The president’s hyped-up behaviour at his Florida rally was an alarming display of his neediness. Maybe he should have his own theme park
The Guardian, Monday 20 March 2017
Therapy has never been so expensive. At the weekend, it cost American taxpayers millions of dollars to fly Donald Trump down to Florida so he could hold a session with thousands of adoring fans after another trying week in the White House. At a cost of roughly $3m per trip, it would have been cheaper to hire Dr Freud but, sadly, aides who tried to contact him discovered he has been dead since 1939. Instead, the 45th president of the US invited on stage a man who later revealed he has a 6ft cardboard model of his hero and talks to it every day.
Let’s just pause and think about that. This is a leader whose ego is so fragile, he wants to appear on stage with someone most of us would change seats to avoid if he sat next to us on a train. I should point out that Trump chose this particular supporter to appear beside him after he saw him being interviewed on TV before the rally. Ignoring the advice of his security officials: “He said, ‘I love Trump’ … Let him up. I’m not worried about him. I’m only worried he’s going to give me a kiss.”
It is an alarming insight into how Trump (though, not just Trump) operates. Few politicians, no matter how thin-skinned, have displayed such neediness nor demanded such displays of unconditional love from their supporters. Neediness is not usually considered attractive in men who like to be thought of as tough, but Trump is rewriting the rulebook on masculinity.
The trick all along has been to disguise neediness as empathy. When Trump talks about love to the crowds who turn out to see him, they think it’s what he’s offering. In reality, it’s what he demands from them, needing it to fuel the endorphin rush that keeps him going. You can see this process in action as he gets hyped up on stage, prompting a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of personal attacks, weird fabrications and outright lies.
In this emotionally charged atmosphere, it doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a terrorist attack in Sweden on Friday evening, as Trump wrongly implied (“Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden”), because his supporters care about a deeper species of “truth”. Needless to say, this kind of agitated excitement is not a good state for a world leader, especially when he has access to the codes that fire nuclear missiles. But Trump craves it, and he will go on craving it.
Adulation is a dangerous drug for politicians, sometimes affecting those who should in theory be immune to it. Jeremy Corbyn spent years as an obscure Labour backbencher, and the transformation, when he unexpectedly found himself addressing adoring rallies during a couple of leadership contests, has been astonishing to behold.
Corbyn never looks more relaxed than when he arrives to address a theatre full of cheering supporters, coming alive on stage in a way he never does in TV interviews or at press conferences. He shares Trump’s irritation towards even mildly critical questions, instantly reverting to talking about his “mandate” in the same way that the president still boasts about how many votes he got in the electoral college.
This is as much about a type of masculinity – wounded, self-pitying, quick to anger – as it is right or left. Like any patriarch, Trump is protective of the women around him, launching an intemperate attack on a department store that dropped his daughter’s clothing line, but he expects an embarrassing degree of servility in return. His most senior female aide, Kellyanne Conway, recently tweeted in terms that suggested she was auditioning for a part in a rewrite of The Story of O. Corbyn was visibly annoyed when he was challenged over his failure to give top jobs to women in his first shadow cabinet – something he has since rectified, but it was a telling omission.
The trouble with this kind of politics is that it exists, in the long-term, to shore up the fragile ego of one man (and it usually is a man). The symbiosis between leader and supporters is so close that it’s hard to interrupt, existing outside the more or less rational sphere conventional politicians are used to occupying. For the exceptionally loyal base that turns up at rallies, it doesn’t matter if the polls are terrible, because they aren’t part of the inner circle. Here’s the crucial point: when the identification is so close, giving up on the leader would be like giving up on yourself.
I sometimes wonder if we couldn’t build a theme park where Trump is president for life, presiding in a replica Oval Office and flying in a pretend version of Air Force One that never actually leaves the ground. And I’m sure Corbyn would be happier in a fictional Labourland, holding as many Cuba Solidarity meetings as he likes, than leading the party into the next general election. We would have to pay for busloads of extras to provide cheering crowds, but it would be cheaper in the long run.
A horrible combination of circumstances – reality TV, distrust of politicians, a fightback against feminism – has landed us in this unenviable situation. The danger of treating politics as therapy for emotionally needy men is too enormous to allow it to last.