Decoding Trump’s ‘tells’ in a pandemic

By Ray Cunneff
July 15, 2020

One of the last chapters of my book * was entitled “Projection is Confession”, written on December 31, 2019. The book concludes in early January 2020 with the question “What Lies Ahead?”

In it, I asked the rhetorical question what might Donald Trump do if, for the first time in his presidency, he was faced with an actual national security or public health crisis? But I could not have envisioned how profoundly our society would have been transformed in a few short months of a deadly global pandemic.

The “Projection is Confession” chapter advanced a basic principle of Donald Trump’s ‘tells’, the giveaways of his true meaning and intentions: Trump tells you exactly what he’s doing by what he accuses others of doing.

There were countless examples of his ‘projection’ in the book, how he would accuse others of doing what, in fact, he was doing. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, before Trump’s ‘tells’ took on a deeper layer of the reveal, an ass-backwards level of self-awareness and feelings of inadequacy. But first, let’s recap:

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.

“When Trump says he knows everything about a subject, he knows nothing. When he says he knows nothing, he knows everything”. – Tom Nichols USA Today

Early on, these were the little verbal clues: Anytime 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 delusional, fact-free parallel universe 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, we’re all essentially playing different sports, on different fields, while the goal posts burn in the parking lots.

But the wild card in all of this are 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 called ‘projection’.

Psychological projection is described in the literature as a defense mechanism in which the subject ‘projects’ despicable, fearful or hostile emotions onto others rather than admitting to or dealing with the dark impulses in themselves. The classic examples of projection employ feelings of victimhood, the certainty that a perceived adversary has an unjust vendetta against them. And his vindictive 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 ‘projection is confession’ lens you realize he is ‘projecting’ his own malfeasance and evil intent onto others.

When accused of corruption, Trump accused his critics of corruption with his typical “disgrace” hyperbole, a scandal the “biggest in history” of America, of the world, or in all parallel dimensions. When condemned for using racist rhetoric against four congresswomen of color, he responded by branding them “the Squad” and accusing the women of being the “real racists”.

When numerous women accused him of sexual harassment or assault, Trump began re-tweeting accusations against Hillary Clinton of abusing women and running child sex rings. Remember “pizzagate”? When confronted with evidence of his disdain for powerful women, Trump claimed at various times that both Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi were “unstable” or “emotional” women.

Both rhetorically and legally, Trump has long followed the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” doctrine of the turnaround. When accused by Democrats of a variety of crimes, the president proclaimed that the Dems were “the real criminals”. 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”.

But then came the 2020 COVID-19 coronavirus which has to date killed over 137,000 Americans, over a third of whom need not have died except for Trump’s denial and inaction, and threatens a catastrophic “wildfire” this fall. My February 25th Planet POV op-ed “Trump’s Pandemic” revealed an even deeper level of ‘tells’ and windows into his self-interest, corrupt intentions, and fears of inferiority.

When he said, “Pelosi is a sick woman. She’s got a lot of problems, a lot of mental problems,” as Trump told reporters on Capitol Hill after attending a lunch with Senate Republicans, it revealed that he knows on some perhaps subconscious level that he’s mentally ill. “We’re dealing with people that have to get their act together for the good of the country,” Trump confessed. He knows, on some level, that he’s hopelessly, helplessly failing.

When the president’s acolytes, who had previously regurgitated his every whim, had talked about a third term “dynasty”, or using nuclear weapons, or buying Greenland, those who had previously echoed the unfiltered ravings of a disturbed mind, the arrogance, ignorance, and grandiosity of a mad king, were the most stunned by Trump’s apparent, inadvertent introspection. Yet, fearful of Trump’s wrath, his enablers and leeches said nothing.

It had by that point become obvious to just about everyone that when Trump said that Barack Obama was a “grossly incompetent” president, it was an admission of guilt in a weird ‘pretzel logic’ kind of self-awareness. Donald Trump’s inferiority complex relative to Obama would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. In one of the great ironies of the pandemic, in 2014 Trump accused Obama of malfeasance for playing golf during the Ebola outbreak.

And he can’t help himself. The compulsive transparency of his array of personality disorders nakedly reveal his corrupt intent, fearsome ambition and incompetent weakness. His attacks on rivals are both psychic insights and admissions of guilt. And as his stress level has increased with the mounting coronavirus death toll, Trump’s already fragile grasp on reality has devolved into mental deterioration, delusion and grandiose fantasy.

Donald Trump has during his White House tenure accused at least a dozen Americans of acts of “treason”, including former president Barack Obama, on the apparent narcissistic, sociopathic assumption that any person, activity or statement in opposition to him must be treasonous. The ‘mad king’ unravels before our eyes and demands we follow him into the abyss.

So as we listen to Trump’s attacks on others, we must constantly remind ourselves to view his vile, mean-spirited insults, accusations, and actions through the prism of inadvertent self-revelation.

Projection is confession.

* “2020: A Trump Odyssey – The Rise of America’s Fascist Dictator” (eBook) is available on Amazon Kindle

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It would seem that at this hour Trump has begun a move to assume full dictatorial powers, before the election, and with the full blessing of the Chief Justice.


Way to go! Someone needed to write this. You covered it well. Not that long before the election, and Trump is cracking. If we keep the pressure on, maybe we can break him. I pity him, with everyone against him. But, I will not show him any mercy. He has harmed too many, and with glee. There are times, I believe, when it’s inappropriate to show mercy:

WW2: A squad of U.S. Army Airborne came across a Nazi concentration camp that had just been liberated by a company of Screaming Eagles. There were bodies everywhere, and it was obvious that they had been starved to death.

A Colonel of Rangers arrived, and asked to see the Nazi Commandant. At the same time he received a report from his men about the conditions inside. The German was brought forward – He was smiling. The American colonel drew his .45 and shot the Commandant in the head. Tough times, then and now. I’m not advocating violence, but sometimes it’s appropriate to not feel mercy at all.