Over the past four-plus years, we’ve come to recognize an array of Donald Trump’s ‘tells’, the many ways his crazy-quilt of personality disorders compulsively manifests itself in little giveaways of his true meaning and intent. It just requires some decoding.
Early on, these were the little verbal clues: Any time he said “believe me”, you could be sure he was lying. When he said, “everyone knows”, no one knew. When he said, “and you know better than anyone”, you didn’t. When he said, “many people are asking”, no one was asking but him. And when he said, “a lot of people don’t know”, it meant that he didn’t know. But the lies were coming so fast as part of a parallel false narrative that it became increasingly difficult to separate words from deeds. Russian propagandists call this the “Firehose of Falsehoods”.
It’s hard to win arguments when dealing with two (or more) different sets of facts. We used to smugly say that, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts”. Sadly, that’s no longer really true. Facts no longer seem to matter when competing in the informational marketplace with a false but powerful narrative. In this post-truth environment, when one side endlessly spins its own alternate reality, they’re essentially playing different sports, on different fields, while the goalposts burn in the parking lot.
But the wild card in all of this is the seemingly unknowable ‘true intentions’ of the players. What hold does Putin have on Trump? Why does Trump embrace brutal dictators while he undermines our allies and trading partners? Why do he and his minions parrot Russian talking points? How much does Trump really understand the high-stakes game he’s playing with the fate of the world in the balance? Is he is willing conspirator or Putin’s “useful idiot”?
As for Trump himself, he has another, more meaningful ‘tell’ revealing not only his beliefs and intentions but ‘consciousness of guilt’ in the form of an ongoing confession. It’s ‘projection’.
Psychological projection is described in the literature as a “defense mechanism” in which the subject “projects” vile, fearful or hostile emotions onto others rather than admitting to or dealing with the dark impulses in themselves. The classic example of projection employs victimhood, the certainty that a perceived, intensely disliked, adversary has a vendetta against them. And the reflex is to lash out, steal their thunder, to “do unto others before they can do unto you”.
When you start listening to Donald Trump’s attacks on his adversaries, perceived or imaginary, through that lens you realize he is ‘projecting’ his own malfeasance and evil intent onto others.
When accused of corruption, Trump accused his critics of corruption. When condemned for using racist rhetoric against four congresswomen of color, branding them “the squad”, he responded by accusing them of being the real racists. When numerous women accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault, he began accusing Hillary Clinton of abusing women. When confronted with evidence of his mental decline, or disdain for powerful women, he declared at various times that both Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi were “unstable” or “emotional”.
When pressed about the release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy”.
In mid-2017, Trump and his surrogates inexplicably began talking about Clinton’s alleged collusion with Russia and Ukraine in the run-up to the 2016 election. Trump re-tweeted a quote from the conservative Washington Times that declared, “Democrats have willfully used Moscow disinformation to influence the presidential election against Donald Trump.”
The purpose of the pre-emptive strike became clear when the New York Times published the first in a series of blockbuster reports about the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government and fealty to Vladimir Putin. When Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a “puppet” for his allies in Moscow during a 2016 debate, Trump replied, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet. No, you’re the puppet.”
Now, when Trump or his acolytes who regurgitate his every whim, talk about a third term “dynasty”, or using nuclear weapons, or buying Greenland, they reflect the unfiltered ravings of a disturbed mind, the arrogance, ignorance, and grandiosity of a mad king.
And he can’t help himself. The compulsive transparency of his array of personality disorders nakedly reveal him and his fearsome ambitions. His attacks on rivals are both psychic insights and admissions of guilt.
So as we listen to Trump’s attacks on others, we must always remind ourselves to translate his mean-spirited insults and accusations through the prism of inadvertent self-revelation.
Projection is confession.