real or imagined slights, contempt for his gaudy buildings and tawdry behavior, sneers about the size of his hands, of his intellect, of his fortune.
Those around Trump have discerned the key to manipulating this needy child. Flatter his vanity. Obviously, it works. As Trump admitted about Putin: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.” Emotion, not rational analysis, governs his behavior.
So, on his recent trip abroad, the Saudis were no dopes. They gave him a parade, a military flyover, a sword dance and extolled him in excessive, flowery terms. Trump ate it up, pronouncing his welcome “tremendous,” and sold the principle enabler of Islamist extremism $110 billion in weapons. What could go wrong?
By contrast, he met with less adoration in Europe. The Pope gave him an autographed copy of his encyclical on the need to protect the environment. Trump said, “I won’t forget what you said.” But as it turned out, that didn’t mean he would heed the pope’s warning, but that he would remember who his enemies were and get even.
At the G7 and NATO meetings, the attendees regard themselves as members of an exclusive club, which ought to be up Trump’s alley. But they think of this club as a gathering of equals which is not nearly as welcome to our Miles Gloriosus who has to think of himself as unequalled by anyone. After all, he knows more than the generals, the Congress, the press and certainly the Europeans.
So, when they didn’t bow and scrape, he shoved a representative for Montenegro out of his way, he rode a golf cart alone rather than walk with his peers, and still he was subjected to the kind of aggressive, big boy handshake he practices, from French President Macron.
He immediately headed for home where he could do a favor for his fossil fuel rich pals in Saudi Arabia and Russia, and poke a finger in the eye of green Europeans, blue states like California, smarty pants scientists, snotty journalists and loser Democrats by pulling the plug on the Paris Climate Accord that they all love so much.
He justified this in a speech filled with his usual falsehoods and fictions. His statistics largely came from NERA, one of those consulting firms that jigger data to prove whatever those paying the bills want to prove. It was founded by a minion of right-wing media mogul Rupert Murdock and is best known for slanted economic and environmental studies funded by and favorable to the coal industry.
But the real motive for the withdrawal had little to do with climate science or economic forecasting since those issues are murkily hard to figure, like healthcare and taxes as Trump has belatedly recognized. And he isn’t into studying anything beside his own face on television. His aides have learned to put his name in every paragraph of anything they want him to read. Something the Pope’s encyclical neglected to do.
No, his decision had to do with winning. In Trump’s brain, if other countries are for something, American should be against it. If Obama helped build something up, Trump should knock it down. In short, the reason Trump decided to pull out of a global effort to retard climate change has very little to do with policy.
Like Michael Corleone, he may insist “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” But we know better. With him, everything’s personal. He did it so he could say to his enemies, “You people may think you are oh so smart, but I just beat up your climate accord and left it for dead. I win. You lose.” He did it, as he admitted in his prepared remarks because “we don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore.” You can’t get any more unintentionally self-revelatory than that.
You can expect him to appear soon in Kentucky or West Virginia coal country where he isn’t treated like Rodney Dangerfield but can find crowds he can rely on to cheer and cheer and cheer his biggest errors. But such vanity often backfires, as La Rochefoucauld warned. “There are few people who are more often in the wrong than those who cannot endure to be so.” And that’s a vicious circle. The harder they try, the more they err.