Trump, Ego & Power
Like many others, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the Trump phenomenon. What is the appeal of someone so offensive and mean-spirited—a self-important, narcissistic bully, a self-aggrandizing, pompous and vulgar loudmouth spewing such chauvinistic, racist and bigoted views? As I see it, Trump has emerged in our collective psyche to offer us all a choice. Not simply a political choice, but a moral one—an evolutionary one.
Disappointed with the status quo and fearful of being left behind in a fast-changing world, many are clearly looking for an outsider to give voice to their frustration. But it’s more than that. In “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” George Lakoff proposes that in times of social change, some people seek a strong leader, an authoritarian father figure who will rescue them and fix everything.
Because I have been thinking and writing about power, another aspect comes to mind. Part of the reason many of us feel ambivalent about power is that we associate it with egoic power, the way the world views and relates to it. We associate wealth, fame, bravado and braggadocio with power. Worldly or egoic power is hierarchical and is all about “me and mine.” It requires that we push others down or step on them in order to prop ourselves up and feel powerful. But power associated with externals is fickle—here today and gone tomorrow.
Trump is exhibiting for us egoic power at its crassest, most arrogant and imperious. He is opinionated, judgmental, always right—an ego out of control and running amok. Winning at any cost is what matters; his identity is intricately connected to it. His vengefulness reveals itself in an attitude of “I’m going to get you back, or maybe preemptively, just in case.” Everything about him is “huge” or “terrific.” Everything he does is magic—in his own mind. It’s all about him. According to a recent story in Slate analyzing his speeches, Trump uses first-person language 212 times per 1,000 words, in contrast to 125 for the average candidate. Entitled and in love with his own myth, he has bought his own PR. His answer to any question—whether about the logistics of building a wall across the United States border or rounding up and deporting 11 million people—is always the same and essentially boils down to “because it’s me and I’m very smart and extremely rich.”
There is a different type of power, though. One that is internally sourced and driven and that cannot be given or taken away. This soulful type of power is both humble and quiet. It does not need to prove anything to anybody. But it is also the type of power that Gandhi accessed, that eventually brought the British Empire to grant India’s independence. Soulful power is about power with, rather than power over.
With his emphasis on inclusiveness and having everyone at the table, President Obama embodies soulful power much more than average politicians. That is why his election inspired such exuberant demonstrations all over the world. The world is ready for a different type of power, one that is not about hierarchy, brute force, control, manipulation and abuse. Today Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau carries that torch more than anyone. When asked why half his cabinet was comprised of women, his simple answer was “Because it’s 2015.” His cabinet also includes two Sikhs and an Indigenous person. He is so secure in who he is and in his personal power that he doesn’t mind being photographed with adorable pandas or striking a pose with his yogini wife.
Another example of soulful power is Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, who has attained extraordinary success not only because of his mind-boggling skills in basketball, but because of his grace and generosity as a team player. But the soulful power of the Golden State Warriors isn’t just in Curry. The team actively tracks the number of passes the players make in each game. Though Curry has made even more passes to teammates this year than in prior seasons, his overall percentage of passes made in a game has dropped, from 33% of all team assists two years ago down to 13% this season. Not because Curry makes less passes, but because the team now makes more. A lot more. The team has trained to work for the whole, and not just for their star player. Their type of soulful power is now changing the face of basketball.
Humanity is at a crossroads. Some speak of it as evolving beyond our “me first” egoic level of consciousness. In his forthcoming book, LEAP, Markus Thorndike writes about transitioning from “megoism to wegoism.”
Viewed in this larger context, Trump is doing all of us a huge favor by acting as our collective manifestation, serving us all by playing both fool and a caricature of the bully on such a visible stage. By doing so he allows us to see in extreme form the ego construct that is also inside each of us. In more subtle ways and perhaps with less consistency, we too have been arrogant, defensive, manipulative, vengeful, and self-righteous. We too have abused egoic power in our relationships.
Psychologically, I see Trump as pathetic and worthy of compassion. Trump thrives on attention. Like a dark, needy energy vampire, he feeds off even hatred and opposition. I would not want to be inside his head. Anyone so filled with hate, judgment and insecurity cannot be happy or have inner peace. To be clear, that does not excuse his behavior. Even if it’s all a ruse and he is being intentionally provocative and incendiary for the ratings and media coverage, he is inflicting substantial harm on others.
Bullies were typically bullied themselves, and lash out as a result. Indeed, from what we read, Trump’s father would pit him and his brother against each other in order to toughen them up. We have already seen glimpses of what happens when a bully is confronted. Trump turns himself into a victim, going on and on about how he is being treated unfairly by the media or the establishment GOP or the “bad, very bad” protesters. Rallies get canceled and suddenly it was due to concern about people getting harmed, after months of inciting violence in his rallies and even offering to pay for the perpetrators’ legal bills.
Arrogance typically points to overcompensation for feelings of inadequacy. Trump’s arrogance is likely covering up deep-rooted feelings of unworthiness. He is always trying to prove his worth, literally and metaphorically. Yet it’s always associated with externals—how much money he makes, how successful he is, whom he knows, how well his book has sold or his TV show performed. He is a master salesman but it is all illusion; there is no substance. At some point the “Karma Cop” will come get him and he will have his emperor has no clothes moment. The seemingly all-powerful wizard will be revealed as a small man hiding behind a curtain.
In evoking compassion towards Trump, we are actually healing those same ego tendencies in ourselves, and in our world. Yes, change is scary, and it is inevitable. The U.S. is becoming much more multicultural. That clock cannot be turned back. It is time to choose what kind of world we want to live in. Trump offers us the model of power that we are outgrowing. Are we wise enough now to choose a different direction?