Failing the Mirror Test

How different the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!

Oscar Wilde


I admire the rare act of presidential humility.

In 1992, only a year after he ended America’s Viet Nam Syndrome by winning the first Persian Gulf War in wham-o style, George Bush senior admitted a fatal flaw. He didn’t have the Vision Thing. Thus, despite his status as a conquerer and national exorcist, he was not elected to a second term.

Bush’s predecessor by two, Jimmy Carter, was the first president to grapple with our nation’s post-Viet Nam inferiority complex. A brooder by nature, Carter approached our funk as a Hamlet, though, not a Caesar. In a highly unusal move for a president, he tried to put his introspection to good public use.

Almost everyone born before 1970 remembers, or has at least heard of, Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he diagnosed a national malaise. The country’s mood, Carter said, was sliding downward into a mire of anomie and materialism.

First, take about 10 seconds and absorb the astonishing fact that a U.S. president in living memory gave a speech to the nation that was a cross between a sermon and a philosophical harangue. (In many ways Carter was channeling the existentialist philsopher Soren Kierkegaard.) Try that today. Carter actually seemed to believe the spiritual desire to find meaning in life was part of our national character and deserved a political nudge. Weird, bracing stuff. No wonder someone wrote a book about it all called What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?

Even if you remember the speech (or just take a few minutes to Youtube it), hardly anyone recalls what preceded Carter’s moment of doubt and fear. In a veritable carnival of humility, Carter sequestered himself at Camp David for a week to troop in citizens, of high station and low, to unload on him about what was eating the nation. He listened intently to economists, pollsters and schoolteachers, among many others. It was perhaps the greatest reverse carpet call in the history of the presidency.

Both Bush’s and Carter’s acts of public abasement signaled something fundamental about the presidency. Both men were deferring to the unspoken principle that there are objective standards of excellence by which they felt they could be fairly judged. And by “objective” I don’t mean set in stone. I mean standards that are not determined by their subjective intuitions. Other people, institutions, or even ideas could hold them to account.

Indeed Bush underlined the role ideas play in the office of the presidency. The president must have not just intuitively good ideas, but the kind that can mobilze resources and large coalitions behind a coherent, appealing cause. Love it or hate it, LBJ’s Great Society was an example of this kind of thing. Poor ideas, though, get no political traction, and Bush learned this the hard way. While he was an able president, he wasn’t a great one, and he knew why. The Vision Thing: not . . . his . . . forte.

Carter demonstrated a related presidential virtue—the obligation to listen. A president’s democratic accountability does not end after the election, especially when he’s called on to resolve a deep national crisis. Good listening, furthermore, enhances legitimacy. Dictators are the arch non-listeners.

Well, how far we have come. Although neither Bush nor Carter is remembered as a great, or even good president, if they were miraculously transplanted onto today’s political landscape, they would shine forth with presidential virtues so brilliant we could barely look on them.

What Trump promises is presidency off the cuff. His innate self-worth guarantees he can effortlessly break the constraints of political reality and do fabulous things without pausing to inform himself on technicalities or cultivate legitimacy through feedback. He’s got this thing, because he is Donald J. Trump. Those of us who hoped he might approach his new job with less flippancy than “The Apprentice” have much to fear, and loath.

There is a famous psychological test for animals’ self-awareness that has come to be called the mirror test. In it, nature’s more complex mammals (so far just us and a few other large primates) recognize a face looking back at them in a mirror as a locus of selfhood (theirs, in particular), and not another primate or a meaningless color blob. To me, the mirror test is extraordinary because it accesses life’s deepest mystery—the dividing line beween mere material existence and the world of actuated ideas that give meaning to existence. We are the only blobs of matter on the planet that contain discursive thoughts.

But I digress, as philosophers will.

Bush’s and Carter’s acts of self-reflection suggest there is something like a presidential mirror test as well, which works in reverse. When a president gazes on the political landscape, he must implicitly acknowledge that it is a world authored by other agents and cold, hard realities. (If this sounds peculiar, recall that human infants only start to recognize the world’s externality after several months of life abroad in it.)

Bush passed the mirror test. His trials told him in highly certain terms that ideas populate the political landscape, against which the president must measure his own. Carter passed too, by a gaudy margin. His week at Camp David flooded him with the cacaphony of voices that also go to form the political landscape. A president who can’t hear the full spectrum of voices is tone deaf. Such external realities as these are countenanced by any normally functioning president.

Every morning Donald Trump wakes up and fails the mirror test. He scans the world that his policies must engage and he sees only an extension of himself. There are no objective realities or minority voices threatening to constrain his acts of fiat.

From Bush (and many others, of course) we learned that a president’s ideas must be explicable and practicable if they are to be judged as good. So far, Trump has shown himself to be comically innocent of these constraints.

Let’s take a moment to score a few of Trump’s ideas on the Bush scale:

  1. I’m going to bomb the shit out of ISIS.
  2. I’m going to bring steel back to Pennsylvania.
  3. I’m like, a really smart person, and I can go without regular intelligence briefings.

It hardly merits pointing our that the first idea is inexplicable. The president could dial up every factor of military attack (on ISIS or any other enemy) to the maximum and have no means (other than the subjective feel of effort expended) of determining whether the shit is being bombed out of anyone. It is a formula for a farcically pointless war. (I suspect, though, incoming National Security Advisor Mike Flynn likes the idea, just as he liked the vigilante gusto with which an armed alt-right lunatic “investigated” a pizzeria recently for signs Hillary Clinton had been molesting kids there. Well, anything to protect our precious bodily fluids, as another “general” of Flynn’s temperment might say.)

Idea number two reveals the depth of Trump’s delusions. Not only does he think he can undo several decades of policy-making and diplomacy that underwrote the free trade practices which (yes) did help “remove” steel from Pennsylvania, he also thinks he can reverse the very market forces that created the incentives for all that free-trade policy making. He will undo history. Trump’s nuclear option on this issue, as recently pointed out, would involve imposing a 35 percent tariff on steel imports to the United States. Ruinous, multi-front trade war, anyone?

In idea number three we see the decisive role Trump assigns to his native intellect. If he is unwilling to listen regularly to the country’s best-informed specialists on critical policy issues, what chance is there he will ever cock his ear toward the ordinary citizen? In another dramatic failure of the presidential mirror test, Trump hears only himself. His decision-making process—whatever else it turns out to be—is an echo chamber of his own infallible opinions.

Did you ever know a kid in school who could burp the alphabet? Well, here we have Trump doing a similar trick. He can actually fart things that mimick ideas. And this is what he has been doing.

Let me explain myself by way of historical analogy. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini perfected the art of the idea-like fart. When he announced in 1940 that his armies would soon be invading north Africa, what he actually said was, “My armies are hungry for glory.” This flourish sold well in Italian newspapers (but not in Berlin; the field marshalls knew they would soon have to go rescue Italy’s armies), and mostly because it was an idea-like fart.


Like a fart, it had little real substance. How would you prove, one way or another, that an army was “hungry” for something as abstract as glory? (Or that a country was missing something as abstract as its greatness?) This absence of content lets a fart drift any which way. If there’s an angry mob about, why not aim it at something they dislike and see where it goes?

When push came to shove, Mussolini’s decalaration turned out to be impracticable because it was flatly false. None of Mussolini’s armies actually wanted “glory.” Five years earlier they had been hard pressed to subdue African tribesmen with spears in Abissynia (Ethiopia), and they could not have welcomed the prospect of going up against the tanks and machine guuns of the British Eighth Army, which was waiting for them in north Africa. Contemporary reporting about the fighting performance of Il Duce’s armies indicated they would have much preferred sipping campari in Rome to being dehydrated and gutshot in a Libyan desert. They surrendered by the tens of thousands.

The fart-idea, whether from Trump, Mussolini or any other blowhard, is in certain respects like the humble real thing. It is meaningless, malodorous and (luckily) evanescent. We have already seen, even before Trump takes office, that all that was necessary to escape the stink of some of his bad ideas was to wait a day or two. Obama Care was upgraded, with a mere air-clearing waft of the hand, from a disaster to the working foundation of Trump Care. The stench of a potential show trial against Clinton also dissipated, just by waiting for the wind to shift.

Still, the grimness of the times cannot be escaped, when one’s hopes hang on the prospect that the president does  not really mean the most malodorous things he says. But the problem goes deeper than that. Trump’s failure to grasp the externality of the political world is, in a profoundly worrying way, connected to his off the cuff style. His tendency to fart out fake ideas is made possible by a basic corruption of the mind. The Trump mind erases the boundary between its own impulses and the world they engage. He can literally say anything.

It is worth recalling that fiat—the act that typifies Trump’s kind of delusion—is a Latin construction that means roughly, “Let it be done through saying.” That’s what Mussolini throught he could do—make things happen just by saying them. Many of his ideas were farts, like the ill-fated north African campaign. Unfortunately, though, his worst ideas were real pieces of shit. Let us hope Trump produces nothing of such substance.







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