His obsession with “looking weak” is of course a dead giveaway. It suggests not strength but emotional collapsibility. It’s not really so surprising that the man who serially kicks his golf ball out of the rough and exaggerates his high school baseball talent would, as president of the United States, allow gas and rubber bullets to be turned on peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House for the sake of a photo op.
The essential underlying component of power, as every true athlete knows, is emotional regulation. Great athletes have command of themselves. They acquire this by admitting to the things they aren’t good at, without tantrum, and practicing them. They repeatedly subject themselves to pain without complaint to, as Walt Whitman put it, “habituate ... to a necessary physical stoicism.” They know that only through discomfort and repetitive metabolic stress can they understand and cure their own weakness. If you watch them, really watch them, it’s what you come to respect most. They understand that behind any kind of character is conditioning.
Real athletes, through the study of themselves, come to a fascinatingly intimate knowledge of the ways in which our brain and central nervous system coordinate force production. The ability to make a muscle voluntarily react has almost nothing to do with pure strength. It has to do with your psychological composure and the ability to get the brain to override the muscle, to direct your fibers to carry out all kinds of varieties of movement that create coordinated power.
Joint angle. Speed, load, stability, balance. Length and tension. Velocity. Torque. Organization. These are the components of power.
Trump has no real interest in any of this. He has never really trained at anything — you can see that he’s just a country club athlete. If you doubt it, call up any video of him with a golf club or a tennis racket. He was clearly born with some natural assets and was gifted some expensive lessons — and you can also see he never worked a lick at it. Take a look at a clip from an exhibition with Serena Williams, who lobs little patty-cakes to him. He takes a huge cut at a backhand and sends the ball into the crowd. He drills a forehand into the ground so badly that it bounces twice before it gets to the bottom of the net. Of three balls, he gets one in the court.
Is there anything weaker than the guy who exaggerates his high school career? Trump’s claim that he was scouted by major league teams and participated in a tryout with “another young kid named Willie McCovey” when he was at the New York Military Academy is cringeworthy. McCovey played in the 1962 World Series. Trump didn’t even graduate from high school until 1964. Slate did a wonderfully deep dive on Trump’s supposed skills, hunting down old box scores and newspaper accounts of games he was in. Reporter Leander Schaerlaeckens found nine box scores over three years. As a sophomore Trump went 1 for 10 at the plate, as a junior 2 for 10, and as a senior 1 for 9. You really think a major league team was interested in a kid who hit .138?
He was so good he didn’t play baseball at Fordham or Penn, although he did play squash. The most interesting thing about his baseball box scores is that they suggest Trump never learned a thing about hitting, never got a bit better, never improved.
Trump’s not strong. He’s just antagonistic, a weekend warrior. There is a world of difference. Antagonistic personalities tend to be associated not with control but lack of it. Show me someone who scores high in antagonism, and I won’t show you an athlete; I’ll show you a pathological gambler. I’ll show you the soft-bellied guy who plays too mean on the weekend softball diamond, who wants to slide into home plate with his spikes up.
Why does any of this matter? Because Trump not only mistakes the nature of real strength; he misapplies it. He’s got no real feel for its positive uses — none of the tensile adaptability that allows someone to apply a useful, schooled, nuanced amount of force to a complex problem. Such as, how to detangle the constitutional right of protest from the toxic stew of rock-throwing punks, looters, political agitators and snarling sadistic cops. That requires someone with an array of skilled responses. Trump’s got just one: a spittle-flying wild swing.
Trump is not wrong to correlate a certain kind of strength with credible leadership. Dwight Eisenhower did, too. Eisenhower, an equestrian and football player at West Point, almost invariably chose fellow athletes as his generals. But not because they had muscle. Rather, because they had the conviction that “victory comes through hard — almost slavish — work . . . and an enthusiasm that amounts to dedication,” Eisenhower said. One of those Eisenhower relied on was George S. Patton, a football player and Olympian pentathlete, who for all of his faults had real insight into leadership under fire.
“Now, if you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing,” Patton said. “You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do.”
Take a look at Trump, and ask yourself if his mind has ever, even once, governed his own body. Much less anything else.