Recently The Atlantic hosted 24 liberal writers to comment on a possible second term for former President Donald Trump. Covering autocracy to science, they saw a future reminiscent of the Roman Republic’s decline as it slid into chaos and collapsed.
The essayists touched on three recurring themes: Trump’s personality, objectives, and legacy. These themes also buttress other commentaries on Trump’s past and future impact on America. I believe that Trump’s personality disrupts our society’s normative behavior more than his political policies.
Mainstream media critics often cite Trump’s personality when describing how he implements policies, such as heartlessly separating children from their parents when they cross the Mexican border seeking asylum. Still, the conservatives he chose for the most critical positions in his administration have been some of Trump’s severest critics. David Frum, who leads off the collective of Atlantic’s writers, notes that his first secretary of state called him a “fucking moron” not capable of learning how government works.
For instance, according to the authors of the book, A Very Stable Genius, “the universal value of the Trump administration was loyalty,” not to the country or its laws but to him personally. For example, he wanted to eliminate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act because U.S. companies, like real estate developers, such as himself, were not allowed to bribe foreign governments to secure special services. He asked his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “to get rid of that law.” Tillerson said he’d have to work with Congress. Unsatisfied, Trump turned to his most loyal senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, to draft an Executive Order repealing the law.
In reflecting on his personality, his second chief of staff said he was “the most flawed person I’ve ever met in my life,” and his dishonesty was “just astounding.” The above insights seem to be the same as those of his 44 former Cabinet secretaries. McKay Coppins of NBC reported that only four of them endorsed him as a presidential candidate.
The Social & Behavioral Sciences Encyclopedia defines “personality traits as persistent underlying tendencies to behave in particular ways in particular situations.” It is more quirky or flexible than what we think of as character.
Liberals are blind to ignore that Trump’s “quirky” personality does attract strong support from more than a third of the nation. And his personality has made him the leading presidential candidate for Republicans for the third straight election.
One of Trump’s longtime friends defended Trump, saying that Trump “has genius characteristics… Like all savants, he has edges;… he has a kind of brilliance and charisma that are unique, rare, and captivating, although at times misunderstood.”
Trump doesn’t leave much room for his attitudes to be misunderstood in how he leads. After he fired his national security adviser, John Bolton, by a tweet an hour before Bolton was to appear in a press conference with the secretary of state, Trump quipped about how he runs his administration. “It’s very easy actually to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions.”
He will make the most important national decisions if elected to a new term. The most important one on his mind is getting revenge for those who blocked his interests. Unlike White House advisors and cabinet officials, he won’t be able to fire citizens who are not his employees or contestants on his former TV show, The Apprentice.
According to Atlantic writer Baron Gellman, Trump has openly talked about taking revenge on his enemies, like President Joe Biden, against whom Trump would deploy federal prosecutors. Previously, Trump suggested that Hillary Clinton be thrown in jail, but he lost interest after she lost the election. With presidential powers back in his hands, limiting his support to right-wing House Republicans to impeach Biden is not enough because, apparently, he’d like to see Biden in jail this time.
What kind of personality is focused on having the power to exact revenge on anyone who offended you? Psychiatrists describe an affliction that affects around 5.3% percent of the U.S. population; it’s called narcissistic personality disorder NPD. Among the traits that define that behavior are a grandiose sense of self and fantasies of unlimited success. Revenge is narcissistic behavior to achieve unlimited success.
Health professionals urge caution in planting the NPD label on anyone acting narcissistic in certain situations. The difference between narcissism as a personality trait and clinical narcissistic personality is how persistently it shows over time and across all situations.
In assessing Trump being in office again, people need to consider how he has consistently exhibited narcissistic traits that will reshape or ignore our established public policies and laws. Like election laws. His fantasies of unlimited success align with Atlantic writer David A. Graham’s observation that the former president has described himself as a “very proud election denier.”
He has repeated for years that the 2020 presidential election was not legitimate, despite the highest elected state official from both parties certifying the ballot counts in every state and confirming that Joe Biden won the election and Donald Trump lost. His attorneys, including his appointed attorney general, had personally informed Trump that there was no evidence that the election outcome would have differed.
In other words, Trump created a fantasy world, and most Republicans have followed him into that world, where he promises to pursue vengeance if elected as president again.
Atlantic writer Ronald Brownstein writes that during his 2024 campaign, he promised to deliver “retribution” for his supporters. From the beginning of his current run, Graham notes that Trump “has a record of repeatedly threatening and intimidating judges, witnesses, prosecutors, and even the family of prosecutors involved in the cases against him.” His sense of omnipotence extends to saying that “his legal opponents will be consigned to mental asylums if he’s reelected.”
A grandiose sense of self is another trait that defines NDP behavior. It can be presented as a charming and entertaining personality, as Trump elicits more laughter than any other presidential candidate in his last three races.
Why is that? Because the crowd, and he consistently attracts large crowds, loves his performance of making fun of others, calling them outrageous names. And then there is his smirky smile with remarks that invite his audience to share in his disbelief of the ideas and facts that science, government, and historians deliver. Those experts speak the language of the elites, those who think they know better than Trump’s audience.
Atlantic writer Michael Schuman recognizes that “he won’t change his personality” regarding his admiration of authoritarian leaders. China’s Xi may become more hostile to American overseas interests, but Trump knows that he is superior to Xi and can flatter him into being nicer to us. Trump believes he understands them because he knows what powerful leaders want; it is just like what he wants – more power. And the authoritarian leaders likewise know how to flatter Trump to get what they want.
Schuman believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin manipulated Trump by telling him that his ideas were brilliant and warning that he couldn’t trust anyone in his administration to execute them. Trump publicly refuted his own appointed Justice Department for indicting 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic emails. He said his logic was that Putin told him they didn’t.
Trump also considers himself smarter than his contemporaries and previous American presidents. He said someone told him that “Thomas Jefferson was the smartest one ever. I don’t think so… frankly I think my IQ — people tell me it is tremendous; doctors can’t believe it.”
No one is excluded from overshadowing Trump’s greatness, including the Republican Party’s iconic founder, President Abraham Lincoln. On January 6, Trump suggested Lincoln could have avoided the Civil War. If Trump had been president, he said he could have avoided an unnecessary bloody war through “negotiation.” I’m sure Trump wasn’t lying. He truly believes that, as he said previously, “Only I can fix it,” whatever the problem.
Trump’s grandiose sense of self makes it easy for him to reject or seek information that contradicts his beliefs. His insistence that he could have negotiated away our Civil War woefully ignores the fact that Lincoln supported the first proposed 13th Amendment (called the Corwin Amendment) to save the Union before the Civil War began. It would have shielded slavery within the existing slave states from a federal constitutional amendment process and abolition or interference by Congress. Only a handful of states ratified it. And yet, what more could Trump have offered the South? Probably, he’d just let the South leave the Union and call it a victory because he avoided a war.
Trump’s statement on Lincoln is a prime indicator of a future president who will appoint his advisors and the most powerful government officials based on who is more loyal to him than to the nation or the real world. This time, he will not make the mistake of picking the most intelligent conservatives to serve him but instead will select the most servile conservatives. These are the types of officials that serve kings, tyrants, and dictators.
Trump said he would only be a “dictator for a day” to build a wall and drill. Acting on his belief that he got elected on the public promise to be a dictator to fulfill his stated goals, he could try to ignore budget constraints, Congress, and the courts. If blocked, he will attack the people and institutions that deny his public mandate for change. With that attitude, the nation will begin a constitutional crisis during Trump’s first week in the Oval Office. The institutional chaos that he provokes will either splinter the Republican Party, or it will continue to transform into the MAGA Party led by Trump.
Trump could follow Putin’s past political practice and push for a constitutional amendment or another way to allow him to run again for president. It has such a low probability of happening that the two-dozen thoughtful Atlantic writers have not imagined such a Trump move.
Still, how many predicted that Trump would demand Vice President Mike Pence stop Congress from certifying Biden’s election because it was stolen from him? And that a thousand pro-Trump rioters chanting “Hang Pence” would storm the capitol looking for him? Trump calls the protestors arrested for insurrection “heroes,” and he will pardon them if elected president. Could laws again be flouted when they don’t yield to Trump’s will?
All Americans, whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents, could find themselves living in a republic subject to the intentional chaos Trump ignites in his second presidency. That is the message voters need to hear.
This essay first appeared in the author’s website, Becoming Citizen Activist. Former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.