Donald Trump, like other manipulative narcissists, is a fan of the superlative. In fact, he is a bigly fan. Few people do questionable superlatives better than Trump! The fact that they are subsequently proven to be nothing but braggadocious empty words doesn’t matter to ‘The Donald’ as they served their purpose — to whip up the cultish core of his base and divert attention from pesky things like truth and negative news coverage.
Trump is a manipulative and bullying salesman through and through. Some would say a snake oil salesman — but manipulative salesman none the less. It is possible to criticise him for many things, but we can’t accuse him of being bad at pulling the wool over people’s eyes with the manipulative use of words. I suspect he is, in fact, the best ever American president at that.
Does he believe all the things he says and tweets? Probably not. But does he believe, against all the evidence, that he’s amazing, ingenious and the most important president in US history? I suspect so. This is in part due to his poor grounding in political history and to a large extent to his narcissism. A devastating new civil war — which would involve high-powered semi-automatic assault rifles rather than muskets — wouldn’t even indicate to Trump that he was a terrible president. His narcissism would let him perversely frame it as proof of his historical significance and of unfair opposition by ‘terrible people’.
Hopefully it won’t come to that, and as we watch — with grim fascination — the last desperate death rattle of his regime and the meltdown of his legal team, amid a vast number of failed court cases, I’d like to draw attention to two powerful and disturbing stories involving kids with too much power and an excess of immaturity.
One story, a film called Bully, is based on real events that took place in Florida. The film culminates in chaotic and somewhat stupid kids, who colluded in a murder and cover-up, struggling to keep their secret and turning on one another. The other, Lord of the Flies, is an allegorical novel written in the wake of World War Two.
The boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are removed from their English boarding school environment during a nuclear war. As a result of their plane coming down, they end up on a tropical island. Left to their own devices, some boys quickly degenerate from budding ‘elite gentlemen’ to savagery and cruelty. An attempt by the more rational to create a democratic mini civilisation is pushed aside. After a struggle for power, the most thuggish boys create a savage tribe held together by fear, ignorance and brutality.
Wilful sadism rapidly rears its ugly head, as we quickly saw in the Trump regime and his treatment of staff and experts who questioned his ‘wisdom’. A boy in Lord of the Flies who approached the group with information that would have overcome the irrationality that had taken hold of it was speared to death.
A boy who embodies rationality is murdered with a boulder and the leader of the democratic faction is stabbed with a spear and pursued through the forest. The hunters set fire to the forest to smoke him out. Adults, arriving in a naval cruiser, end the deranged situation and rescue the boys.
In Lord of the Flies, it only took one Jack and one Roger, who complemented one another in their respective savagery and sadism, to create an oppressive and murderous ‘world’. To do so, however, required the support of those who were conformist, quick to aggression when ordered, or subdued by fear. This is a pattern we have seen in multiple different human cultures, on subtle levels to the most extreme, such as in Nazism. It is something we have seen very clearly in Trump’s period of chaotic misrule.
Bully is a 2001 film based on the murder of 20-year-old Bobby Kent by several young people. Like episodes of Columbo (and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which was a major influence in the creation of Columbo), the most captivating bit is watching the criminals falling apart under the light of scrutiny. Before flimsy defences could even be challenged in court, the defendants turned on one another, showing their true colours in front of the glare of the judge, press and public.
I have been reminded about the end of Bully and of Lord of the Flies often during Trump’s time in office — and during the chaotic leadership in the UK of Boris Johnson (and his aggressive former advisor Dominic Cummings) over the past year. In both settings it has seemed that people with the minds of power-crazed, dishonest and rather sadistic immature brats have been allowed to take over and cause untold damage to society and institutions. A global pandemic was the worst of all times for entitled brats to be in charge.
I, like many, had hoped Robert Mueller would be akin to the naval officer arriving to end Trump’s Lord of the Flies style political carnage. But we had to wait a little longer for the adults to fully arrive — in the form of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In the UK we could have years before Boris Johnson’s era of chaos is finally over. As someone stuck on a Covid-filled island ‘led’ by an inept narcissistic man-child, I look to the USA to show the world how to repair the damage that can happen when immature, power-hungry brats manage to grab the wheel.