Four theories to try and explain Trump’s behavior

I have been trying to think about what the possible motivations could be for Trump’s bizarre behavior in continuing his futile quest to remain in office and have come up with four possibilities, presented here in no particular order.

1. The scorched Earth theory

This theory says that Trump knows he has lost and must leave the White House and what he wants to do, out of sheer spite, is make life as hard as possible for the new administration by refusing to allow the transition team the normal access to information, firing people left and right, filing lawsuits and raging against the integrity of the elections to sow doubt among his supporters as to the legitimacy of the Biden presidency, and possibly even bombing Iran.

The idea is not unlike that during wars when the retreating population burns their crops and homes so that the invading armies cannot use them. In this case, he wants to leave an administration in a shambles. Even if it results in the pandemic raging out of control and needlessly causing excess deaths in the order of tens of thousands, he does not care if he can gloat from the sidelines that things have gone to hell since he left.

He must be smarting from the fact that the stock market has gone up since the election despite his warnings that a Biden win would tank it, and that new vaccines seem to be appearing by the. day. He of course thinks that the vaccine companies conspired to not release this news until after the election because they too are working against him

2. The positive thinking theory

Norma Vincent Peale was apparently a family friend of the Trumps and is the creator of the theory of The Power of Positive Thinking that he published in a best-selling book that even I was familiar with back in the day in Sri Lanka. This argues that relentlessly positive thinking that you will succeed will enable you to achieve your goals. This nonsense resurfaces over and over again in various forms, as we see in the form of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ which claims that if you believe firmly enough and pray hard enough, your god will grant you your wishes. More recently it appeared in the form of another best-selling book The Secret pushing something known as the “The Law of Attraction”. The Australian sketch comedy show The Chasers War on Everything explained what this rubbish is about.

The idea is that Trump was strongly influenced by Peale’s ideas and so he refuses to acknowledge the possibility that he has lost and keeps insisting that he has won because expressing doubt would be a sign of insufficient faith and not lead to success.

3. Trump as the cult leader who starts believing his own con

In most cases, the people pushing these ideas in #2 are grifters who are playing the believers for suckers, not unlike cult leaders who manage to harness large numbers of people to their cause and then bilk them of their money. But it may be the case that after awhile, the bubble they live in and the sycophants they are surrounded by who keep feeding the delusion may result in these leaders starting to believe their own con and enter an alternative reality. Since they died, we do now know if cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, the Heaven’s Gate leader, and others like them ended up believing the story they told their supporters, but it is possible.

This theory says Trump actually believes that he was the victim of a vast conspiracy to defraud him of an election that he actually won. In an interview, Jeff Sharlett, who studies the role of religion in American politics, traces the influence of an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism whose gospels talk about “hidden truths” and says that in a late August interview Trump had with Laura Ingraham of Fox News, he saw disturbing signs that Trump seemed to have actually bought into his own con and now believes that there are dark forces arrayed against him. That discussion begins at the 7:30 mark where, in response to a question from Ingraham about who is behind Joe Biden, Trump warns her that they are “people that you’ve never heard of, people who are in the dark shadows … people that are on the streets, people that are controlling the streets.” He says that Trump was not making these statements with the kind of winking, smirking look he adopts at his rallies that suggests that he knows it is nonsense, but that was saying it in a flat voice and not even making eye contact with Ingraham.

If that is the case, then it means that we now have a dangerously deluded president for the next two months.

4. The fear factor

Reporter Jane Mayer in an long article titled Why Trump Can’t Afford to Lose that was published in the New Yorker the week before the election, explained that Trump knows that once he loses the protective bubble of the presidency, all manner of legal and financial problems will swallow him up and desperately wants to avoid that.

Two of the investigations into Trump are being led by powerful state and city law-enforcement officials in New York. Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, and Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, are independently pursuing potential criminal charges related to Trump’s business practices before he became President. Because their jurisdictions lie outside the federal realm, any indictments or convictions resulting from their actions would be beyond the reach of a Presidential pardon. Trump’s legal expenses alone are likely to be daunting. (By the time Bill Clinton left the White House, he’d racked up more than ten million dollars in legal fees.) And Trump’s finances are already under growing strain. During the next four years, according to a stunning recent Times report, Trump—whether reëlected or not—must meet payment deadlines for more than three hundred million dollars in loans that he has personally guaranteed; much of this debt is owed to such foreign creditors as Deutsche Bank. Unless he can refinance with the lenders, he will be on the hook. The Financial Times, meanwhile, estimates that, in all, about nine hundred million dollars’ worth of Trump’s real-estate debt will come due within the next four years. At the same time, he is locked in a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over a deduction that he has claimed on his income-tax forms; an adverse ruling could cost him an additional hundred million dollars. To pay off such debts, the President, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be two and a half billion dollars, could sell some of his most valuable real-estate assets—or, as he has in the past, find ways to stiff his creditors. But, according to an analysis by the Washington Post, Trump’s properties—especially his hotels and resorts—have been hit hard by the pandemic and the fallout from his divisive political career. “It’s the office of the Presidency that’s keeping him from prison and the poorhouse,” Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale who studies authoritarianism, told me.

It’s hard to imagine a former U.S. President behind bars or being forced to perform community service, as the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was, after being convicted of tax fraud. Yet some of the legal threats aimed at Trump are serious. The case that Vance’s office, in Manhattan, is pursuing appears to be particularly strong. According to court documents from the prosecution of Cohen, he didn’t act alone. Cohen’s case centered on his payment of hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom the President allegedly had a sexual liaison. The government claimed that Cohen’s scheme was assisted by an unindicted co-conspirator whom federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York referred to as “Individual-1,” and who ran “an ultimately successful campaign for President of the United States.”

It’s possible that New York’s legal authorities will back off. Even a Trump critic such as Scaramucci believes that “it’s too much of a strain on the system to put an American President in jail.” But a former top official in New York suggested to me that Vance and James are unlikely to abandon their investigations if Trump loses on November 3rd, if only because it would send an unwanted message: “If you’re Tish James or Cy Vance and you drop the case the moment he’s out of office, you’re admitting it was political.”

If Mayer’s theory is right, then Trump is really desperate and may be stalling for as long as possible and threatening chaos so that he can try to negotiate a deal that will protect him once he leaves office, though he really has no leverage at this point, other than the threat to do even more damage before going.

I tend to expect people to behave rationally and so I would normally think that theories #1 and #4 are the most probable. But with Trump, I cannot rule out the possibility that he really has lost touch with reality and thus elevated the likelihood of theories #2 and #3, as hard as they are to believe.


  1. DonDueed says

    One other possibility: there really is a vast conspiracy to undermine Trump and remove him from office. I estimate that there are around 78 million co-conspirators.

    Seriously — any notion of a “deep state” conspiracy falls under its own weight. If it really existed, how did Trump ever get elected in the first place? Did he slip in under the radar? Did the deep state support him then, but turn against him? None of it makes any sense.

  2. johnson catman says

    I think #1 carries the most weight because The Orange Toddler-Tyrant is spiteful to his core. He hates everyone who will not acquiesce to his will. That includes the United States since the country did not re-elect him overwhelmingly. I think he is a danger to our country right now because he would literally burn it all down. I think #2 is unlikely because positivity does not exist in him. #3 is also highly probable on my list because he has increasingly become more delusional this year, which could contribute to his “burn it all down” attitude. For #4, I believe that he has this in the back of his “mind”, but he has always come out of these types of situations before, so why shouldn’t he think he will continue to be Teflon Don? So my ranking would be mostly 1 and 3 with a little bit of 4 and 2 not playing much of a part. BTW, I am not a mental-health professional, nor am I a psychic. These are just my ramblings.

  3. Who Cares says

    I go for option #5. A mix of all four.
    1) He is a petty vindictive person who SOP is to screw over people not supporting him since Trump views the world as a zero sum game, thus any damage he does to others that are against him is to benefit of himself.
    2) He is also grifting. He made more money running a presidency then anything else he did before so he want to keep as many as the people he is bilking around to squeeze out some more money.
    3) He also is delusional with what he says is the truth and reality has to conform (see for example him vandalizing that hurricane map and the aftermath of that).
    4) This one ties into the option 1 & 3. Others are out to get him, he is the most powerful man on the planet and the fastest way for others to get ahead (that zero sum game thinking again) is to take Trump down a notch so that they rise. Worse just like they managed to screw him out of a second term they will fight tooth and nail to prevent him from running as president again and the easiest way to do that is to get him convicted and in jail during the 2024 campaign season.

  4. Ketil Tveiten says

    How about
    “5. He’s got narcisistic personality disorder and simply cannot handle losing this bigly, and this whole thing is him flailing around to desperately try to bullshit the world into doing what he wants, like he usually does”

  5. dave57 says

    I think that Trump has simply always bullied his way to prevent failure and it has always worked. Look at his business failures where he has simply sued, and sued, and made a nuisance of himself until creditors simply accept their losses. Why expect him to treat this any differently?

  6. file thirteen says

    @Who Cares #3, yes, @Ketil Tveiten #4, double yes, @dave57 #5, nailed it.

    But I’ll just add to theory #2 that Chump’s view of the power of positive thinking is as to how it works when applied to others. Every time he repeats a lie, more people believe it. I think he thinks that if he doubles down on the lies enough, that he’ll get enough support that his enemies won’t be able to act (see also theory #4). Hopefully he’s wrong…

  7. KG says

    I’ve seen at least four possibiliites mentioned other than those in the OP or comments:
    1) It’s all about the money. As long as he keeps up the claim that he could win, he can appeal to his cult-members to send money to help with his legal battles. In fact, most of it is going to pay off his campaign debts.
    2) It’s about the Georgia Senate runoffs. Keep the Republicans charged up to ensure Biden faces a hostile Senate. My guess is that this doesn’t motivate Trump, who cares for nothing but himself, but is part of the reason so many senior Republicans continue to back his lies.
    3) It’s about keeping his cult going after he leaves office, and possibly running again in 2024.
    4) It’s not yet obvious it’s futile. He’s seriously attempting a coup -- trying to bribe and browbeat Republican-controlled legislatures in key states to appoint electors who will vote for him, andor trying to get cases to the Spureme Court, where he thinks the Supreme Injusticies he’s pushed onto the court will give him a win and, for example, disqualify all mail-in votes in Pennsylvania.

    I think there’s something to all of these, as well as 1, 3 and 4 in the OP, and Ketil Tveiten@4’s 5. In particular, I don’t think anyone should be too certain there’s no chance of Trump succeeding; the fascistic rot has gone deep in the Republican Party. I’ll be a bit easier in my mind if Michigan certifies the result there today, as they are scheduled to do. If they delay doing so, it will show that Trump’s attempted coup still has a serious chance of success.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    I tend to expect people to behave rationally …

    Your first mistake. You are looking for an explanation that is rational and makes sense. Perhaps Trump has simply lost it; and having surrounded himself with sycophants, he doesn’t have anyone to reel him back in.

    Another option: The longer he keeps the con going, the longer he can raise funds.
    Trump’s fundraising emails give spam a bad name
    You think the fund-raising is to help continue the election legal challenges? What if it is completely the opposite: the election dumbfuckery is a pretense to continue the fundraising?

  9. jrkrideau says

    I would go with a narcissistic personality blending into 2 (positive thinking0) then 3 where if we think of the behaviour in a cognitive dissonance sense, Trump ends up believing his own lies which as reality starts to intrude leads to 4 (fear factor) which in turns leads to 1( scorched Earth)

  10. TGAP Dad says

    Having seen the documentary Get Me Roger Stone, it seems clear to me that ole Tiny Hands is following the Roger Stone playbook, which among other things includes never admitting defeat, never admitting you’re wrong, and never stop fighting. FWIW, this also seems to have been adapted by McConnell in unleashing the flood of extreme right-wing federal jurists and SCOTUS justices, since it’s within the rules conveniently modified just for this purpose. If, by some change, Stacy Abrams pulls a rabbit out of a hat and elects 2 Georgia democrats to the senate, the dems owe it to themselves to take full advantage of it, rather that falling for the oppositions’ forthcoming appeals to respect the traditions upholding the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

  11. DanDare says

    The lie about the election is a definite considered strategy. The evidence is that it began on day 1 of the current term and has been reinforced over and over. “If I dont win the next election that proves there was fraud “. Further evidence, when mouth pieces go off mission saying it looks like he lost for real they walk it back within 24hrs.

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