Analysis |

Best-case Scenario? Trump Is Just a Dangerous Demagogue

The new president’s first days in office spark concerns that, unable to handle the truth, he creates delusional reality instead.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Trump shakes hands during a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff, Washington, D.C., January 22, 2017.
Trump shakes hands during a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff, Washington, D.C., January 22, 2017.Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There are three possibilities: one disturbing, one alarming and one completely terrifying. The first is that Donald Trump is a demagogue with no inhibition who is willing to twist the truth to fit his needs. The second is that Trump is vainglorious, if not narcissistic, and therefore cannot tolerate any challenges to his supposed superiority. The third, and scariest, is that Trump deals with inconvenient truths by denying them, inventing an alternative reality in his head.

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The first two weaknesses could be containable, if only just. Trump’s demagoguery, at this point at least, does not seem to have captured the hearts of America beyond his hard-core supporters. He is not the object of any noticeable personality cult. The attitude of most Americans seems to be instrumental: People expect him to produce tangible results within a reasonable period of time and are likely to turn away if he continues to make wild, irresponsible statements with nothing to back them up.

Credit: CNN

If Trump can’t take criticism or insults and then overreacts in response, the situation could be more dangerous. Not only will it lead him to unbridled attacks on the media, as both he and his new spokesman Sean Spicer launched over the weekend, but he might also try to use the mighty powers now at this disposal to try and silence his critics, rewarding fawning media outlets and punishing those who refuse to toe his line.

In the international arena, things could get even hairier: It’s only a matter of time, after all, until a hostile foreign leader starts taunting Trump and goading him on. If Trump reacts in the same way he did when the media reported that the crowd at his inauguration was smaller than at Obama’s in 2008 - which was to be entirely expected, by the way, given the revolutionary nature of electing a first black president - it’s almost inevitable that the U.S. will get embroiled in a dangerous, possibly deadly confrontation. And all because of the president’s short temper.

But the most bloodcurdling possibility is that Trump, to quote Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men," simply can’t handle the truth. That when faced with a reality that does not conform to his view of the world or image of himself, his mind creates an alternative reality in which he feels more comfortable. Such denialism, which is a feature of many personality disorders, including psychosis, could lead to a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. If Trump’s mind will create a false reality at the height of an international crisis, hell could break loose and rain down upon humanity.

The series of unfortunate events that has unfolded since Trump’s inauguration supports all three possibilities. In his appearance before the CIA on Saturday, Trump not only claimed that his crowd was bigger than everyone else’s, he also accused the media of concocting reports about his feud with the intelligence services. Given that there is ample recorded evidence that Trump viciously attacked the intelligence services and compared their deeds to Nazi Germany, it would be comforting to think that Trump either has a faulty memory or was simply lying through his teeth. The third possibility, that he truly believes he’s never said a bad word about the intelligence services and it’s all the evil media, is spine-chilling, to say the least.

Prophet of doom, queen of spin

Then there was the Sean Spicer horror show at the White House. Like a prophet of doom with anger management issues, Spicer used his first post-election meeting with the press to accuse journalists of maliciously manipulating the inauguration crowd numbers. Spicer distorted facts, twisted statistics, made an ass of himself and stormed out in a huff. The fact that Trump was later reported to have criticized Spicer’s performance is neither here nor there: It wasn’t the fabrication that annoyed him, but its delivery.

The next day, Trump’s more experienced front persons tried to contain the damage. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s Queen of Spin and Mistress of Misrepresentation, tried to convince NBC’s Chuck Todd that the false claims about the size of Trump’s crowd were simply “alternative facts” a term that seemed to be directly lifted from George Orwell’s Newspeak in 1984. Then she offered a rationale for Trump’s assault on reality, which echoed the brouhaha that broke out during the election campaign over the size of his hands: “People expect him always to be the bigger man, always to be the only big man in the equation.”

Trump’s onslaught against the photographic evidence, the hard statistics and the almost consensual opinion of the experts, as well as his unabashed attack on the media, ended one of the shortest honeymoons in history. Many media analysts and commentators had tried to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt, even after his contentious Inauguration Day speech but after his CIA appearance and Spicer’s strange spectacle, they let ‘er rip and let him have it. Trump’s first 48 hours must have confirmed the Democrats’ worst fears and instilled new doubts among Republican senators and congressmen. They raised the already considerable alarm spreading throughout many world capitals and fired up the millions that had already come out to demonstrate against Trump and are now ready for more. And all this because of what? Because someone said that Trump’s wasn’t the biggest.

Trump’s erratic behavior should have counseled caution to Netanyahu and his government, who are now competing with Russians to be the world’s most enthusiastic fans of the new American president. Netanyahu’s phone conversation with Trump on Sunday night seemed to have gone well and the restrained White House reading of the call that was published afterward raised the possibility that Trump was over his tantrum and would now settle down to get his work done, controversial and divisive as it may be.

From Israel’s point of view, if Trump is just a demagogue, then like the old joke about down and dirty lawyers, at least he’ll be a demagogue in Israel’s favor, until further notice, of course. If he can’t take a slight, an insult or a challenge, then a confrontation with Israel in the not-too-distant future is almost inevitable. But if he can’t handle reality and lives in his own fantasy world instead, then it really doesn’t matter whether Israel annexes Ma'ale Adumim or Trump transfers the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or even if peace with the Palestinians suddenly breaks out. When the president of the United States is truly delusional, the best thing to do is to brush up on prayers for salvation and to start hoarding food.

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