The Prison of Self

Ophelia Benson

One of the things I resent most (personally resent most, as opposed to fear most, hate most, or despair at most) about Life Under Trump is the way he makes it impossible to think about anything else. I resent having my thoughts dragged back to him all the time, because there is so much more to think about, so much that’s more important, more interesting, more valuable.

Trump himself is remarkably uninteresting—it never ceases to amaze how empty his head is, how repetitive and dull his words are, how shallow and embryonic his thoughts. The phenomenon of him and the consequences of him do have a morbid sort of interest, as he keeps demonstrating how childishly outrageous he can be, but that’s a function of his position and not his own nature. Stripped of the role and the money and plopped down in a bus station, he would be just another boring, cranky guy who won’t stop talking; no one would give him the time of day.

So how embarrassing and shameful is it that someone that vacuous and ordinary managed to grab the spotlight in such a thoroughgoing way? More so than we can fathom, which is why we can’t drag our attention away from him. I try to make lemonade from this diabolical lemon by viewing him as an object lesson in the horrors of a Self that blots out all other selves, a Moloch that sees everyone else as mere tribute. Trump’s inability to grasp or even perceive the reality of other selves, other minds, is so extreme it amounts to a handicap. He’s always artlessly informing us that “everybody” says or thinks X when what he means is that he thinks X. Understanding the difference is a well-studied stage in child development, and Trump hasn’t attained it yet. The normal age is between four and five.

It’s a major theme in literature as in life, this business of grasping that other people are as real as we are and have their own thoughts and desires. Characters who pay too much deference to their own egos are a staple, for reasons of plot but also because they tend to interest us. There is a morbid fascination in watching how far Trump will go in unabashed self-involvement and self-serving, and literary egotists have the same edge. Often the story is one of redemption from self-obsession to an awakening to care for others. We can never hope for that for Trump, but we can be moved by it in stories.

We can be moved by it in King Lear, for instance. Lear in the first half of the play is very like Trump, in fact: self-centered, demanding, and prone to rage. Like Trump, he is greedy for praise, and his method of dividing his kingdom among his three daughters is to stage a flattery contest—an act reminiscent of the notorious cabinet meeting at which everyone competed at telling Trump how amazing he is while he nodded and beamed with delight. When Lear’s youngest daughter refuses to play the game, he doesn’t just give her a smaller share of the goods, he disowns her and curses her. (Has anyone seen much of Tiffany lately?)

But unlike Trump, Lear remains capable of learning better, though he has to lose everything and go mad before he can do it. The two flattering daughters promptly turn on him and strip him of all the royal perks, right down to the golden faucets, and he wanders out into A Storm On A Heath—and that helpless vulnerability is what turns him around. He was a royal blowhard who shouted impatiently for his dinner ten seconds after getting home, but once the cold rain is falling on his head he realizes it falls on other people too, and he is left alone onstage to say so.

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

He’s meant to be “mad” at this point, but in his madness he notices what he never noticed before; it’s a moment of secular redemption that poor, limited Donald Trump will never have. That’s our tragedy: that unlike playwrights and novelists, we can’t just write a change of heart into a president’s script and make it happen. Trump is stuck in his prison of self, and we’re stuck with a selfish narcissist bent on wrecking the joint.

So being stuck with him, what do we do with him? If nothing else, he is useful as a kind of moral scarecrow, a Horrible Example, a model to point to when we need to explain what’s wrong with cruelty or lying or corruption. That may be the one way Trump is remarkable: the many-sidedness of his badness and the complete absence of any detectable good qualities. With most baddies there is a “but” somewhere—some talent or charm or skill to relieve the bleak row of zeroes. But Trump? I’ve tried hard to think of something, and I turn up blanks. He’s a kind of substitute for the old devil-figure as a model of pure evil: don’t be a bully or an egomaniac or a liar, unless you want to end up like him.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


Trump’s inability to grasp the reality of other minds is so extreme it amounts to a handicap.

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