Irrationality is a cult of mind among history’s authoritarian leaders. During the Iraq war, and as late as the end of March 2003, Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein and his administration refused anything but an “unconditional withdrawal” of U.S. forces because they believed Iraq was winning and “United States has sunk in the mud of defeat.” In April, Baghdad fell and so did Hussein.
There was no great turning point after an Iraqi official had made that statement; in fact, other Iraqi officials believed that an occupation was inevitable once the U.S. began their invasion. What muddled Hussein’s logic are the hallmarks of what seems to be an irrational dictator disorder: a fear of losing and a disbelief in the facts. The two qualities are intertwined and feed off of each other but form the way a leader behaves and shapes his decision-making. They’re evident in leaders from 20th century dictators to our very own Republican nominee for president.
It has been too easy to paint Trump as an echo of historical fascism. Robert Paxton, a political scientist and an expert in this area, told Slate in the spring that there are slight but similar fascist themes of “ethnic stereotypes and…. concern about a national decline” in Trump’s rhetoric. He then mentions how fascism isn’t a conscious decision by authoritarian leaders, but it instead happens with, maybe, personality. As Paxton says, Hitler and Mussolini were just very opportunistic.
This certain personality is indeed what Trump embodies. There are many in the media who believe that Trump’s antics are part of a crafty strategy to launch a Trump TV network after he loses. There have been more informal jokes that his campaign is just one big PR blitz for the next season of The Apprentice. Trump’s son-in-law’s recent meeting with TV investors refueled this opinion. After the last debate, the New York Times ran the headline: “Was That a Presidential Debate or a Pitch for Trump TV?” The logic behind this is the disbelief that Trump must be so irrational to run a campaign this badly, and thus there must be an ulterior motive. However, these theories must involve Trump’s prescience in knowing he will lose. I believe this gives Trump too much credit.
In August, Trump announced a series of solid blue states that he believes he could win, among these: New York, Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, and even California. Republicans have rarely given the time of day to these states, but Trump has voiced confidence in flipping them red. In all of these states, polls never hinted that Trump had an edge. In July, after Trump’s poll numbers began to flail in GOP strongholds like Arizona and Utah, he confounded Republican strategists by holding a rally in deep-blue Connecticut. Two months later, his campaign placed an ad buy in Maine, where he would only be able to wrestle away one electoral vote.
All of this alone seems like the makings of a really stupid non-politician and opportunist, unaware of the logistics to a great presidential run, but doing it anyway. But what bubbles underneath is too darkly familiar – Trump surrounds himself with advisors he’s comfortable with and who are willing to tell him what he wants to hear, even if their pandering skids away from the truth. They believe the misinformation themselves, too. Take his well-known and infamous motley of family members and loyal surrogates and aides: Kellyanne Conway, Jason Miller, Rudy Giuliani, the Trump kids, Steve Bannon, and faithful Corey Lewandowski over at CNN. Then there’s the group of equally shady servants who fell behind Trump’s cohort for one reason or another: Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes, and Paul Manafort.
These folks make their rounds on cable news and at pro-Trump rallies, spouting their spin on the election that directly contradicts what respectable sources say. A viral clip of Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen depicted him repeatedly saying, “says who?” after a CNN anchor said Trump was losing in the polls. Indeed, he was. Trump and his campaign live in a post-truth world where nothing they say can be legitimately contradicted. They frame everything as a conspiracy, and once the dialogue surrounding the election mirrors his talking points, he wins at a game he constructed himself. In essence, he reframes the media narrative. This may sounds genius if it were not for the fact that Trump genuinely believes these conspiracies himself, and he’s merely saying what he thinks in his head. After all, post-truth leaders are not rational ones because they refuse the necessary data needed to make rational, informed, and smart decisions.
One can argue that strategy and numbers does matter to the campaign and point to its controversial “Project Alamo,” a bleak acknowledgement that Trump doesn’t do well with minorities. Ultimately, this fact doesn’t matter when the campaign has a weak ground game and has scant field offices in important districts. Trump’s political director in battleground states abruptly left just recently, leaving him without a key campaign operative. The lack of consideration given to these essential aspects of campaigning is systemic. That means there’s a fundamental problem to the way the campaign is run, and Trump is the one at the top.
This is not an uncommon parallel between authoritarian leaders. Hussein had surrounded himself with family members and loyal officers. But what drives this in Trump’s own world? Maybe it’s his real estate and entrepreneurial past, in which his managerial power gave him the leverage to make an undemocratic approach to business all too easy. But what’s important is that this padding from accommodating advisors provides the basis for misinformation and a disdain for truth, whenever it’s convenient for Trump. The way Trump functions inherently inhibits his ability to lead in the way that Americans usually admire: democratic and open to receiving criticism. Most importantly, Trump lacks rationality.
Just recently, the Trump campaign released a Facebook live feed of “campaign coverage,” where two cable TV news-like hosts sat down with Conway to dismiss the mainstream media’s treatment of Trump’s less-than-stellar campaigning. They gave sunny, questionable updates on the Trump campaign, claiming that they’re winning despite the unanimous scientific polls and models that say otherwise. It was a breezy rejection of truth in favor of a more convenient narrative, à la "Baghdad Bob." There are those who think this is an introduction to the Trump network he will helm when he loses, but I think that it’s one he’s forming for when he wins. The point isn’t to compare Trump TV to Russian State TV. The hosts of the live feed were Trump campaign aides, and the information they were touting is one they believe. It’s false information that circulates around the campaign to form talking points, to boost morale among supporters, and to teach surrogates what to say on cable news. But it becomes so threaded within their campaign’s core message that it must eventually become difficult to separate what they truly know from what they want everyone else to know.
Hardly anything needs to be said over the other aspect that makes up an irrational actor: the fear of losing. Trump’s love of winning is central to why he is running to be president. Take his personal drive for winning along with the lack of contrition to distort facts, and you have yourself an irrational actor. Indeed, Trump believes he can win. He really thinks he can win Connecticut. He really thinks the election is rigged. And it’s because he is not a rational actor with intelligent advisors who tell him the facts say otherwise. Rationality is such a highly valued feature in a candidate for president that it’s rarely even mentioned as one. But it’s one feature that has been overlooked when it comes to Trump. We know about his racism, misogyny, and so forth, but what about the basic way he functions? Rationality was at the center of the debate on whether or not the U.S. should invade Iraq. If Hussein was a rational actor who responded to deterrence, then he wouldn’t wreak havoc with supposed WMD’s. But U.S. officials decided he wasn’t, and so we went to war.