Trump First and the Presentation of the Political Self

Politicians typically strive to project a stable political persona free of self-contradictions and inconsistencies. President Trump, on the other hand, is the master of self-contradictions and inconsistencies. But underlying this apparently incoherent political self is a different type of coherence—one that maintains an egotistical self-image rather than stable political positions.

Trump’s political fickleness took center stage in a White House immigration meeting with bipartisan members of the Senate in early January. No, not the infamous Oval Office meeting that left Senators Durbin and Graham stunned. I’m talking about his meeting a few days earlier where, with cameras rolling, he called for a “bill of love” and declared that “he was willing to ‘take the heat’ politically” for a bipartisan compromise.

In that meeting, Senator Diane Feinstein asked Trump, “What about a clean DACA bill now with the commitment that we go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure?” Trump responded, “I have no problem with that.” Feinstein followed up to confirm, “Would you be agreeable to that?” “Yeah, I would like that,” said Trump.

After Representative Kevin McCarthy voiced objections, Trump contradicted his moments-earlier stance in support of a clean DACA bill. The exchange illustrated the confusing tenor of the meeting in which Trump made contradictory statements about where he stood and insisted that he would sign whatever legislation Congress sent him: “I’m signing it.”

Trump followed his call for a “bill of love” with a call for racially-motivated exclusion only a few days later; and, in the weeks that followed, his claim to sign anything legislators came up with shifted to a refusal to sign anything without money for a border wall. The immigration debate is not the first time lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have found Trump to be an “untrustworthy, chronically inconsistent” negotiator. This inconsistency is par for the course with the Trump presidency.

A better term for Trump’s existential coherence is egocentric coherence since his words and actions point to an excessive preoccupation with self-image.

Trump’s apparent inconsistency appears at odds with the way politicians typically work to maintain existential coherence (Duranti 2006) to avoid accusations of “flip-flopping” (Lempert 2009). As Alessandro Duranti (2006) describes, “Human beings are constantly engaged in the construction of self and in the evaluation and monitoring of that construction.” This takes on particular importance for politicians, as Duranti shows in his analysis of Walter Capps’s mid-1990s congressional campaign. Capps and other “candidates worry about how to project and maintain an image of themselves as beings whose past, present, and future actions, beliefs, and evaluations follow some clear basic principles, none of which contradicts another.”

Trump’s rampant inconsistency on policy issues, not to mention the way his words and tweets exhibit factual inconsistencies, provides a stark contrast to Duranti’s case study of Walter Capps. But, Trump does exhibit a type of existential coherence. It’s just that it has little to do with traditional political concerns.

Trump’s existential coherence revolves around his personal image rather than his political self. Trump strives to promote his own personal brand, which centers on a self-conception of being the smartest guy in the room. Trump’s most consistent message is his egocentric projection of a self-made man endowed with natural talent and superior intelligence. As he recently tweeted, “My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” He continued, “I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Starto President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would quality as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!

Narcissus
The mythological Narcissus who fell in love with his own image. Gyula Benczúr / PD-Art

A better term for Trump’s existential coherence is egocentric coherence since his words and actions point to an excessive preoccupation with self-image. This egocentric coherence eclipses the normal drive among politicians to achieve political coherence or even factual consistency. This can be seen from the first days of his presidency when Trump insisted the crowd size at his inauguration broke records. It continues with his refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election because that would “call into question the idea that he won the election on his own merits.”

To maintain this egocentric coherence, Trump consistently engages in self-serving bias—attributing success to personal qualities and efforts, while blaming external factors for failure. When the stock market rises, Trump credits his election and claims “it is because of me.” When it drops, he blames it on the reporting of “good news” about the economy (good economic news that he, unsurprisingly, takes credit for). These dual faces of the self-serving bias epitomize Trump’s presidency.

In the face of threats to his egocentric coherence, Trump readily engages in the blame game—a move that stems from the way self-threat increases the self-serving bias (Campbell and Sedikides 1999). When a judge halted his travel ban, Trump preemptively blamed the judge for any future terrorist attack. When his administration encountered difficulty with an intransigent North Korea, Trump blamed China for not curbing the nation’s nuclear program. He blamed Congress for poor US relations with Russia, McConnell and Ryan for a debt ceiling “mess,” and Democrats for DACA failures.

The only time Trump seems to care about political consistency is when an apparent lack of it threatens his egocentric coherence. This may explain why Trump took umbrage when his chief of staff, John Kelly, told reporters that Trump’s promise to build a wall had not been “fully informed” and that his position had “evolved.” Trump could have easily acknowledged that his position “evolved” and maintained political coherence by pointing to “a higher-order logic that justifies the change” (Duranti 2006). But Trump instead shot back to protect his ego and maintain the self-image of a person endowed with superior intelligence. Maintaining this egocentric coherence upstaged political calculations to arrive at an immigration bill.

Trump projects a different form of existential coherence than the “coherence of actions, thoughts, and words” (Duranti 2006) that politicians typically pursue. Trump’s egocentric coherence exhibits all the signs of narcissism and is enabled by the sycophants surrounding him. Needless to say, this is no way to govern a democracy.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2018. “Trump First and the Presentation of the Political Self.” Anthropology News website, March 8, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.789

Comments

Thank you for writing this and for your series. The idea of “egocentric coherence” is certainly also applicable to Trump’s announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs. Trump is rattling markets and, apparently for the first time, rattling the “existential coherence” of his own political party. I’ve added it to my notes on Blocking Trump as Constitutional Duty. As you write, “this is no way to govern a democracy.”

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