Neil Buchanan: The Weakness Behind Trump’s Bluster

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Last Sunday, in the immediate aftermath of the scary (but thankfully non-lethal) bombings in New York and New Jersey, one of Donald Trump's surrogates said, "Trump is strength in an uncertain world."  

This was, in its way, completely to be expected, because Trump has always tried to exploit fear, especially when the public psyche is most vulnerable. "You're scared. I'm strong. Let me do what I want."

As unexceptional as that comment was under the circumstances, however, its simplicity cleared away the fog and exposed the fraud that Trump has tried to perpetrate on the American people.  

Forget the ridiculous economic proposals, the misogyny and bigotry, the serial lies and all the rest. The biggest fraud of all is this preposterous idea that Trump is the strong leader we need who will make the world stop being so scary. That is not merely false. The man is actually weakness personified.

Trump is a bully surrounded by bullies. Two of his most loyal henchmen are Rudolph Giuliani and Chris Christie, both of whom spent time while in office yelling at people who had no ability to fight back. Each man belittled people for his own amusement and to show everyone how tough he is.

Trump, of course, is suddenly silent when he is actually standing next to, say, the president of Mexico. But put him in front of a friendly crowd and he delights in talking about how tough he is. He is a 70-year-old schoolyard bully, bragging to everyone that other people are weak.

For some voters, this is exactly what they want to hear. After all, somebody was there to cheer on the bullies on the playground, and some of those people did not grow up either. As long as there is someone else there to target for abuse, it makes them feel good to be one of the victimizers and not the victims.

Interestingly, there is polling that investigates these attitudes. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas Byrnes Edsall reported the results of polls from the Public Religion Research Institute, which asked people whether they agree or disagree with the statement "Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine."  

Only one religious group, white evangelical Protestants, even had a majority agreeing with that statement (53 percent). But 68 percent of Trump supporters agreed.

This lines up nicely with professor Michael Dorf's column last week, in which he argued that Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton's health are a way to remind voters that she is not a man. Of course, if one were to point to Clinton's steely toughness—or even, for that matter, her hawkishness at times when I wish she had not been trying to prove her own toughness—Trump and his posse would fault her for being insufficiently feminine.

09_25_Trump_Bluster_01 Donald Trump at a rally at High Point University, High Point, North Carolina, on September 20. Neil Buchanan writes that the GOP nominee is a 70-year-old schoolyard bully, bragging to everyone that other people are weak. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

The larger point, however, is that Trump's showy efforts to seem strong expose him as weak. Adults know not to do or say the first thing that comes to mind when something bad happens, because the wrong response can make things worse. Lashing out exposes weakness, because it shows how easily manipulated a person can be.  

Trump says that foreign leaders do not respect President Barack Obama because he does not use our military might to respond to every wrong in the world. Adults know that starting wars should be a last resort, not the first thing that comes to mind.

Honestly, if I were on the other side of a conflict with Trump, I would be delighted by his childishness, because he exposes how little he knows in every ignorant saber-rattling rant. He would be easy to provoke into a disastrous mistake—one for which other people would pay with their lives, of course, while Trump would refuse to take responsibility.

Consider Trump's signature response to every scary situation, military or otherwise. He immediately says that we should stop being so careful and start cracking skulls.  

Why worry about reading people their rights when there are terrorists and evildoers on the loose? The adults say, "It will do us more harm than good if we start presuming everyone guilty until proved innocent." The angry child says, "But they're bad guys! Why won't you let me punch them?"

Trump's impulse control is so weak that he cannot even be bothered to figure out what he is really saying. As Leon Neyfakh wrote in Slate recently, Trump's insistence that police are being hamstrung by concern over constitutional niceties is actually an enormous insult to police officers.  

Trump had said on Fox News, for example, that police officers are "afraid to do anything" because they worry about being "accused of all sorts of things."

As Neyfakh noted, however, Trump is quite literally saying "that police officers are aware of terrorists who are plotting attacks but are declining to pursue them because they’re scared" (emphasis in original).  

As always, Trump has no proof of this outrageous claim, but more important, he is saying that the police are unprofessional. If police have actual leads that they are not pursuing, then they are badly misunderstanding what they are and are not allowed to do. I do not believe that our law enforcement officers are poorly trained. Trump apparently does.

But because Trump cannot prove that there are guilty people whom the police are ignoring, he must instead be saying that there are people with brown skin or funny-sounding names who are probably guilty of something. The police, in Trump's view, must then be refusing to investigate those people, apparently contenting themselves by spending their time doing something else.  

Are police officers instead harassing white people, because then civil rights lawyers will be happy? There is not even any logic here to collapse on itself.

In an odd way, Trump represents the stereotype of the 1960s and '70s, which became associated with a "do it if it feels good" approach to life. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Take LSD or heroin now because it's a gas. Who cares about tomorrow?

Violence is Trump's drug. He wants immediate gratification, and he does not care about the hangover or the damage that his self-indulgence would bring with it.  

"I want to get that rush, that high. Give it to me now! Damn the consequences, forget about tomorrow. I'm scared today." And if that is not weakness, what is?

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.