I’m not sure how many biographies of Hitler I’ve read. A dozen or more? Each promised and each failed to reveal the “man beneath the Fuhrer.” I’m halfway through volume II of Ian Kershaw’s mighty biography, “Adolf Hitler, Nemesis: 1938-1945.” While it’s the most compelling biography thus far, I still cannot fathom the individual underneath. I think I have stumbled on a reason, and that reason came from an unrelated, but hardly unexpected, corner, a review of a new book about Donald Trump.
In “The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump,” Northwestern University psychologist Dan P. McAdams tells us that Trump lacks what he refers to as an “inner story,” or what psychologists call a “narrative identity.” Trump is a “truly authentic fake” in that his emotional underpinnings and psychological motivations are entirely transactional and have nothing to do with who he is or how he developed as a person. In effect, he represents an extreme of a human personality continuum of which he and Hitler reside on the outermost opposite ends, not unlike the way Hitler and Stalin resided on extreme opposite ideological ends. In other words, occupying either extreme is decidedly not a good thing to do.
With Hitler, everything was about an inner story, and that story had everything to do with his fanatical ideological hatred of the forces that humiliated Germany at the end of the Great War. Hitler also had a cast of villains for his inner story and the principal actors of that cast were the Jewish people. Hitler’s story was all ideology and had no human component. For that reason Hitler became monomaniacal about his drive to punish the western powers and the Jews.
Trump, on the other hand, is a combination of no inner story without any human component. He lives moment to moment with each moment about (and only about) victory and defeat, where he must in every case be the victor. This is why his presidency has no narrative thread, no guiding ideological principles. It’s also why he contradicts himself so often. Trump learns nothing from his mistakes because he cannot admit that he has made any mistakes. Trump can’t grow into the job because, as McAdams puts it, “to grow you have to have once been small.”
“He sees the U.S. as a force in the world, but not a moral force,” McAdams says. “Unlike any U.S. president for the past 100 years, Trump does not even feign interest in championing such hallowed American values as respect for human rights or opposition to tyranny. He is purely transactional.” His transactional nature is one reason why he admires dictators and strong men and has such contempt for America’s western allies. Dictators get things done and they don’t have to endure the level of criticism Trump does as a leader of a free society with a free press.
All of which sheds light on Trump’s bizarre handling of the coronavirus crisis. Coronavirus cannot be bullied into submission or lied into oblivion. Trump can’t spin American deaths into a victory nor can he convincingly blame those deaths on President Obama. This is a crisis on his watch alone, one that is also devastating gains in the stock market and will soon do the same to unemployment, two former favorite bragging points for Trump and his acolytes. The best he can do these days is resort to claims that it’s not his fault, which must ring in the ears of many who loved him as a position of cowardice and weakness.
If I had to put it in metaphysical terms I would conclude that Donald Trump, like Adolf Hitler, has no human soul. That can mean whatever it means to each individual considering the question. I don’t pretend to define it, but I do recognize a lack of soul as a necessary underpinning for evil. Trump and Hitler are exemplars of why extreme ideology and extreme nothingness can look, in the end, so very similar.