When I asked Donald Trump in 2014 about his temperament, he readily volunteered this: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.”
As a grade-schooler Trump threw cake around a birthday party and gave a teacher a black eye because, as he wrote in his own book “The Art of the Deal”, the man didn’t know what he was talking about. Trump told me in interviews I did with him for a biography that as a boy he just “loved to fight.” Pressed to explain, he added, “Any kind of fight, I loved it, including physical.”
The grown-up Donald also told me that he doesn’t respect the people he meets in life because “most people aren’t worthy of respect.” This is the motto of the vestigial aspect of the personality that a psychotherapist would call his “inner child.”
As a child at the private Kew-Forest School in Queens, where the young gentlemen wore ties and blazers, young Donald likely didn’t meet up with the kind of New York public school boys who would have helped him learn to respect others. Instead he became a prep-school terror that no one could manage. His exasperated parents finally sent him off to a military academy. There, grown men whom Trump described as drill sergeants who would “smack the hell out of you,” taught him that adults play by bully-boy rules, too.
Which brings us to Thursday’s debate. Again in a coat and tie, Donald was the misbehaving bully boy. You could almost hear the squeals of little kids as Trump taunted his opponent, a United States senator, by repeatedly calling him “little Marco” and boasted about the size of his own penis. For Sen. Ted Cruz he used the phrase, “Lyin’ Ted.” The moderators, playing the role of teachers on the playground, struggled for control. “Mr. Trump it’s not your turn,” said Chris Wallace, in a stern tone young Donald must have heard a thousand times. “You’ll get your turn, sir.”
And so it went, for much of the debate among candidates who believe they should be President of the United States and commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military. That means control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which if detonated would be sufficient to destroy civilization several times over.
Having realized, late in the game, that they are being bested by an out-of-control child, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio got down on his level. The live audience often responded with hoots and jeers. They too expressed themselves as out-of-control children, forgetting their manners and ignoring the fact that they had come to hear from men who seek to lead the greatest power the world has ever seen.
How much of Donald Trump’s inner child is on display in his business career? One of his former executives, Barbara Res, wrote in the New York Daily News, “He has an incredible temper and he lashes out at everyone…”
And a letter recently revealed by writer Jeff Pearlman attests to his mistreatment of his fellow owners in the now-defunct United States Football League. After recounting Trump’s terrible behavior, including “personal abuse of the commissioner and various of your partners” who disagreed with him, John F. Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, warned him to behave or “I’ll have no regrets whatsoever punching you right in the mouth.”
Could he be provoked?
Fortunately, in many settings, Trump has controlled his childish tendencies. In negotiations with banks and governments he has generally behaved like an adult. We can hope that he would do so on the nation’s behalf. However others, including terrorist groups and other nations, who have seen how he can be provoked during the campaign may be tempted to do the same to a President Trump.
In addition to his lack of impulse control, Donald has long exhibited a child’s inability to accept responsibility. This trait is familiar to those have seen Trump in action over the years. During the demolition of the building that occupied the Trump Tower site, he was caught destroying precious artwork that was supposed to be preserved. He offered excuses of the sort you’d hear from a kid who just broke a window with a baseball.
Next came an insult-spiced brawl with the mayor of New York, ridiculous claims about the British royal family buying his real estate, and an ugly tabloid sex scandal. In the cases of his failed airline, four huge bankruptcies, and more ugly controversies than can be counted, Donald offered excuses but not a sense of responsibility.
Victims of Trump’s abusive behavior number in the thousands, and include, on a civic level, many communities where he promised big investments and developments but delivered much less than was expected. In Scotland, for example, he demanded and received permission to destroy part of a sensitive eco-system to build a golf course but walked away from his commitment to build housing. His excuse was that he wasn’t treated well enough by the Scots.
Yet Trump’s admirers can be counted in the millions. They watch him grin and scowl and listen as he lets fly with the most ugly kinds of rhetoric, and find themselves excited by his enthusiasm and lack of restraint. This is the paradoxical effect of the bad little boy. Yes, he’s out of line and must be taught to respect others. However the sight and sound of someone behaving with such an unbridled enthusiasm is also thrilling.
When Trump sees a protester and says, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he is expressing the kind of aggressive impulse we have all felt but learned to control He is also showing us what he thinks of us. As he told me, Trump always operates with the assumption that human beings are vicious creatures. “Man is the most vicious of all animals,” he has said. This is the assumption he has brought to the campaign.
This week, as his opponents attempted to take Trump down using his own methods, elders in the Republican Party have expressed their alarm and begun to call on voters to settle down. Talk of convention chaos and even a breakaway effort to promote a third candidate to face Trump and the Democratic Party’s nominee suggests more chaos in the month ahead.
The outcome will depend on whether the grownups get control or our own inner children, set loose in the excitement of Boy Donald’s performance, choose to run wild.