What is it about Republicans with anger issues who sell themselves on temperament?
Maybe you missed it at the time, but toward the end of the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, McCain made the case for himself by imploring, “When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller.”
It was a crucial (if obvious) point to make about the person who wields ultimate power, and its essential truth made it all the more bizarre that John McCain—John McCain!—was the one who brought it up. Yes, the same John McCain who prides himself on being a political street fighter; who is known to tell fellow senators to go f–k themselves; who made Sarah Palin his running mate on a whim; who reacted to the financial meltdown by suspending his own campaign—that guy argued for serenity in America’s chief executive.
Even more absurd than McCain’s attempt to make himself out as the diametric opposite of what he actually is, there was the fact that he happened to be running against Barack Obama, arguably the most preternaturally calm political animal in a generation—a public official who, then as now, seems constitutionally incapable of acting impulsively or without careful deliberation. A candidate, in other words, who seemed a perfect fit for his opponent’s description of an ideal leader. And in the end, America agreed.
That McCain would say something so sloppily self-defeating—and so close to Election Day—suggested a lack of basic self-awareness from which he never quite recovered. (Not that he ever really stood a chance.) And now, eight years later, we are seeing history repeat itself—albeit in a comically outsize fashion—in the form of the most intellectually dishonest person to ever run for high office.
Among the many, many reasons that Donald Trump would make a god-awful president, his improbable mixture of cynicism and obliviousness is perhaps the most troubling of them all. As a rule, most bad presidential candidates fall into one of two categories: Either they themselves are irretrievably stupid, or they appeal to the stupidity of the American public. It takes a very special kind of badness to accomplish both things at once, but somehow Trump has proved himself up to the task.
The first presidential debate on Monday provided us with multiple encapsulating moments for this terrible campaign, but none more forcefully cried out for our collective horror and ridicule than Trump’s assertion, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament.”
For anyone who has followed the 2016 race with even a modicum of guile and objectivity, the notion that Trump’s disposition is an inherent strength of his candidacy—and that Trump himself apparently thinks so—constitutes a plunge into surrealism and self-parody that even the Onion could not improve upon. It’s a punch line in search of a setup—a claim so demonstrably false that the very act of correcting it makes one feel like valuable time is being squandered—like trying to explain astrophysics to a cat.
That Trump—with a straight face—would single out his temperament as a reason—nay, as the reason—to vote for him is the strongest and most succinct indication to date that his naïveté is even more dangerous and unattractive than his cynicism.
How so? Because cynicism at least requires a basic understanding of human nature and a desire for self-preservation—traits that, when harnessed effectively, come in awful handy when you’re leader of the free world.
But to be so ignorant of your surroundings and your own flaws that you don’t even realize why everyone is snickering at you—well, that’s no good for anybody, is it? Certainly not for America.
Let’s start with the bleeding obvious: The nature of Donald Trump’s temperament is not up for debate. As Monday’s matchup demonstrated over and over again, Trump operates entirely on impulse. He shouts, he interrupts, he rambles, he doesn’t consider the consequences of what he says or the feelings of the people hearing them, he doesn’t take his comments back and, of course, he never apologizes for anything.
That’s Donald in a nutshell: Not an alpha male so much as a broad, lazy stereotype of an alpha male. The sort of guy you’d imagine tearing through a frat house, until you realize that fraternities have honor codes and would never accept someone whose only abiding passions are money and himself.
So for him to look America in the eye and say, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” one of two things must be true: Either he doesn’t understand what the word “temperament” means—a theory that has not escaped the internet’s notice—or he is simply living in his own fictional universe where behaving like a spoiled, petulant child makes you a paragon of virtue.
By now, just about every psychologist in America has diagnosed Trump with narcissistic personality disorder—not that a professional opinion was required—but my own biggest worry about his mental state concerns his love for projection, a related disorder otherwise known as, “I know you are, but what am I?” Whether he’s attacking Ted Cruz for being “nasty,” Elizabeth Warren for being “racist,” or Hillary Clinton for being “unhinged,” “unbalanced” and having “extraordinarily bad judgment and instincts,” Trump is truly a connoisseur of seeing in everyone else what everyone else sees in him.
Bearing this pattern in mind, his I-have-a-great-temperament line was essentially the inverse of this same quirk—an attempt to fraudulently absorb a positive trait, rather than fraudulently deflect a negative one.
It’s fraud in either case, and the brazenness of it is puzzling for someone who’s supposed to be America’s greatest con man. It makes you wonder: If he has drawn more than 40 percent of the vote for lying badly, how much better would he be doing if he were capable of lying well?
Hence our working hypothesis that he isn’t fully aware that he’s doing it, which would help to explain how someone can successfully deceive half the country while simultaneously being laughed at by the other half—how he can make himself a fool while thinking himself a genius.
If all else fails, there’s always our fallback theory that he’s throwing the election in the most entertaining possible way, so that the world never finds out what happens when America is ruled by a man who can’t see three feet in front of him. If the remaining two debates are anything like the first, he just might succeed yet.