Neil Buchanan: The Small-Minded, Thin-Skinned Weakness of Trump

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Donald Trump at a rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on November 7. Neil Buchanan writes that Trump is so weak that he often does not even have the courage to stand behind his statements when he spreads lies. He repeatedly hides behind weasel words like "people are saying" and "I'm just asking." And he constantly complains even as he claims that he is too big of a man to complain. ("I'm always being audited. I should complain, but I won't.") Carlo Allegri/reuters

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

As the 2016 campaign finally ends, I have found myself searching for an overarching theme—a framing device—that would allow me to understand what we have all witnessed this year. It is not an easy task.

Is it the blatant white supremacist message of Donald Trump's campaign? There certainly has been plenty of that. Bigotry has infused every step of Trump's political life. Indeed, it goes back all the way to his days discriminating against African-Americans in the New York City housing market, and it has carried through to every racist provocation of his candidacy.

But not all of the things on the seemingly endless list of Trump's outrages have been driven by racism or xenophobia. After all, there is plenty of sexism as well! Even there, however, I have struggled to understand the deeper framework within which Trump's misogyny festers.

Finally, I think I have figured it out. To put it simply, Trump is a small, weak man. Everything that he says and does can, I think, best be understood as the dangerous and fearful reactions of a man who does not understand what it means to be a grown up, and who simply does not comprehend the notion of true strength.

Six weeks ago, I wrote about a Trump surrogate who said that "Trump is weakness in an uncertain world." I focused on the claim (after the bombings in New York and New Jersey) by the surrogate that voters would gravitate to Trump because of his willingness to crack down mercilessly on (nonwhite and non-Christian) criminal and terrorist suspects. A man who considered the idea of having our soldiers kill the families of suspected terrorists thinks that he is showing strength, when all he is really showing is that he has no idea what real strength is and that he is willing to kill vulnerable people.

But Trump's flailing attempts to convince himself and others that he is a strong, manly savior go far beyond his irresponsible reactions to terrorism. He is weak in every way that matters, and he lives his life and conducts his campaign based on a false image of what it means to be strong.

Overcompensating for his many, many weaknesses, Trump has built his campaign around increasingly shrill claims to his being a Big Man. His underlings and enablers have played along, with Mike Pence, for example, seeming to be obsessed with his running mate's "broad shoulders."

It is not merely that Pence is trying to remind people that Trump is running against a woman (who, according to Trump, has no stamina). The insistence on reminding voters of Trump's supposed strength permeates Pence's public comments about Trump. Trump, moreover, does not leave it to his surrogates. His every utterance boils down to "I'm strong. I should be able to do whatever I want."

But strength—or, as Trump would surely prefer to put it, manliness—is not about whom you can punch in the face or how many people you can intimidate. Being an adult, a real man, is about self-control and being willing to consider how one's actions affect other people. It is about rising above petty provocations and understanding that giving in to angry impulses is a recipe for disaster, even as it solves nothing.

It is most interesting that Trump was able to close some of the gap in the polls in the past week or so entirely because he mostly stopped his lashing out and his off-script rants. Amazingly, however, this happened only because Trump's staff finally took away his access to a Twitter account.

Trump's advisers, in other words, were able to prevent him from further harming his campaign only by neutralizing his weakness and lack of self-control by literally taking his toy away. How long would that last if he were to become president?

More to the point: "Offline, Trump still privately muses about all the ways he will punish his enemies after Election Day, including a threat to fund a 'super PAC' with vengeance as its core mission." Surely, he will do this whether he wins or loses. What will he call it? Payback PAC?

A weak man is incapable of holding his tongue, keeping his head high and walking away. And a small man has to have the last word.

In a recent speech, Trump announced he was going to sue every one of the women who have accused him of sexual predation. "As [his] advisers begged him to reconsider—it would make him seem small, they warned, and undermine a pivotal speech—Trump was adamant. There had to be a severe penalty for those who dared to attack him, he said. He could not just sit back and let these women 'come at me,' he told one of them."

Even his advisers see the smallness of their boss. And this particular example of Trump's inherent weakness is important, because it shows that he insists on "punching down," as the saying goes. That is, he threatens and intimidates people who are not in a position to be able to fight back. Put him on a stage with another country's president and it is a different story.

The entire bizarre saga with a former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado—from Trump's treatment of her after she won the beauty pageant through his false claims this autumn (including the lie that she had been in a sex tape)—were classic Trumpian weakness.

And even the sickening news that he walked in on naked and semi-naked beauty contestants for the Miss Teen U.S.A. pageant—teen—fits this pattern. Who was going to stop him? He even talked about it as if it were a perk of being the guy with the money. The dignity of other people? Not his concern. That is not what strong, self-confident adults do.

This, by the way, helps to explain the mutual attraction between Trump and his closest political allies. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (who is, amazingly, a potential pick for attorney general in a Trump administration) used to spend time on his radio show gleefully belittling callers, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's press conferences looked like a kid sadistically pulling the wings off of flies. No wonder they like Trump, and he likes them.

In some of my writing about the election, I have likened Trump to a schoolyard bully. Although comparing Trump to an adolescent risks trivializing the serious consequences that are truly at stake, it is sadly apt. Watching Trump, it is impossible to miss the peculiar pathology of a bully who does whatever he pleases but is deeply hurt when anyone says something bad about him or stands in his way.

The attacks on the Khan family were amazing in this regard. Trump complained that it was unfair that Khizr Khan attacked him, and he responded in his usual way, which means that he lied and insulted them over and over again. When he was criticized for his reaction, he whined and said, "Am I not allowed to respond?" This is not how strong, well-adjusted adults live their lives.

Trump is so weak, in fact, that he often does not even have the courage to stand behind his statements when he spreads lies. He repeatedly hides behind weasel words like "people are saying" and "I'm just asking." And he constantly complains even as he claims that he is too big of a man to complain. ("I'm always being audited. I should complain, but I won't.")

I realize that I have barely mentioned Hillary Clinton up to this point. I hope, however, that the contrast is obvious. As this campaign has moved along, I have become more impressed with her every day. Starting as a Clinton skeptic, I have found myself completely won over.

How many people could even stand on the same stage with Donald Trump for three debates, including one that was held only two days after the "grab them by the p----" video came to light? Who among us could stand tall while a small man called us corrupt, evil and dishonest? Think of the difficulty of listening while a serial liar, multiple divorcée and philanderer tries to provoke you by dredging up painful memories of your marriage.

We should all want someone who can control her emotions when dealing with Congress, with foreign leaders and during crises of all kinds. We need grown-ups to be in charge, not hotheads whose gut-level instincts lead them to hurt other people while denying having made matters worse. We need a president who understands that talking is better than shouting or shooting, and who knows when to take action.

In fact, thinking about Trump through the lens of his thoroughgoing weakness also perfectly captures everything that I like about Clinton. She is a calm adult who takes responsibility and looks out for other people, rather than self-indulgently hurting people because "they let you do it." She is truly strong.

In other words, Trump might not merely lose "to a girl." He should lose precisely because she is, in a very real sense (and using Trump's sexist framing), more of a man than he will ever be.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.