Monday, September 24, 2018

The President’s arrested emotional and moral development

At Dorf on Law this morning, Michael Dorf writes:
“Last week, while in North Carolina surveying some of the damage caused by Florence, the president came across a property on which a yacht had washed ashore during the storm. According to the NY Times story:
‘Is this your boat?’ Mr. Trump asked the homeowner.  When the man shook his head and said ‘No,’ the president turned with a grin and replied, ‘At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.’ Then, the real-estate-tycoon-turned-president added: ‘They don’t know whose boat that is. What’s the law? Maybe it becomes theirs.’”
As part of his discussion, Professor Dorf rightly observes that “[T]his is further evidence that Trump’s moral development was arrested when he was in grade school, where the principle finders-keepers-losers-weepers has currency.”
Hence my comment:
In the currency of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (after Piaget), Trump’s moral (and psychological) development is thus arrested at the “pre-conventional” level of moral reasoning (Kohlberg noted that this could be found among some adults; it is also a level that happens to be immune from Carol Gilligan’s critique), although I would hesitate to use the adjective “moral” in both cases, for it strikes me as “pre-moral” as well with regard to interpersonal communication and behavior (or folk psychological narrative). Psychologically speaking, whether we attribute this arrested moral (and emotional?) development to “narcissism in extremis” or simply pathological narcissism (‘narcissistic personality disorder’), it is associated with a cluster of well-attested behavioral manifestations and symptoms (this is not an exhaustive list): condescension and arrogance, self-aggrandizement, egregious exaggeration and habitual lying, bullying, envy, paranoia, fragile self-esteem, absence of compassion, a tendency to “dehumanize” others, racism, misogyny, “what’s in it for me” or “tit-for-tat” (or ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’) reasoning (in foreign policy terms, ‘us-v.-them’). (Incidentally, Gerald Gaus has argued, soundly and persuasively by my lights, the widely held view that iterated game theory [tit-for-tat] and evolutionary psychology [kin altruism] provide sufficient evidence for the proposition that purely instrumental reasoning is capable of securing large-scale social cooperation is profoundly mistaken.) Some psychiatrists have described Trump’s behavior in terms of “unbridled, or extreme present hedonism,” which is descriptively rich and fairly transparent in meaning.
What has increasingly interested me is what all of this says about those who continue to enthusiastically and uncritically support Trump (be they citizens or politicians), whatever class or social strata they come from. We have, it seems, a more or less authoritarian social psychological dynamic in which ideological messianism is entrenched or facilitated by the cultural “triumph of spectacle” (Chris Hedges). A cluster of apparently mutually reinforcing and deplorable beliefs and attitudes are held by individuals who are unusually (that is to say, more than the rest of us) prone or disposed to self-deception, denial, and wishful or fantasized thinking while being attracted to an authoritarian, plutocratic, and kleptocratic “daddy” who happens to suffer from narcissistic megalomania. A paranoid “politics of fear” is the (or one) result, although I confess to being afraid for rather different reasons (and this fear is not only personal).


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