The black hole within Donald Trump

Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
FRESNO, CA - MAY 27: Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno on May 27, 2016 in Fresno, California. Trump is on a Western campaign trip which saw stops in North Dakota and Montana yesterday and two more in California today. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Fresno, Calif., May 27, 2016. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I’m no advice columnist, and normally I wouldn’t use this space for relationship counseling, but here’s a small bit of wisdom that I’ve offered to a few friends over the years and that might be useful to Republicans in Washington.

When you’re deciding whether to plunge into a marriage, don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you’re marrying the person your partner is going to become, once he or she finally grows up or finds that perfect job or stops making meth in the basement. The only person you’re marrying is the one sitting right in front of you, and while some people do improve over time, only a fool would count on it.

On second thought, this advice probably comes too late for the Paul Ryans and Bob Corkers of the world, who were exactly this foolish when they wrapped their arms around Donald Trump and said: “I do.” But you know, they never asked.

You see, Republican leaders saw Trump reaching out for an insider like Paul Manafort – who ran Republican campaigns back when balloon drops were considered high-tech – and started using words like “pivot” and “coachable.” They wanted to believe the boorish Trump was like a political Bob Dylan, able to go from freewheelin’ to born-again without missing a beat.

“I can be more presidential than anybody,” Trump promised. I can be a totally faithful husband. You wait.

But several weeks after “Never Trump” started giving way to “Trump, I guess,” this better, more sober-minded Trump was nowhere in sight. And then came the meltdown this week, after Trump said the Indiana-born judge in the civil suit against Trump University should recuse himself because he’s of Mexican descent and probably resents that the offspring of his ancestors are now going to be forced to build a giant wall at their own expense.

The problem with this statement isn’t merely its racism. It’s that Trump’s philosophy, if one can call it that, would negate the very idea that is America’s most important contribution to the advancement of humankind – that we are a citizenry defined by shared values, not by inherited identities.

In America, alone among nations, where you’ve been is not the sum of who you are. If Trump isn’t clear on that point (and nothing in his subsequent statements leads me to think he is), then he really has no business speaking to a social studies class, much less leading the free world.

In any event, Republican insiders now resemble Tom Hanks at that moment in “Apollo 13” when he realizes the capsule is adrift and the heat isn’t coming back on. The critical window between Trump’s effective nomination five weeks ago and next month’s convention is closing fast, and far from projecting more gravitas, Trump seems bent on making a fool of every credible Republican who has stepped up to tepidly endorse him.

“I’m with racist!” blared Wednesday’s New York Daily News cover, over a picture of Speaker Ryan pointing to Trump. If you know Ryan at all, you know that had to feel like a horse kick in the solar plexus. But less than a week after endorsing Trump, the party’s elected leader refused to un-endorse him.

Deceived spouses always throw good money after bad. It’s hard to look in the mirror and admit you were had.

I’ll admit: I, too, thought Trump was capable of broadening his appeal. I thought this not because I presumed he had some inner Ronald Reagan lurking under that crass exterior, but because Trump is, if nothing else, a masterful entertainer and diviner of the marketplace, a man with no discernible ideology beyond his own self-promotion.

I assumed he might approach the fall campaign as he would another reality show. I assumed the angry, xenophobic Trump was a persona, soon to be replaced by the reformist, independent Trump. I expected him to re-spawn, like in a video game.

But here’s the thing Ryan and I both should have understood about Trump, and that now seems to me the central fact of his existence: He is man tragically enslaved to his own neediness.

Most politicians are driven, to some significant extent, by insecurity – the need to be loved and to have that love publicly affirmed. (A rare exception, as I’ve written, is Barack Obama, who could stand to crave a little more approval from time to time.)

But for Trump, insecurity is not a manageable motivator. It is the black hole that consumes him.

He needs constantly to be talked about, admired, validated. He has an almost pathological obsession with ratings, polls, flattering profiles – anything that seems to call out, from the unrelenting darkness, “You exist and you are seen.” He talks about being a winner more than anyone I’ve ever met who doesn’t play with Pokémons or watch the Wiggles.

One of the more illuminating moments of the campaign, I thought, was when Trump told Anderson Cooper, in a CNN forum, that his father had warned him away from leaving Queens to do business in Manhattan, because “that’s not for us.” You could almost hear the voice of the father whispering, evermore: “We don’t belong, son. They’ll never accept us.”

Everything in Trump’s spectacular American story – the labeling of high-rise towers with giant, gilded nameplates, the impersonating of a media flak so he could gush about his own business acumen and sex appeal – has been fueled by this need to prove himself special and deserving. So has the improbable campaign that has now landed him at the pinnacle of legitimacy.

Our strengths are always our weaknesses, though, and what we should have known is that Trump can’t moderate it. The need is too much to overcome. Every criticism, every judgment, every potential obstacle seems to evoke in him a latent rage, a sense that the world – as embodied in Manhattan’s unbreachable elite – is condescending to him again.

Trump’s white, working-class supporters identify with this rage; they find it cathartic. And Republican leaders are loath to push those voters away.

But they also understand that the broader electorate will find the insults and bigotry increasingly reviling. The black hole, left unchecked, could swallow the party’s electoral hopes and leave no trace.

Here’s another psychoanalytical nugget I picked up years ago from a psychologist I knew socially for a while. She told me that however other people make you feel is always a reflection of how the world makes them feel.

No wonder Trump’s campaign seems bound to make us feel smaller and less worthy than we really are.