Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The Frail ‘Rules’ of Rhetorical Courtesy

It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of an insecure and needy leader.

Periodically civil discourse in the United States withers. The remarks of some public officials are intemperate and too many are compliant. Those of us who have been around awhile remember Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 declaration of segregation “forever:” certainly a low point in the American project.  More commonly, agitation for change motivates activists to defy the rhetorical norms of social discourse in favor of the rougher ‘music’ of personal condemnation, leaving little room for finding middle ground. There have always been moments in our history when this kind of incivility gains the upper hand: for example, in the vilification of President Lincoln by even the abolitionist press, or during the 1968 presidential campaign, when tensions over the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the assassinations of MLK and RFK brought the melting pot to a boil.

We are in another such period.  But this time the challenge to civil order has not originated from angry newspaper editors or youthful marchers in the streets of Chicago, but from the single agent of the Commander-in-Chief.  The President of the United States is a full-time social disruptor with an unhelpful penchant for trashing core values in the American canon.  Listening matters less than judging. Arguments with evidence are not worth the time.  Facts and even prior statements are disowned.  Self-promotion dominates over self-reflection.  Our best political norms emphasizing tolerance and a degree of generosity have never seemed more frail.

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president. 

If we were unprepared for how silent the Constitution and the President’s party can be in reining in a chronic norms-breaker, many Americans have been stunned by the almost daily verbal slights and discourtesies Donald Trump shows toward ordinary citizens, neighbors, trading partners, immigrants, the press, and especially the nation’s traditional allies.  It seems that women who lead our most important international partners are especially in for unhealthy doses of disrespect.  Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is our most powerful ally; Britain is our closest. It was a breathtaking violation of international norms to hear a President dressing down a British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview given within hours of meeting her face to face.  He noted in Britain’s Sun that, among other things, a rival within her own party would make a good prime minister, making a mockery of his role as her guest.  (He later offered kinder words, like a sullen teen asked to ”make an effort;” it’s a recurring pattern where Trump is forced by his handlers to issue a rhetorical corrective.)

It was just a few years ago we heard a very different message in a 2012 joint statement released jointly by Barack Obama and then Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by history, traditions and values we share.  But what makes our relationship special--a unique and essential asset--is that we join hands across so many endeavors.  Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance."

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president.  Not even an old Marx Brother movie can match the rude assaults dished out by the former reality show personality.  It’s as if we have been locked in a dingy bar with an insult comic who won’t leave the stage. It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of a fearful and needy leader.

Finding ‘Interiority’

We are the species that ponders, muses, worries, fears, wonders, hopes and ruminates.  It follows that we are also wired to make estimates of another’s state of mind based on almost anything they to say. 

We know humans have rich inner lives, and that values and concerns are  indirectly signaled to others in what we say. There is a sub-textual ‘meta-language’ that is embedded in the thoughts we express.  Expression naturally reveals residues of the mind in motion. Not surprisingly, our skill at “reading” each other turns out to be one of the crucial markers of a person’s social intelligence.  State-of-mind inferences are what make discourse possible. Our estimates usually mean that we can adjust to meet an interlocutor half way.


Our skill at ‘reading’ others is a crucial attribute, separating humans from other species, even smart robots. We might expect that Alexa, Siri and their counterparts will be able to answer truth-based questions.  But we are usually going to come up with blanks if we look for signs of some sort of inner life.

This is why interiority is such an interesting idea.

A robot can be programmed with words that mimic feelings; it can also be programmed to have a kind of synthetic past.  But ask Alexa what kinds of topics are most difficult to discuss, and we are probably going to get some version of it’s programmer’s interiority.  Shift toward the stuff of everyday human life–feelings, experiences, a sense of self–and machine intelligence begins to founder as a pretender to the human mind.

We routinely act on the belief that we are mostly transparent to each other.

All of this is a useful reminder of how much we depend upon what is sometimes called “theory of mind” to infer mental states in others.  The trigger is almost always our statements and their accompanying physical expressions: even simple cues like frowns or smiles. These are enough to turn the mysteries of another into estimates of apparent needs and aspirations. For example, if a friend tells us that someone we both know seems “on edge,” it’s entirely possible that the rhetorical signs of that state were inferred from statements ostensibly about something else. We assume there is a meta-language even in the most prosaic forms of rhetoric.  What we sense is easily passed on in similar statements like “She seems lonely,” “I think he lacks self-confidence” or “She says she’s fine, but she doesn’t seem fine.”  In short, we use the evidence of another person’s words to fill in a larger picture of their preferences and predilections.  And while this is not psychoanalysis, it is a survival skill for a species that lives in communities.

All of this means that we act on the belief that we are partly transparent to each other. We count on our inferences to build out the bonds we seek with others. To be sure, most adults maintain a screen of privacy that can seem impenetrable and not easily inferred. In addition, our inferences can be wrong.  Friends can surprise us with unanticipated feelings or reactions we didn’t expect. Even so, the daily business of making estimates of what others are thinking demonstrates a kind under-appreciated mindfulness.

And yet. . .

A Trump Caveat in Four Questions

Most of us are somewhat opaque. We keep a great deal behind a scrim that decreases our revealed vulnerabilities.  We know more of our successes than we might say. We sense our fears, but suppress the impulse to speak about them. We rein in the rampant narcissism that once flourished in childhood.

But what happens when a person lives their life in a cognitive glass house? An absence of self-monitoring can mean that elemental needs, fears and resentments are likely to be on display with technicolor vividness.  No inference-making by another is required; the person is psychologically naked.

This rarer form of what might be called “interiority at the surface,” is evident in the psychic transparency of Donald Trump. Even if we set aside his politics, it’s apparent to most Americans that obvious needs for status and affirmation float to the top of everything he says, like bubbles rising from the bottom of a pool. He’s the rare leader who has grown to adulthood seemingly unaware of the near-total display of his core motivations. To be sure, the surface bluster is convincing to some.  Yet there is a far more common counter-narrative of something amiss just underneath, a chronic vulnerability made worse because he lacks awareness and self control. Without doubt, many chronic self-promoters can be blind to their obviousness.  Even so, the problem of Trump’s externalized interiority poses stark questions for him and citizens alike:

  • Does he not notice that his words so obviously betray his needs and fears?
  • Has he never found reasons to admire the stoicism and mental discipline of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King or John McCain?
  • Is there ever an impulse to lash out that’s worth suppressing?
  • And should it always fall to ‘minders’ and citizens to worry about a leader who presents himself to the world as hopelessly insecure?

In a more usual case we will have to infer aspects of a person’s inner life, and that living with a certain degree of grace means keeping a filter in place between private resentments and public words.