No one in the world gets criticized as much as the president of the United States. Whether the occupant of that office is a Democrat or Republican, they know they’ll spend four or eight years being attacked, assailed, insulted, mocked and disparaged. They may not like it — presidents are human, after all — but they know it just comes with the job.
But this president is different. He has skin so thin you could read the newspaper through it. Every slight weighs on him and eats him up. He is unable to absorb the slings and arrows of the presidency like a mature adult.
Now President Trump’s inability to tolerate criticism is influencing important decisions.
This week, Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan — who had become a vociferous critic of the president — offering a ludicrous statement accusing Brennan of “erratic conduct and behavior” and making “wild outbursts on the Internet and television,” by which standard Trump himself would be ineligible to see any classified documents. In addition, the White House named nine other individuals who could have their security clearances revoked soon (though some of them no longer have security clearances), including six former officials who have been publicly critical of Trump and three people at the center of conservative conspiracy theories regarding the Russia investigation.
This move was so unprecedented and appalling that a bipartisan group of former high-ranking intelligence officials who had served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton wrote a letter condemning Trump’s decision. It said:
We all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.
But I’d argue that, at its heart, this isn’t really about free speech in a broad sense. We refer to this kind of move as shutting down “dissent,” but that suggests something less personal than where this really is coming from. Trump certainly admires dictators and wishes he could have their unfettered power, but he’s not motivated so much by a desire to silence opposition in the way an ordinary dictator might. It’s not substantive disagreement that irks him so; he isn’t worried that dissent will make it harder to accomplish his goals.
Rather, what really gets him going are threats to his ego.
As tricky as it is to psychoanalyze a public figure at a distance, Trump is helpful in this regard because he is unable to conceal his feelings in the way most people are, let alone most politicians. He regularly blurts out what he’s thinking (even if it puts him in legal jeopardy), and offers through his Twitter feed a running inventory of every pulse of anger, resentment and fear that courses through his brain.
There are a series of psychological concepts that seem to apply extraordinarily well to Trump, like defensive self-esteem and narcissistic rivalry. The distinctions clinicians would make aren’t all that important for us; what matters is that Trump simultaneously has an absurd grandiosity, an unquenchable need for praise, and an intense reaction to criticism.
As near as we can tell, this has been the case for Trump his entire life. Have you ever known anyone, in any walk of life, who goes around saying things such as “I’m like, a smart person” and “I have a very good brain”? In the Trump Organization, employees were required to sign nondisclosure agreements that included non-disparagement clauses preventing them from ever criticizing Trump, his family, or anything else associated with him. His 2016 campaign did the same and, as Omarosa Manigault Newman has revealed, the Trump team offered departing officials lucrative “jobs” that could be obtained for the price of a pledge of silence.
But that’s something that happens to the side of the actual work of governing. What we’re seeing now is how Trump’s terror of being criticized is getting translated into decision-making. He’s revoking security clearances of his critics for the simple reason that it’s something he can do and nobody can stop him.
Indeed, as The Post reports, Trump is mulling the revocation of the security clearance of more officials, and we may see this in coming days:
Trump has told advisers that he is eager to strip more security clearances as part of an escalating attack on people who have criticized him or played a role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
This is the abuse of power we’ve worried about all along. If he could figure out how to use the power of the U.S. government to go after LeBron James, he’d do that too.
If there’s a silver lining, it may be that Trump’s fragile ego means that, now and again, he can be shamed into doing the right thing. For instance, yesterday we discovered that the military parade he demanded against the advice of pretty much everybody was estimated to cost $92 million, far more than had previously been known. And today, faced with a rising tide of bad publicity, Trump tweeted this:
Blaming D.C. officials was a pathetically obvious attempt at face-saving, and we quickly learned that the costs to the District would make up only a small portion of the $92 million cost. So what made Trump change his mind? Perhaps future reporting will reveal it, but my suspicion is that he realized that, instead of being a tribute to his martial greatness, a parade would end up being a PR disaster, described by everyone as a giant waste of time and money that only a president as insecure as Trump would have demanded. Perhaps on some level, he even suspected that commentators would use the occasion to remind Americans that he avoided service in Vietnam by obtaining a doctor’s note saying that he had “heel spurs” (though he was unable to recall which heel was so afflicted).
Having suffered the humiliation of this reversal, Trump will probably do what he always does in these situations: Hastily schedule a rally in West Virginia or Alabama or Kentucky, so he can go before a crowd of cheering fans who will assure him that he’s good enough, he’s smart enough, and doggone it, people like him. But then, when he comes back to Washington, he’ll keep looking for ways to lash out at anyone who criticizes him.