Friday, April 14, 2017

President Trump’s beautiful flip-flops

To the surprise of many, it took President Trump only 48 hours to suddenly change his mind about a host of hefty issues. He decided China was not a “currency manipulator,” after all; ordered a massive missile strike on a Syrian air field; cooled toward Russia and its perceived strongman; acknowledged NATO was no longer obsolete; and praised the U.S. Export-Import Bank – which he had pledged to shut down. One of the explanations given for this torrent of policy U-turns is that the country’s CEO is simply learning about all the issues involved – and finding out these may be more complicated than Fox News had led him to believe. For example, President Trump noted it had taken 10 minutes of conversation with the Chinese president (more like 5 – if the translation is not counted) to make him see China’s relation to North Korea in new light. Whatever the failing liberal press was saying, he seemed to believe his new “flexibility” only showed he was pragmatic rather than bound to rigid ideological commandments. There may be, however, a less charitable explanation for it.

Some of the language President Trump used to describe his shifting views and actions may be particularly revealing in this respect. He boasted he had informed the Chinese president of the missile strike on Syria as they were ingesting “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake.” He did that because he did not want President Xi (whom he later praised as a “terrific person”) to find out what had transpired after he had left the banquet. When asked by journalist, President trump then referred to dropping the mightiest non-nuclear American bomb in Afghanistan as “another successful event.” The list could go on and on. Such off-the-cuff remarks suggest that the free world now has a leader who may not adequately grasp the larger significance of his own decisions – and of the complex issues demanding his response.

If recent research in neuroscience is to be believed, the significance or meaning we attribute to events and actions is determined largely by the visceral and emotional responses these evoke. Some palpable deficits in this area could help explain the ease with which President Trump has reversed himself on what appear to be major issues – and the casual nature of his unscripted comments.

There has been some debate among professionals as to whether President Trump suffers from a recognized mental or personality disorder. Whether someone can identify and count from a distance the symptoms that would merit one of the diagnoses included in the American – or any other – psychiatric manual may be beside the point. In any case, it seems there is something inadequate in the way President Trump responds to the social world at a more basic level.

Many years ago, I wrote a paper arguing that to rise politically, one needs a very thick emotional skin. This, however, is a personal characteristic which can later impedes apt decision making – since this requires adequate visceral and emotional input. This paradox may be even more pronounced in the United States with its grueling primaries and peculiar electoral college rules; and in the 21st century with its truly numbing levels of social and sensory stimulation (and related chronic arousal). In any case, we United States now has a president in possession of a “social brain” that functions in a most extraordinary manner – generating a mental “matrix” that breaks all the formal and informal rules of engagement.