The President must be a zombie

Virginia Heffernan:

THIS is what makes my head spin: The president is not a moral figure in any idiom, any land, any culture, any subculture. I’m not talking about the liberal enlightenment that would make him want the country to take care of the poor and sick. I mean he has no Republican values either. He has no honor among thieves, no cosa nostra loyalty, no Southern code against cheating or lying, none of the openness of New York, rectitude of Boston, expressiveness and kindness of California, no evangelical family values, no Protestant work ethic. No Catholic moral seriousness, no sense of contrition or gratitude. No Jewish moral and intellectual precision, sense of history. He doesn’t care about the life of the mind OR the life of the senses. He is not mandarin, not committed to inquiry or justice, not hospitable. He is not proper. He is not a bon vivant who loves to eat, drink, laugh. There’s nothing he would die for — not American values, obviously, but not the land of Russia or his wife or young son. He has some hollow success creeds from Norman Vincent Peale, but Peale was obsessed with fair-dealing and a Presbyterian pastor; Trump has no fairness or piety. He’s not sentimental; no affection for dogs or babies. No love for mothers, “the common man,” veterans. He has no sense of military valor, and is openly a coward about war. He would have sorely lacked the pagan beauty and capacity to fight required in ancient Greece. He doesn’t care about his wife or wives; he is a philanderer but he’s not a romantic hero with great love for women and sex. He commands loyalty and labor from his children not because he loves them, even; he seems almost to hate them — and if one of them slipped it would be terrifying. He does no philanthropy. He doesn’t — in a more secular key — even seem to have a sense of his enlightened self-interest enough to shake Angela Merkel’s hand. Doesn’t even affect a love for the arts, like most rich New Yorkers. He doesn’t live and die by aesthetics and health practices like some fascists; he’s very ugly and barely mammalian. Am I missing an obscure moral system to which he so much as nods? Also are there other people, living or dead, like him?

It’s true, and it’s strange. I wonder if this is the secret to his success: he’s a completely amoral cipher, and his supporters simply project their values onto the blank slate of his narcissistic personality.


  1. zetopan says

    You left out his very limited 8th grade vocabulary (at best). His vindictiveness would appear to be the only thing separating him from being classified as am actual zombie.

  2. says

    He’s a malignant narcissist with one ability: bullying. He’s mentally and emotionally unfit to be in a position of such power, and he’s a clear and present danger to all life. It’s because of his being such a danger that I don’t care about the sensitivities of people who want to say “you can’t diagnose him!” The fuck I can’t, and I stand behind those qualified to do so.

  3. blf says

    Hair furor’s “government” — or much of the inner circle, at least — is† a dalekocracy. However, teh trum-prat himself is not a Dalek; he’s not that focused. And, despite appearing to be the centre of the dalekocracy, he certainly isn’t Davros; he is that mad but not that intelligent.‡

      † Well, not “is”, more “acts like” a dalekocracy. Most of them seem focused enough on the extermination of everything they don’t like to qualify as Daleks, but aren’t intelligent enough and don’t explode as spectacularly (dropping big bombs is not a substitute; besides, do Daleks even have a penis they need reassuring about?).

      ‡ He also can climb stairs, jokes about him being afraid of them notwithstanding.

  4. fozollie says

    I wonder if this is the secret to his success: he’s a completely amoral cipher, and his supporters simply project their values onto the blank slate of his narcissistic personality.

    This is exactly what John Oliver has suggested with Jared Kushner and Ivanka in his most recent long piece.

  5. Dunc says

    Caine, @3:

    He’s a malignant narcissist with one ability: bullying.

    That’s not fair! He can also grift and lie.

  6. Larry says

    He is a narcissist of the first order, with oak leaf clusters. With him, its “None for all, all for me”. Everything must be about him and if it’s not, he pouts, tweets, complains. In short, he is a two-year old in a 70-year old man’s body. “Mine” is his favorite word.

    I was watching the HBO series “John Adams” on Amazon and it really struck me how low this country has sunk when you compare the first three presidents and their passions and beliefs with the orange mongrel who occupies the office now. They were obsessed with making their new nation respected and successful at the cost of their health and families. Trump is only concerned with how he can steal its wealth and damn the people who actually live there.

  7. dhabecker says

    I knew there was something about the guy I didn’t like.

    Do you think he wipes his own butt?

  8. chrislawson says


    Criticise Trump to your heart’s content, but please…

    1. You cannot make a diagnosis without a proper clinical consultation and mental state examination. Even then diagnoses can be highly contentious, with specialists coming to wildly different conclusions even when they’ve seen the same video of a consultation.

    2. Psychiatric diagnoses are themselves social constructs — NPD didn’t even exist as a psychiatric term until 1968, a time when homosexuality was still listed as a disorder in the DSM (it wasn’t removed until 1973).

    3. There is no advantage in labelling Trump with a narcissistic personality disorder diagnosis when we can call him a dangerous narcissist. It’s perfectly accurate without resorting to psychiatric labels.

    4. This kind of labelling encourages further stigmatisation of mental health disorders.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Cartomancer: “Ferengi”

    -You beat me to it! :-)

    I seem to recall some human cultures in the science fiction of the late Jack Vance that were similarly devoid of any virtues or codes (possibly because some genetic defect of past interplanetary wars fought with genetic bioweapons?).
    When visiting some planet, Kirth Gersen or some other protagonist could go out on the street and just hire some thief or killer to work for him.

  10. chrislawson says

    Larry — it is pretty sad what American politics has sunk to. Even the 2 best presidents of the modern era, Clinton and Obama, ran deeply flawed administrations that should have seen them relegated to middle ranking.

  11. says

    He is just a shit. He is not even a businessman as who would want to work with someone who will short change you and cheat every inch of the way. The question is not whether or not he is a zombie as even they have lived a human life once upon a time, it is more is he a neanderthal? Even then I have problems as even monkeys have been shown to have values such as fairness.

    The zombie question is better directed at the undead who voted for him.

  12. says

    Lately, I’ve begun to pity Trump. It occurs to me that he must once have been a sweet, little boy, same as so many others. Then someone screwed him up and he never recovered. And now it’s too late. He’s too old and too deep in the hole to claw his way out. He doesn’t have the skills or the maturity to alter his course. He’s never going to get there. His is a wasted human life and I find that really sad.

  13. iknklast says

    Also are there other people, living or dead, like him?

    Yes. I have met more than one of them – there were 2 in my family, but only one of them would be as easily spotted as Trump; my sister was much more able to fool you into thinking this didn’t describe her. It did.

    I have met others that I suspect may meet this definition. Not a majority, not even all that many, but I live in a small part of a small midwestern state, so I don’t encounter all that many on the grander scale. I suspect there are more.

  14. A Masked Avenger says


    Adult child of narcissist here. While I carefully stop short of pronouncing a clinical diagnosis, I would point out that an understanding of NPD provides a framework that not only plausibly explains everything — and I mean everything — Trump does, but makes testable predictions and suggests appropriate responses.

    NPD is not a mental illness; it’s a cluster B personality disorder. And while I agree wholeheartedly that the mentally ill should not be stigmatized, cluster B personality disorders are accompanied by seriously abusive behavior that must not be rationalized, minimized, or ignored. People with cluster B disorders rarely seek help, and so are rarely diagnosed, because they’re fine — the problem is everyone else.

    So without stating that Trump has NPD, which I have no way of finding out, I would point out that NPD provides a useful model that also explains the quote in the OP. All cluster B disorders are inherently solipsistic: they involve a pervasive belief that others don’t exist, or don’t matter, or that their pain is not real. It’s impossible to subscribe to any external ideal or morality when by definition what is “external” is either not real or else not important. Nothing matters — perhaps nothing even exists — outside the ego. The ego is all.

    This model also explains the observation that Ivanka can literally do no wrong: she is the “golden child,” an extension of Trump himself. He loves her in the same way that he loves his own leg, because to all intents and purposes that’s what she is. Which also explains his regular inappropriate references to sex with his daughter. He may not be fucking her (I have no way of knowing), but he doesn’t respect normal boundaries because there’s no such thing as a boundary between you and your own leg.

    It explains his treatment of Melania. He treats her not like an extension of himself, but like a trophy to be possessed. When she wants to do anything but sit on his shelf and glitter, he becomes angry. So she does nothing, except perform on cue for his aggrandizement. Note the 60 Minutes interview in which she said nothing, and Ivanka answered questions that were directed at Melania while Trump smiled on benevolently.

    I could go on, but it would become book length — there’s no observable data that isn’t explained by this hypothesis.

    That’s why, whether or not he actually has NPD (which is unknowable), psychology professors have already said they’re saving clips of his behavior to show their students, because they’re textbook illustrations of the disorder.

  15. weylguy says

    Yes, everything that Ms. Heffernan wrote about Trump is true, yet 81% of Amerika’s white evangelicals voted for him. That proves that Christianity is a bogus cult bent on perpetuating white nationalism at the expense of whatever’s left of the nation’s collective humanity. I would say God damn this country to hell, but the Big Guy doesn’t exist. So I guess we’re all screwed.

  16. marcoli says

    What he is is named in the next to the last word of the quote you provided. Everything follows from that.

  17. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 16:
    I’m sure you’re aware [so, for all other readers] that a large contingent of Psychiatric professionals are “breaking” the Goldwater rule and declaring 45 to certainly have NPD. The Goldwater rule is more a “recommendation” than an actual rule, that professionals are to be dissuaded from announcing publicly a clinical diagnosis without making a full, personal, examination.
    45 has provided so much evidence publicly, that a personal evaluation is deemed superfluous. The diagnosis is of something in such a position of power, that there is such a grave potentiality of damages that to withhold such a diagnosis may serve more harm than releasing it.

  18. woozy says

    Am I missing an obscure moral system to which he so much as nods?

    Well, I suppose the obvious explanation is to point out that her basic assumption, that people admire and look for virtue, is … an assumption.

    It was a bit a stunner for me in 2015 when I realized he was popular because he was a bully, not despite it. People love bullies. What a weird assumption I had been making all my life that people disliked bullies– why would I have ever thought that?

    And people resent paragons. If a bullying troll can make it… we are off the hook and have no obligation to try for virtue. Of course, the world will still kick most of us in the teeth but now we no longer have to pretend we don’t want to selfishly grab whatever we can and tell the rest of the world to fuck off…. which is what most of us want to do and really resent being made to feel bad about it.

    …. Still a brilliantly well written paragraph. I loved reading it.

  19. unclefrogy says

    this particular subject has not been discussed in this way much before it got me to thinking, not always a good thing.
    I know as others have said that there are others like him in the world of those others how many are in similar positions of power. I do not want to name any publicly I do not want to be accused of slandering the mentally ill. The thought just gave me a shudder of fear.

    there are so many damaged children he among them. it is the reason I do not believe in evil or evil people just the damaged acting out and perpetuating the damage forward.
    uncle frogy

  20. says

    Dunc @7

    Caine, @3:

    He’s a malignant narcissist with one ability: bullying.

    That’s not fair! He can also grift and lie.

    Grifting and lying are part of being a malignant narcissist.

    One caveat about the bullying: Trump is also bad a bullying. His attempted bullying associated with two Muslim bans, went awry. His attempted bullying of judges (Curiel, 9th Circuit, etc.) went awry. Most recently, his attempted bullying over funds for his wall on the southern border went awry. He had to back down.

    […] Trump had made a flat demand for border wall money or he’d toss people off Obamacare and shut down the government to boot. Later he waffled and finally pulled one of Trump’s classic whipsaw pre-fails, deciding he’d just try to get the money in the fall.

    Yes, Trump made his threat. Then he caved. But while threatening and caving he was here and there un-threatening and un-caving. It wasn’t just bluster followed by fail in some normal linear fashion. It was impossible to now what Trump and the White House were doing or about to do. It was and is impossible to know what was trying to do. […] inability to act like a grown up or even a President. […]

    There’s no Trump viewpoint or thinking or goal to represent. There’s no actor at the center of the machine, at least not one who remains constant enough in any aim or view to matter. So there’s no point figuring our which advisor speaks for the President or represents his thinking. Because, fundamentally, there’s no thinking to represent. […]

    Talking Points Memo link

    Trump does have a religion: Winning.

  21. microraptor says

    cartomancer @2:

    No, Ferengi have integrity. They’ll try to screw you while making a deal, but once a bargain is struck they’ll do their damnedest to actually hold up their end of it.

    Also, they consider racism a moral failing that’s bad for business. They wouldn’t try to build a wall to keep refugees out, they’d try to figure out how to get more refugees in so they can overcharge them for goods and services.

  22. jack lecou says

    Trump is an extreme case, but it seems to me that our political systems tend to select for narcissism and/or sociopathy generally. You have to believe in yourself — either that you deserve the power, or that you are the only person who can do the job and fix things — to a slightly pathological extent to reach high office in the current setup. It’s one of the only ways to sustain the effort in the face of all the interlocking money/power/media bullshit games involved.

    Unlike Trump, I think some/most at least *mean* well, or think they do, but it still takes a certain kind of personality to succeed. Or a superhuman level of commitment. Fixing that would mean some pretty major changes to the system.

  23. A Masked Avenger says

    Trump is an extreme case, but it seems to me that our political systems tend to select for narcissism and/or sociopathy generally.

    I agree. But Trump feels like my punishment for saying that too often about his predecessors. There’s a difference between being stuck on oneself — even ridiculously so — and someone with honest-to-bog NPD.

    It’s like the difference between your aunt who keeps hurting everyone’s feelings with her thoughtlessness, and a sociopath who could torture your pets while eating a full bucket of KFC without ever getting the slightest bit queasy.

  24. Zeppelin says

    Eh, plenty of other Rich Kids are basically like Trump. Complete moral vapidity seems to be a fairly common derangement among the very rich, whether that’s because it’s a cause or an effect of wealth (or both). Since Trump is also a thoroughly uneducated, loud-mouthed boor in a very exposed public position it’s just especially obvious with him. Since his father seems not to have made the usual “nouveau riche” effort to invest in cultural capital for his kids, Trump also lacks the sense of style which enables other privilege-deranged people to at least simulate a complete personality.
    Notice that his kids seem to be fairly determined to acquire that cultural capital — they’re having their children learn Chinese and play instruments and stuff.

  25. gijoel says

    He’s a grifter. His sole talent lies in finding people with a sense of entitlement, or resentment and stoking those feelings. Then he convinces them that they’ll feel better buying crap they don’t need.

  26. lanir says

    I have known two people who exhibited signs of delusional self-importance like this.

    The first I suspect was actually a decent person outside of this particular issue. He frequently maneuvered himself to get attention and complimented himself. I can probably best summarize him by saying I think he had more annoyed friends than alienated ex-friends. He was seeking help for this issue.

    The other person I know who seems similar to me seemed unable to speak for any length of time without finding some way to compliment himself or make himself look more important. He needed to both be the center of attention and be praised almost constantly. I once even saw him fake an illness while one of our mutual friends recovered from surgery so he could share in the after care. He had no meaningful moral checks on his behavior, everything was a tool to get what he wanted. Money, position, power, knowledge of what you cared about, I saw him use them all without a second thought. He was not seeking help for his issues.

    Trump seems to have more in common with the second person I described.

  27. antigone10 says

    Ferengi? Pah, he’d have to bribe his way out of Ferengi jail so often he’d never have any latinum.

    He violates Rules of Acquisition 6, 9,16, 35, 47, 57, 59, 74, 76, 190, 208. And I don’t know enough about him, but he probably violates a few others.

  28. anchor says

    #13 Chris Phillips – Your comparison is a deep slander of Neanderthals. And its disturbingly telling that you elaborate with a comparison with monkeys. It must be daunting to maintain a sense of supremacy when one’s chief metric is comparison with species that aren’t up to our snuff. The combination of resemblance and distinction must obviously precipitates some mighty powerful willies. Interesting. It’s precisely the same chauvinism that rabid racists exhibit.

  29. anchor says

    #22 Lynna: “Trump does have a religion: Winning.”

    ‘Winning’ as defined by his pathological obsession with self-gratification, re: ‘ratings’

  30. sc_952aa4749bc97d9f655396ae086ec965 says

    “Am I missing an obscure moral system to which he so much as nods?”

    *Looks hard at Ayn Rand*

  31. wzrd1 says

    he’s a completely amoral cipher, and his supporters simply project their values onto the blank slate of his narcissistic

    Hence, his attraction. Overwhelm and destroy that which his blank state seeks, anarchy (despite his incessant seeking of oligarchy). Drive the serfs forward, let them win him his rewards.

  32. A Masked Avenger says

    Eh, plenty of other Rich Kids are basically like Trump.

    I disagree. There are others, but Trump’s behavior isn’t just typical of spoiled rich assholes.

    Here’s another significant tell: he has no taste. He genuinely has no discernible preferences for anything apart from whether they impress others (golf may be the one exception, but I have my doubts there). For example, his “taste” in food is expensive steak, burned to a crisp, drowned in ketchup. Inedible, but conspicuously expensive. His “taste” in interior decorating resembles nothing so much as King Tut’s tomb or Saddam’s eighth palace: everything gilded and marbled. Eye-bleedingly garish, but very conspicuously expensive. He has no discernible sense of humor: when telling (or hearing) jokes, he has been reported to continuously check with others nearby whether it’s funny, because he honestly doesn’t know. His taste in art is giant paintings of himself looking like a preppie entering college. His taste in women is supermodels — he effectively needs a magazine to tell him whether a woman is attractive or not. (Attractive enough to marry, of course; any woman might rate a p**sy grabbing.)

    The OP alludes to this when it mentions that he doesn’t subscribe to “aesthetics,” has no love of art, nor is a bon vivant.

    Spoiled rich kids nevertheless have interests and tastes. They want things for their own sake, or for pleasure, or for some reason other than self-validation and self-aggrandizement. They want art they think is pretty, or food they think is tasty, or jokes they find funny (whether or not others do), or partners that provide companionship or something other than arm candy.

  33. A Masked Avenger says

    *Looks hard at Ayn Rand*

    Ayn Rand provides lots of moral cover for narcissistic assholes, but even here Trump falls short. Rand advocates what she calls “rational selfishness,” or what the OP described as “rational self-interest.” Rational self-interest requires a realistic assessment of success or failure, and an appreciation for the consequences: for example that running fraudulent “universities” or engaging in blatant self-dealing may result in devastating civil judgments and possible criminal charges. Rand would claim that a criminal is engaging in irrational self-interest, because they’re risking long-term harm for short-term gains.

    Then again, it got him this far… so maybe his rationality is just 4D chess compared to my tic-tac-toe.

  34. KG says

    My theory* is that Trump is an alien, who has failed to learn even how to simulate human behaviour convincingly. All his actions should therefore be reported to his own register of alien crimes.

    *Which is mine, and which belongs to me!

  35. frog says

    He’s also thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the other end!

  36. cartomancer says

    microraptor, #24, antigone10, #30

    I never said he was a very good Ferengi. Also, he clearly doesn’t have any latinum. He’d release his tax returns if he did.

  37. cartomancer says

    It is quite easy to see Donald Trump as the screaming id of 1980s Reagan-style capitalist excess made flesh. He’s the sort of exaggerated cartoon parody of American capitalism that used to grace sitcoms and satires, but unaccountably made real.

    What bugs me is that he seems incapable of realising how gauche and gaudy his whole schtick looks to everyone else. All the gold and marble, the private jets, the portraits, the expensive steaks and the trophy wives – people of all social standings have been dismissing this sort of nonsense for centuries. Trump is not a naieve teenager or an immigrant from a very different culture – he’s a man of 70 who has lived most of his life in New York – a place where it is impossible to avoid opinions on culture and sophistication and art and elegance and taste. By all accounts he watches a lot of television and pays a lot of attention to the internet, and is obsessed with how other people percieve him. So how has he not picked up on any of this? How can he still think that the way to seem successful is to plaster buildings in gold paint and act like a swaggering cartoon character? How can he be so profoundly unaware of the currents of opinion in the society he belongs to?

  38. wzrd1 says

    @cartomancer #41, I’ve been entertaining a theory on his behavior, which does match his observed behavior over the past few years.
    His prior pattern of behavior would have been to “upgrade” his trophy wife, which he has failed to do for a change.
    His late night Twitter storms. His early morning Twitter storms. His overall irrationality.
    Add in, for those late night activities and sudden resistance to change of home environment (including a certain Florida resort), sundowning.
    Which would explain such profound unawareness, due to dementia.