The question of what Donald Trump “really believes” has no answer

David Roberts in a series of tweets provides the best explanation I’ve seen so far of Trump’s behaviour.

I want to riff on the point I made here, which I still think is central to our current political…uh, situation.

“Theory of mind” (ToM) is a concept in psychology. To have a ToM is to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting inner states.

It is to interpret behavior as issuing from, and evidence of, desires, beliefs, intentions, fears, etc.

Humans typically develop ToM early, around 2-3. There are raging debates about whether various animals have ToM, or if so what kind.

People on the autism spectrum have difficulty w/ ToM — difficulty connecting behaviors to mental states, difficulty “reading” behavior.

Autism-spectrum presents one kind of ToM problem: a rich text to be read, but a reader with difficulty reading.

There is, however, another (I suspect) more rare ToM problem, namely: sophisticated readers over-interpreting a text.

Typical adults are drawn almost irresistibly to see behaviors as indicators of complex mental states – persistent beliefs, desires, etc.

Here’s the thing: Trump, by all indications, does not have beliefs, intentions, etc. that are stable, persistent across contexts.

He is attuned to who is dominating & who is submissive *in the situation he finds himself in*. It is 100% situational, 0% persistent.

He seeks domination. That’s all. He does not care about, or even seem cognizant of, lying, reversing himself, switching loyalties, etc.

He’s like a goldfish. No beliefs, intentions, plans, or schemes are carried from place to place. Every situation is new.

There is, in a very real sense, no “mind” as such, only a set of animal impulses — seek approbation, avoid blame, dominate, win.

Here’s the problem: healthy adults are simply *not accustomed to dealing w/ someone like that*. It is a rare pathology …

… and even rarer for someone to be so protected by money/power/family that they can succeed in life despite the pathology.

To find someone with that pathology in a central position of power in the US is simply unprecedented. Utterly novel.

Normal people with normal ToM (including journalists) find it almost impossible to resist over-interpreting Trump’s behavior …

… to see it as reflective of stable, persistent beliefs, intentions, and plans. They read “mind” into his behavior. Can’t help it.

And this describes the vast bulk of journalism & analysis on Trump: a desperate attempt to figure out what kind of “mind” …

… could possibly result in this bizarre set of statements & actions. Is there some long con? Is he distracting us? Secretly a genius?

Firing Comey in the middle of the Russia investigation, for example, seems nigh inexplicable. Where’s the “mind,” the deeper rationale?

Does this show he “actually” wants to become a dictator? That he “actually” has inside info on what Comey knew/intended?

That he’s “actually” distracting attention from the Census thing (or all the other things)? “Actually” angling for revenge on Clinton?

All of these are (perfectly understandable) attempts to apply ToM. It’s what we do, instinctively, *especially* in political analysis.

The mistake is not any particular one of these theories. The mistake is *applying conventional ToM at all*.

As I argued in the piece (linked way back in tweet 1), Trump is, by all indications, just a bundle of impulses. Nothing more.

Most likely explanation re: Russia is not some deep, secret plot, but … DT saying yes to something that felt good in the moment …

… and then immediately forgetting about it, connecting it to nothing else. Thus the confusion why everyone keeps bringing it up.

Most likely explanation re: Comey is not some Machiavellian tactic, but … he kept seeing Comey on TV saying not-awesome things …

… and that gave him bad feels, made him feel non-dominant. So he made Comey get off his TV. No “mind,” just stimulus-response.

Accepting this fact — that ToM is useless, that Trump really is nothing more than amygdala — is *absolutely terrifying*.

It is more terrifying than any particular ToM as applied to Trump. Stable desires & intentions, even if evil, at least *make sense*.

A Trump ToM gives us the comfort of knowing that at least someone’s in charge, someone has a handle on things, even if malign.

The idea that Trump is simply doing what produces good feels in a particular situation, that he is utterly unconstrained by …

… consistency, by past commitments or statements, by laws or norms, by *anything* — that’s there’s no “mind” as such — is chilling.

What if he finds himself in a position where North Korea is giving him bad feels? Will he be able to assess a response in light of …

… past commitments, expectations, strategy, norms, or decency? Probably not! He will seek a feeling of dominance *in the moment*.

A mindless Trump, acting purely on impulse, is far more dangerous than an evil Trump, acting on grand, secret schemes.

As difficult as it is, journalists, analysts, & other political actors need to internalize this. Evil can be predicted, bargained w/ …

… but there’s no predicting or reasoning w/ pure animal impulse. ToM is useless. Only containment or removal will work. 

Roberts fleshes out his views here.

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