Which superpower would President Donald Trump choose — to fly, or be invisible?
This is a question that children have posed to one another as long as there have been comic books. But it’s not a meaningless or frivolous one. Management experts and psychologists have studied how a person’s answer reveals something about his or her self-confidence, fearfulness and capacity for leadership.
And in President Trump’s case, it’s not hard to imagine what his answer would be.
Though he is 71, Trump often behaves in ways that make it seem like he never left the schoolyard. It’s evident in his bragging, self-absorption and little-boy aggression. It’s how he goes vroom-vroom when he sits behind the wheel of a truck. He is, after all, the man who once wrote, “I am the creator of my own comic book, and I love living in it.”
It’s obvious which superpower he would choose: invisibility.
Consider: Unable to take responsibility for his mistakes and the injuries he inflicts, President Invisible regularly acts with impunity, works to avoid accountability and demands we ignore his record as if it were, well, invisible.
In the past week alone, Trump deflected questions about his failure to console the loved ones of fallen soldiers; he denied remarks he allegedly made to a slain soldier’s widow who, by the accounts of her family and friends, was insulted by them; cut a $25,000 check to literally cover a promise he made to a Gold Star father months ago that was suddenly brought to light — by a press whose freedom he threatened last week, like a man who has much to hide.
“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” he wrote on Twitter. “Not fair to public!”
The record of recent days, like the Trump presidency thus far, aligns neatly with the image of a man leaning into his superpower of invisibility, and generally falling far short of any ambition to fly. Not for him the soaring speech of an FDR, rallying Americans against “fear itself” to defeat the Nazis, or of Ronald Reagan envisioning Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill,” or even George W. Bush, describing the country in a speech Thursday as one with “a history of resilience and a genius for renewal.”
Trump is more typically found in rhetoric’s dark corners, inside his Twitter account, muttering about the “nasty” San Juan mayor or about Sen. Bob Corker’s height.
Management consultants have used the superpower choice to study the traits of workers and executives. Trump, it turns out, is out of sync with his big cheese peers. Executive leaders are far more likely to choose flight, while administrative and clerical workers, along with those concerned with safety, tend more toward invisibility. Flying is for the bold. Invisibility is for the fearful.
When consultant Joseph Folkman reported on this work at Forbes.com he noted that the fliers were significantly more confident than the invisibles.
They don’t mind being seen as they try, and even fail. They are also less concerned about being blamed for mistakes, and less worried about being evaluated. In politics, fliers would tend to be like John McCain, who was actually a military pilot and so identified as direct in his manner that his 2000 campaign bus was dubbed the Straight Talk Express.
Trump, by contrast, almost never offers sustained straight talk about anything other than his emotions, and indeed often defies understanding. When asked about whether he contacted the families of Sgt. Johnson and others killed recently in Niger, he said:
“I’ve written them personal letters. They’ve been sent or they’re going out tonight, but they were during the weekend. I will at some point during the period of time call the parents and the families.”
It was typical Trumpspeak, as was his statement, when corrected on the false claim that other presidents didn’t contact families of fallen soldiers.
“President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know, that’s what I was told.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s claims of success in response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico have also thrown an invisibility cloak over reality. In an appearance with Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló on Thursday, Trump gave himself a mark of 10, on a scale of 10 — even though 80% of the island remains without electricity after a month’s time — and invited Rosselló to join in the nonsense.
“Did we do a great job?” he asked.
This is one of the Invisible President’s favorite methods. Like a salesman who insists you admire the item he’s trying to sell you, Trump uses shameless pressure techniques to create the illusion of agreement.
White House chief of staff John Kelly may have succumbed to this trick when he joined the fracas over Trump’s call to Army widow Myeshia Johnson. Kelly told reporters that President Obama failed to call him when his soldier son was killed (though Kelly said he did not fault him for this), defended President Trump and then attacked Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, who reported on Trump’s bungled phone call.
Here Kelly became part of Trump’s game, blasting Wilson for listening in on a call he also listened to, and appearing to botch a political timeline in order to further attack her for claiming credit for securing funding for a building in Florida — something she says she could not have done.
In an instant, Kelly’s credibility was damaged as he tried to work within Trump’s illusion.
Trump’s evasive way of speaking is all about concealing what he really thinks, and what he knows for certain. (The ultimate example may be seen in how he noted “very fine people” were among both the neo-Nazis who recently gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and those who opposed them.)
As he swerves on policies — this week he liked a bi-partisan compromise deal on health care until he rejected it the next day — Trump hopes we forget his record and permit him to act as if the fellow who spoke yesterday wasn’t really there.
What does it mean that Trump wants to cloak both himself and his actions? Psychologist and author Robert Burgo has written about working with people who seek invisibility and suggests they are both perfectionistic (consider Trump’s claim about his high IQ and accomplishments) and afflicted by self-hatred.
“The primary defense is the creation of an idealized false self.” writes Burgo. This artificial persona is “meant to deny the feelings of inner ugliness and defect.”
The kinds of analysis offered by Burgo and Folkman only go so far. Everyone has wondered what it would be like to move unseen in the world, and merely entertaining this fantasy doesn’t prove anything. However, Trump is so consistent in his effort to avoid accountability, and has done it for so long, that the tendency seems unmistakable.
Similarly, it should be said that just about everyone has dreamed about having the ability the fly — while still not wanting to be out-front all the time. However, it’s notable that two of the men Trump has picked on lately, Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush, were actual military fliers, who loved getting airborne and showing what they could do, for all to see.
This week both McCain and Bush offered critiques of the type of nationalism and isolationism that “America-first” Trump exploited to gain the White House and has employed to, for example, abandon both the Paris climate treaty and back away from the Iran nuclear deal. McCain braved ill health to voice his condemnation of “spurious nationalism” reminiscent of the 1930s.
Bush warned against anti-immigrant nativism (a Trump staple) and cautioned that “bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”
Both McCain and Bush chose not to name Trump when they spoke, but left little doubt about the object of their concern. And in doing so, they left him invisible, while they both flew about as high as they’ve ever gone.