This week, in a volley of angry tweets, Donald Trump ridiculed the “badly defeated … Dems,” claimed he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” and said anyone who burned the American flag should lose his or her citizenship or spend a year in jail. Trump’s outbursts set off alarms. How could he believe such nonsense about voter fraud? Why would a man who had just been elected president gloat, threaten protesters, and insult half the country? What’s going on in his messed-up head?
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
To understand Trump, you have to set aside the scripted speeches he gave before his election and the canned videos he has released since. You also have to set aside the caricature of him as a Klan-loving, Nazi-sympathizing woman hater who will deport every immigrant he can find. Instead, look at the four interviews he has given since his election: to the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and a group of TV anchors and executives. In these exchanges, all of them conducted outside the behavior-warping context of the campaign, you’ll see how squishy he is. Trump did run a despicable campaign, and he’s a menace to the country and the world. But it’s not because he’s a strongman. It’s because he’s a weakling.
That’s the short version. The longer story is more complicated. Here are the various facets of Trump’s personality, how they fit together, and why they make him dangerous.
1. He’s all about reciprocal love. In the campaign, Trump often played on fear and hate. He targeted Muslims, refugees, undocumented immigrants, and any other scapegoat that served his interests. But deep down, what he wanted was the love of his adoring crowds. Emotionally, he’s a child. He can love others, but only if they love him first. And that’s how he sees his presidency. In his interview with the Times on Nov. 22, he explained that his job is “taking care of the people that really have proven to be—to love Donald Trump.”
2. His reflexes are vindictive. When Trump was down in the polls, he railed against Hillary Clinton, the press, and fellow Republicans. On election night, he said those grudges were over. But they weren’t. In post-election tweets, he berated CNN, Saturday Night Live, and the cast of Hamilton. He blasted Democrats for supporting ongoing recounts, even after they conceded the election and said they just wanted to make sure the recounts were fair. He summoned TV executives to Trump Tower on Nov. 21, called them the “dishonest media,” and scolded them for underestimating him. The next day, in his meeting with the Times, he bragged that he had stiffed job requests and pleas for campaign help from two Republican Senate candidates who had failed to support him. That’s how Trump behaves on his political honeymoon. Imagine what he’ll do when the going gets rough.
3. His ego is fragile. After winning the Republican nomination in May, Trump gloated about it for months. Now he’s gloating about the election. In tweets and interviews, he has crowed that he beat Clinton “easily.” On Tuesday, he ran another victory lap, trumpeting the addition of Michigan to his “landslide.” To understand how central this is to Trump’s sense of himself, check out the first 19 paragraphs of his interview with the Times. Invited by the publisher to give opening remarks, Trump spoke at length, not about the future but about his genius and prowess on the campaign trail. In his Nov. 11 interview with 60 Minutes, he bragged about the number of Twitter followers he had gained.
A president-elect who is self-assured doesn’t behave this way. Nor does he snap at a late-night sketch comedy show. Nor does he summon TV executives to complain that particular pictures they have aired are unflattering to him. Trump does these things because he’s deeply insecure and easily wounded.
4. He craves approval. Trump often comes across as indifferent to the feelings of others. That’s misleading. He cares intensely about being respected and loved. Consider his twisted relationship with the Times. For two weeks after the election, he tweeted that the paper was “nasty,” “failing,” and “looked like fools in their coverage of me.” Despite this, he requested a meeting and showed up at the paper’s offices to wag his tail. He promised Times staffers an immigration bill that “even the people in this room can be happy” with. He told them “it would be, to me, a great achievement if I could come back here in a year or two years … and have a lot of the folks here say, ‘You’ve done a great job.’ And I don’t mean just a conservative job, ’cause I’m not talking conservative. I mean just, we’ve done a good job.” Yes, Mr. President. Good boy.
5. He’s easily soothed by flattery. Trump is a champ at nursing grudges when he feels cheated, threatened, or disrespected. But his grudges, like his commitments, can be washed out by small doses of affection. He speaks glowingly of generous post-election phone calls he received from the Clintonsand the Bushes. He has praised both families in return. Those threats to prosecute Hillary? Never mind. Trump also can’t stop clucking about his Nov. 10 meeting with President Obama. At least three times, Trump has claimed to have “great chemistry” with the man he had never previously met and had repeatedly denounced as the worst president ever. That’s how easily Trump’s wrath can turn to warmth—and vice versa.
6. He’s a softie. If Trump hurts a lot of people as president, it won’t be out of malice. Calling Clinton a “nasty woman” from the safety of a podium, or threatening a few flag burners with the same jail penalty she supported, is easy. But Trump doesn’t have the stomach to face down millions of angry Americans. On 60 Minutes, he backed away from talk of deportation, criminalizing abortions, and reopening the legal debate over same-sex marriage. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, said Trump, the worst thing women might have to endure is that “they’ll have to go to another state.” As for LGBT people, he pleaded, “I mentioned them at the Republican National Convention! And everybody said, ‘That was so great.’ ” Trump might not understand the effects of his policies or appointments, but he knows what he needs: praise. He’s not an attack dog. He wants to be petted.
7. His emotional softness makes him morally weak. Trump’s critics see him as a thug who will damage the country and the world through aggression. That could happen. But he’s far more likely to usher in bad things by being a lapdog when we need a watchdog. To take a small example: Three men who had partnered with Trump in a real estate project in India met with him after his election, took pictures with him, and posted the pictures to promote the venture. When the Times asked Trump about this, he pleaded: “What am I going to say? ‘I’m not going to talk to you’? ‘I’m not going to take pictures’? … On a human basis, you take pictures.”
Trump was just being nice. But that kind of niceness can cause trouble. During the campaign, Trump said he would keep jobs in the U.S. by threatening companies that plan to move their operations elsewhere. But as president-elect, he’s not using threats. He’s using bribes. He described to the Times one of “numerous” conversations he’s had with CEOs since the election. “We’ll create the incentives for you,” Trump told the executive. “We’re going for a very large tax cut for corporations, which you’ll be happy about.” So the jobs will stay. But they’ll be funded by taxpayers, and employers will control the transactions.
Trump is a patsy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, too. He effused to the Journal about a “beautiful” letter Putin sent him after the election. “I would love to be able to get along with Russia,” Trump told the Times. He claimed, based on reactions at his rallies, that getting along with Russia would also make Americans happy: “I’d say this in front of thousands of people. … ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia? Wouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together?’ … And the people [would] stand up and give me a massive hand.”
Trump treats the presidency the way he treated The Apprentice: It’s all about ratings. There’s no limit to the moral lines he would cross to give the audience what it wants. In the Times interview, he said he might withdraw his support for waterboarding if it were found to be ineffective at extracting useful information. But he added: “If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”
8. He substitutes popularity for standards of conduct. Trump sees the moral universe in terms of feelings, not rules or reasons. He told the Times he could combine his presidency and his business any way he chose. Anything he did to limit conflicts of interest, he asserted, would be out of the generosity of his heart. He also suggested that he didn’t have to sweat conflicts of interest because voters, by electing him, had shown they didn’t care about them. “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world,” he tweeted. “Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!”
Trump is just as dismissive about financial transparency. “Are you gonna release your tax returns?” Lesley Stahl asked him on 60 Minutes. “Nobody cares,” Trump replied. “Obviously, the public didn’t care, because I won the election very easily.” He gave a similar brushoff to concerns about his scorched-earth political style. The Journal reported that it had asked Trump “whether he thought his rhetoric had gone too far in the campaign.” His answer, according to the paper: “No. I won.” Winning means people don’t mind what you did. And if they don’t mind, then what you did wasn’t wrong.
9. He confuses controversy with mystery. Because Trump deals in emotions rather than facts, he’s easily swayed by intensity. Even in matters of science, he’s more affected by the number of people who believe something than by the evidence for their beliefs. “There are few things where there’s more division than climate change,” Trump told the Times. “There are people on the other side of that issue.” He went on: “My uncle was for 35 years a professor at M.I.T. … He had feelings on this subject. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”
What expertise did Trump’s uncle have in climate forecasting? Not much, since the uncle specialized in medical and communications technology. What evidence did he have? Again, not much, since he died 31 years ago. But he did have “feelings,” as Trump points out. So do all those “people on the other side.” The only scientific instrument Trump needs is a finger in the wind.
10. He’s obtuse to the pain he inflicts. If Trump cares so much about feelings, why doesn’t he see all the fear and stress he has caused? Because that would require him to accept criticism, and his ego can’t handle it. On 60 Minutes, he batted away questions about his invective during the campaign, insisting that “my strongest asset is my temperament” and that he “can’t regret” anything he’d said. If some folks are upset by his election, that can’t be his fault, so it has to be theirs. “There are people, Americans, who are scared, and some of them are demonstrating right now, demonstrating against you, against your rhetoric,” Stahl told him. Trump seemed baffled. “That’s only because they don’t know me,” he said.
Trump is virtually lobotomized. Unable to acknowledge his role in stirring up hatred and fear, he blames others. When Stahl told him that “African Americans think there’s a target on their back,” and “Muslims are terrified,” he shrugged that such fears were “built up by the press, because, frankly, they’ll take every single little incident … and they’ll make [it] into an event.” In his interview with the Times, Trump claimed that low black turnout showed how popular he was: “A lot of people didn’t show up, because the African-American community liked me.” The vanity of this man is bottomless.
11. He feels the pain of his allies, not the pain of people different from him.Trump sees no need to reassure the ethnic or religious communities he targetedin the campaign. On Nov. 10, when he visited the U.S. Capitol, a reporter called out, “Are you going to ask Congress to ban Muslims from entering the country?” Trump heard the question, replied, “Thank you, everybody,” and walked away. The next day, in his interview with 60 Minutes, he belittled reports of racial slurs from his supporters, calling them “a very small amount.” When a Times staffer asked him about a conference of Trump sympathizers who had “pledged their allegiance to Nazism,” Trump expressed surprise that reporters were still pestering him about such things. “Boy, you are really into this stuff,” he said. He uttered four words of intransitive boilerplate—“I disavow and condemn”—and moved on.
But when people who feel threatened by Trump challenge his friends, he rushes to defend his friends. On Nov. 18, Vice President–elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton. After the show, the cast delivered a short speech to Pence on behalf of “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.” The message concluded: “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Trump responded by attacking the cast on Twitter, charging that they had “harassed” Pence and violated the theater as “a safe and special place.”
Trump also rose to the defense of his right-hand man, Steve Bannon, after a Times reporter asked about Trump’s appointment of Bannon, “who has been described by some as racist and anti-Semitic,” to a White House job. Trump called Bannon “a decent guy” who had “been treated very unfairly.” The exchange was bizarre in part because Bannon himself, in an interview at the Republican National Convention in August, had proudly declared, “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” Yet Trump assured the Times: “I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time. If I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of [those] things … I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.” Trump doesn’t fuss about Bannon’s record. He just thinks: He’s my friend, so he’s good, and whatever he said is OK.
12. He’s easily manipulated. Having a fragile, approval-craving narcissist as president isn’t the end of the world. It just means that to get him to do the right thing, you have to pet him. In Trump’s post-election exchanges, we have several useful models. The first is Obama, who gave Trump a tongue bath in their 90-minute meeting on Nov. 10 and may have saved his signature legislative achievement in the process. Three days after that meeting, Trump told the Journal he was reconsidering his pledge to abolish Obama’s health insurance program: “Either Obamacare will be amended, or repealed and replaced.”
The second model is Times columnist Tom Friedman. In the group session at Times headquarters on Nov. 22, Friedman worked Trump like a horndog in a bar, trying to get him into bed on climate change. “You own some of the most beautiful links golf courses in the world,” Friedman told Trump. “I’d hate to see Royal Aberdeen underwater,” the columnist added. When Trump ragged on windmills, Friedman whispered sweet nothings: “General Electric has a big wind turbine factory in South Carolina.” Trump, eager for approval, told the Timesstaffers about his “many environmental awards” and bragged, “I’m actually an environmentalist.” By the end of the session, Friedman had Trump eating out of his hand.
The third model is a story Trump told about his threat to narrow the First Amendment. During the primaries, Trump had pledged to “open up our libel laws so when [journalists] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” But in his meeting with the Times, Trump said someone had later warned him, “It’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.” “You’re right, I never thought about that,” Trump recalled telling this person. And that reflection led Trump to assure the Times that on the question of libel laws, “You’re going to be fine.”
The fourth model is Jim Mattis, the retired general who met with Trump on Nov. 19 to be considered for secretary of defense. Trump asked Mattis about waterboarding, which Trump supported. “I’ve never found it to be useful,” said Mattis, according to Trump’s account of their conversation. “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I do better with that than I do with torture,” the general told him. Trump told the Times that he was “very impressed by that answer,” especially because it came from “the toughest guy.” Waterboarding, Trump concluded, was “not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think.”
That’s how you move Trump. You don’t talk about ethics. You play the toughness card. You appeal to the art of the deal. You make him feel smart, powerful, and loved. You don’t forget how unmoored and volatile he is, but you set aside your fear and your anger. You thank God that you’re dealing with a narcissist, not a cold-blooded killer. And until you can get him safely out of the White House, you work with what you have. People in other countries have dealt with presidents like Trump for a long time. Can we handle it? Yes, we can.