When I saw CNN’s Jake Tapper suddenly blurt out, “What the hell is going on?” in an online video the other day, I thought I’d better speak up.
Like millions of people around the world, Tapper has become increasingly baffled by President Donald Trump’s odd behaviors: sucking up to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, then rewriting his own words the next day; scolding British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview in The Sun, then denying that he ever did so when he was in May’s presence hours later; lying, reversing himself, lying again, then lying about the lies.
Come up with your own list of peculiar and often contradictory Trump statements — about women, the Access Hollywood tape, immigrants, Charlottesville, gun rights, you name it. The bottom line, more and more, seems to be that exasperating question, “What the hell is going on?”
Late last year, 27 prominent mental health professionals were so concerned about Trump’s odd and sometimes belligerent behavior that they contributed chapters to an unprecedented book called, "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump." Their deep concern, they said, justified setting aside an important ethical standard of the mental health professions — the one that forbids mental health professionals from diagnosing public figures they’ve never actually evaluated.
"Is Trump really mentally deranged, maybe ready for the loony bin?"
But diagnose they did — without a consensus, of course, because none of them, as far as I can tell, had ever even met Trump. (Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for "The Art of the Deal," has a chapter in the book, but he is not counted as one of the 27 mental health professionals.)
Is Trump really mentally deranged, maybe ready for the loony bin? If so, how could he have achieved so much over the course of his life? How could he have functioned so well in business, in media and now even in politics? How could he have raised such loyal and high-functioning offspring? How could he last even a day in the most stressful office in the most stressful building in the most stressful city in the world?
Trump's 'audience control' problem
Trump is not mentally ill, and I doubt that he is even “living in his own reality,” as so many have claimed. He is simply fairly unique in a way that is hard for the public to understand. In a nutshell, Trump is highly vulnerable to what can reasonably be called “sympathetic audience control.”
If that sounds jargony, I apologize. It’s actually a pretty simple concept and, in Trump’s case, it explains a lot — maybe even 90 percent of the behavior that seems so baffling.
All normal people are subject to “audience control” to one degree or another. That means simply that they regulate what they say and do based on who’s around them. They are respectful sitting in a church pew, a bit more daring sitting in a classroom, and somewhat wild sitting in the bleachers. Near a police officer, most people are cautious and deferential; near a best friend, people feel comfortable and speak freely.
Sometimes audience control goes haywire. You might behave one way with your parents and a very different way with your new romantic partner. When you finally bring your new friend home to meet the ‘rents, you might feel awkward and barely know what to do or say.
Except for situations like that, audience control doesn’t usually cause problems, and it also usually doesn’t persist when the audience is gone. But for Trump, audience control works in a special way.
When Trump is in the presence of someone he dislikes or distrusts, he attacks and will continue to lash out for a while, but not necessarily forever. When someone he perceives as a threat becomes deferential (Rocket Man, for example), Trump not only stops attacking, he also becomes highly vulnerable to influence.
In general, when Trump is around someone whom he perceives as supportive, or when he gets a phone call from a supportive billionaire, or when he hears a supportive commentator on Fox News, his thinking is rapidly influenced by what that person is saying. This is “sympathetic audience control.” With Trump, the impact is so strong that it persists after the person is gone — maybe even until another sympathetic individual comes along.
When Trump is in front of a large group of cheering people, his thinking is fully controlled by the crowd. It might seem he’s in control, but the opposite is actually the case. The supportive audience completely dominates his thinking, causing him to repeat, over and over, things he believes the audience wants to hear.
We need to add just one more element here to make sense of Trump’s roller coaster mind: Like my 92-year-old mom, Trump lives in a very small window of time, and no, I don’t mean he lives “in the moment” in that healthy, New-Age-y sort of way. I mean he has trouble looking backwards or forwards in time.
You might think he formulates and lives by long-term plans and strategies, but I doubt that very much. He is much more like a rudderless sailboat blown about by the wind, with the direction largely determined moment-to-moment according to who’s got his attention and whether he views that person as friend or foe.
No principles, just gusts of wind
Sympathetic audience control and a small time window produce most of the odd cognitive glitches we see in our president. Moment to moment, he either sees a foe and shoots, or he sees a friend and is influenced. In that kind of perceptual world, Trump inevitably — and without shame or even awareness — shifts his views frequently, sometimes multiple times a day.
Not only do his views shift, he also has no trouble denying, entirely without guile, in my view, what he said yesterday. All that’s shiny and real to him is what friends or foes are saying inside those small time windows. Everything else is fuzzy, and that’s why he can so easily tell so many lies. From his perspective, lying has no meaning. Only reacting has meaning. Trump reacts.
The small time window and sympathetic audience control also explain why Trump always seems to be creating foreign policy on the fly, why his meetings with world leaders rarely produce tangible results, why he can’t get congressional deals, and why he is almost certainly incapable of negotiating those famous bilateral agreements that were supposed to replace the multinational treaties he has swept aside.
If I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I am, Trump is capable of only a minimal level of analytical or critical thinking. Perhaps more alarming, our president — the putative leader of the free world — doesn’t believe in anything and he rarely, if ever, means anything he says. The impulsive tweets, the conservative court appointments, the unfunded tax cuts, the obsession with a wall, the swipes at immigrants — all are byproducts (dross, if you will) of sympathetic audience control operating in small time windows. There are no principles operating here, just gusts of wind.
And if I’m right, Trump will continue to function this way — blindly, erratically and reactively, without principle or direction — for the rest of his life.