It is the paradox of ego. The very thing the egotist craves above everything else is praise. Yet the boasting or falsely embellishing egotist diminishes, and sometimes even reverses and destroys, as a direct consequence of their boasting or false embellishing, any genuine praise they might otherwise receive.
And yet it is common among those who have achieved the extraordinary to call the experience humbling. The Nobel Laureate, the Olympic gold medalist, the Oscar winner, each in turn understands that, whatever praise they may have imagined and sought from their fellow men and women, at the very moment of the actuality of monumental achievement, they recognize the thing itself is bigger than they are – and they are unexpectedly humbled.
The ultimate expression of this idea is to become president of the United States. There are no elite circles, no exclusive clubs, no fellowships of high attainment that a president of the United States cannot walk into and, for lack of a better word, trump everyone in it. It is the sine qua non, the final word, the royal flush in spades of high accomplishment.
When a president walks into a room full of people, he or she doesn’t even have to tell them what he or she does for a living. He or she doesn’t have to so much as tell anyone their name. Everyone already knows who and what they are, and even the most cynically, world-wearily jaded among them is impressed. For the egotist, becoming president is the ultimate expression of having arrived. They need never boast again. The presidency is the ultimate lily for which there need be no gilding.
Except for Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s boastings and embellishments are well known, tedious, ubiquitous and inevitable, exasperating even to the more self-aware of his drooling base. Not only is being president not enough for him, he feels the need to lie incessantly, to artificially inflate whatever he may have achieved, or invent achievements from whole cloth. To date he has publicly proclaimed himself a “stable genius” four or five times. Anyone unacquainted with him would be justified in concluding he is neither, on that evidence alone.
These are acts of self-sabotage so self-evident as to stagger the credulity and beggar belief. The only explanation for them is that Trump possesses that rare combination of boundless need and total cluelessness. Trump simply cannot not brag and lie and inflate himself, even if it comes at the cost of that which he needs more than anything else: adulation. Trump’s conflicting pathology is the ultimate unstoppable force striking an immovable object.
When Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi was finally run to ground, it represented a much-needed victory for Trump’s beleaguered administration. It was Trump’s chance to get it right, and with unerring consistency he got it wrong. Instead of being uncharacteristically humble and understated, he couldn’t stop himself from taking credit and exaggerating and lying. The operation was “under my direction,” as, “Commander-in-Chief of the United States.” He also said al-Baghdadi died, “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” and, “He died like a dog. He died like a coward.” The problem was, no one can confirm any of this. Trump’s comments created a lot of downcast eyes and foot-shuffling. As far as Trump’s part in the operation, there’s little to suggest he watched any of it and much to suggest he was playing golf. As a person who loves animals, I didn’t care for the statement “He died like a dog,” either.
Taking credit for the work of others and bragging about it is Trump’s specialty. He does it with all the charm and credibility of a school yard bully. Trump is the kind of horrible that only the horrible could love. I am shocked to be reminded how many there are.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.