I’m starting to wonder whether Donald Trump, in the early years of this century, might have killed some young woman. Not sexually assaulted her; that’s something he’s apparently been doing, repeatedly, since the early 1980s. I mean killed a woman outright.
I worry about this, as an American, because he’s the president. And because he keeps accusing MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of this exact crime, from this specific period in time. Naturally, as has become custom, Trump makes this allegation publicly without a shred of evidence. But this particular accusation worries me in another way because, as we’re learning, it’s part of a pattern — the outrageous lie that falsely accuses or smears someone else, but actually projects the president’s own anxiety about his having already committed the same crime, or embodying the identical character flaw.
This habit of the president’s, what I have dubbed projection lying, is not to be confused with his reflexive, everyday, run-of-the-mill lying — what he himself calls, in his book Art of the Deal, “truthful hyperbole” (to be fair, it’s the sort of thing one does when selling condos). As the nation has come to understand, this form of fabrication he unleashes almost continually.
Ethically, even psychiatrists aren’t supposed to diagnose the most obvious sociopaths from a distance. But I’m not a psychiatrist (!). And let’s face it: As American citizens in the here and now, we are more or less obliged to scrutinize the president’s lies, to sort them into various categories, subgroups and classifications, then collectively wonder what sort of psychiatric phenomenon leads to all this lying, all these different types of lies. He is our head of state, after all. Other than lies, we don’t get many other types of communication from the man.
In the main, Trump lies largely for the same reasons anyone else does — to deflect blame, to immunize himself from harm (when possible), to shirk responsibility, etc. We’re talking the mother lode of deflection and shirking here.
However, even while taking into account the president’s magisterial portfolio of lies and dissembling styles, I remain fascinated and troubled in particular by the president’s projection lying — the assertion of something clearly false that nevertheless and quite astutely reveals something manifestly true about Trump himself. Here’s a banal example: When he prefaces a statement with, Believe me when I tell you, he’s really saying, “I’m preparing to lie to you. In fact, I’m doing it right now.”
We are sadly conditioned to this phenomenon by now, like a proverbial frog being slowly boiled to death. As noted, the man sold condos when he wasn’t doing the impossible: bankrupting casinos (prior to starring in a “reality” series that celebrated his business acumen!). At this advanced stage, it’s as if we expect him to lie to us… And yet Trump has taken this projection lying to a new, dangerous and strangely fascinating place in 2020, because so many of his lies do reveal what the man’s id, his inner voice, what passes for his soul, is trying desperately to tell us. That’s why the Scarborough lie/smear is so arresting, almost macabre.
The president clearly reckons that if a nemesis like Scarborough were first framed up for murder, Trump could better argue that he was being framed up — or that maybe killing someone isn’t so terrible after all (so long as it was done, perhaps on 5th Avenue, by someone famous enough).
See here a brief catalogue of the variations on this dissembling projection theme. In most every case, it’s pretty obvious what Trump and his subconscious mind are trying to tell us — things we kind of knew to be true already:
- A lot of people are saying = I’m making this up.
- She can’t be trusted = You’d be a fool to trust me.
- How has he not been indicted by now? = I’m quite sure I’ve committed several high crimes or misdemeanors — just in the last 3 days.
- The president cannot be indicted = I’ve committed several indictable acts in the last 48 hours (but I’m going to keep repeating this because Bob Barr says it’s so).
- She can’t be trusted with state secrets = I cannot be trusted with state secrets.
- He’s a security risk = I am a security risk (and so are my children)
- Nobody knows [insert subject matter here] better than me = I know next to nothing about [insert identical subject matter here]
- Who knew health care was so complicated? = I just thought about health care policy for the first time this morning.
- I’ve been treated very badly = I’ve committed a crime and/or shattered a longstanding norm and now I’m dealing with the inevitable consequences.
- Witch hunt = Constitutionally mandated Congressional oversight
- Perfect call = Shakedown
- She’s not my type = Yeah, I raped her.
- He’s lying = I’m lying.
- I guarantee you that conversation never took place = That conversation is digitally recorded.
- I don’t know the guy = We have, in fact, vacationed together.
I could go on. For days! (the Washington Post recently tallied the president’s lies and purposely misleading statements, since January 2017, at more than 20,000). But you get the point.
Why does the president indulge in this sort of projection lying? Yes, Joe Scarborough is a vocal opponent and smearing him potentially diminishes that opposition. Yes, Trump is certainly trying to distract the nation from thousands of Covid-19 victims who died unnecessarily on account of his blinkered, self-centered coronavirus denials in February, March and April. He’s not lying to get anything off his chest. He is, as we know, essentially reptilian — without sentiment or emotion.
Thankfully, there is a clinical explanation for this phenomenon.
You’re probably familiar with I’m OK—You’re OK, if only anecdotally. This affirming notion has become part of the American cultural pop-psychology patois, yet it’s actually the title of a book published in 1969 by Dr. Thomas Harris. It refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat thy neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: because one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.
Harris’ book details four states of human relations, not just the one we know from his book jacket. There are two middling, less healthy states that Harris uses to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).
It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps, cynics and outright sociopaths. [Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it.] Trump has always recognized that he is, for whatever reasons, a damaged person. His exposure to right wing media (something he watches all day long apparently) has only inspired in him to new, emboldened levels of projection lying borne of self-loathing.
Right wing media decided sometime late in the George W. Bush administration that there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re partisan and, to the extent we need to be, fake; the mainstream media must also be partisan and fake!” Or, “We’re fake because they’re fake.” But really, “We need to call them out as fake because we’re so obviously fake.”
I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.
Trump has applied this sociopathic mantra to 70 percent of his public statements as president. These lies are not all simple projection, of course. They are profoundly cynical, as well, stemming from his own accurate estimation that he’s nowhere near up to this job he’s got.
As the president told a Florida crowd in October, 2016, “This election will determine whether we remain a free country in the truest sense of the word or we become a corrupt banana republic controlled by large donors and foreign governments.” The presumption that day was that a vote for Hillary Clinton would result in all this corruption, when in fact Trump’s subconscious was trying like the dickens to tell us exactly the opposite.
Trump has another key influence in this area: noted sociopath and celebrity lawyer Roy Cohn, who took Trump under his red-baiting wing starting in the 1970s, when he was retained to fight charges of racist rental practices in Trump-owned apartment buildings. Cohn became a legal mentor to the young Donald. Surely it’s no surprise that Cohn was both a noted gay-baiter and a closeted homosexual — in other words, a projection liar par excellence. His more overt and lasting influence on the future president, however, was the idea that no matter what an opponent might allege, one must hit back at that person twice as hard. Remember this exchange from the October 2016 presidential debate?
DJT: “The president of Russia has no respect for this person right here.”
HRC: “That’s because he [Putin] would rather have a puppet as president of the United States.”
DJT: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!”
I mean, this is nonsensical spluttering. But it is revealing: Trump believes that, when insulted or taken to task, it’s always in his interest to hit back with marked escalation. What’s more, being well aware of all the reckless, illegal, amoral things he’s done in his life, he’s come to believe it’s in his interest to blame his opponents (twice as loudly, all the time) for these identical misdeed or character flaws, in advance — to lessen the eventual consequences of his own actions.
So, if I were the New York City district attorney, I’d be reopening all the cold-case murders involving young women who in any way intersected with Trump’s orbit from 1998 to 2006. The Scarborough “allegation” is not some idle distraction. It’s a sideways cry for help from a sociopath, a message in bottle that has washed up through the man’s subconscious after 20 years.
As I sat down to write this piece, I was reading a story in The New York Times about how the Trump administration has used the Covid-19 lockdown to bully private U.S. landowners along the Mexican border into ceding their land — for the border wall. Many didn’t want to sell or play any part of this quixotic folly, as you might expect; their cases remain in court, as the Administration tries to enforce the takings by eminent domain. Well, the Trump Administration has apparently just gone ahead and started building sections of the wall on this still-privately held land, without legal permissions. Because courts are still not operating as they would in normal times, on account of rampant Covid-19 spread, there is less standing in the way of this treachery.
Trump’s description of this situation represents the fugue of mendacity and mistruth we’ve come to expect:
“Mexico is having a very, very hard time, as you know, with Covid, especially along the border,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Thursday [May 28], though Mexico’s 8,600 deaths and 78,000 infections are a fraction of the toll in the United States. “Fortunately,” he added, “we have a brand-new wall along there, and the wall is saving us.”
Translation: We’re all screwed and I’m responsible. But you knew that.