Trump's malignant pattern: He woos people, rips them off and then abandons them — and he won't stop

Trump has followed the same manipulative script over and over again, in politics as in business. We're the marks

Published August 6, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump's astonishing New York Times interview from July 19, which first telegraphed his threat to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has not led to Sessions' departure — at least not yet. But it did highlight something basic about how the president operates, a method that has swept away chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and communications director Anthony Scaramucci, the latter dismissed before he could unpack his boxes.

It's not just that Trump's loyalty is only to himself, as should have been obvious given the scores of associates he's wooed, ripped off and discarded over his long career, including his own lawyers, at times. Rather, it's the centrality of this cycle to the way that Trump operates. It's not a bug, or a feature, it's the feature of his career — a window both into his abnormal psyche and into the cultural and political dynamics that have allowed him to flourish in the midst of more general ruin. As Peter Turchin argues in "Ages of Discord" (Salon review here), the erosion of prosocial norms and increase in antisocial elite behavior are key features of historical periods like the one we're engulfed in, when state breakdown, civil wars and revolutions occur.

There was also the matter of how Trump justifies the prospective discarding of associates, and how he lays predicates for wooing, ripping off and discarding the next crop of eager, willing victim/accomplices. (“I think it is very unfair to the president,” Trump said of Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation -- the only ethical option he had.) But the how of this intended discarding can only be appreciated in terms of the larger pattern — a pattern that has received far too little notice, given how much attention has been given to Trump's mental health, or lack thereof.

The cycle referred to is most insightfully described in the book "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work," by criminal psychologist Robert Hare, whose checklist has revolutionized the understanding of psychopathy, and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak, an expert on the corporate environment. Psychopathy is not the same as anti-social personality disorder (APD), the book explains. “The difference between psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder is that the former includes personality traits such as lack of empathy, grandiosity, and shallow emotion that are not necessary for a diagnosis of APD. APD is three or four times more common than psychopathy in the general population and in prisons.”

There's been a great deal of commentary about Trump's apparent psychological abnormalities, but "Snakes in Suits" describes a particular pattern that stands out for the combination of clarity it brings to bear and the broad scope of action it describes. This pattern consists of a three-phase game plan many psychopaths in corporate settings use a when engaging with victims, “a natural outgrowth of their personality” that is often more automatic than consciously planned:

First, they assess the value of individuals to their needs, and identify their psychological strengths and weaknesses. Second, they manipulate the individuals (now potential victims) by feeding them carefully crafted messages, while constantly using feedback from them to build and maintain control. Not only is this an effective approach to take with most people, it also allows psychopaths to talk their way around and out of any difficulty quickly and effectively if confronted or challenged. Third, they leave the drained and bewildered victims when they are bored or otherwise through with them.

Whether or not Trump qualifies as a psychopath or a malignant narcissist (they are closely related), he has a long public history of behavior patterns that fit this description, even though he has never worked in a normal corporate organization, the setting described in the book. Those qualifications, which would loom large for any therapist treating Trump, pale in comparison to the similarities that matter to us as citizens. Trump has traversed the trajectory described countless times, with customers, business associates, lawyers and wives. Why shouldn't he do the same with everyone in the political world as well? And if he actually does deviate from the pattern for some reason — which is always a possibility — understanding his behavioral baseline will still be crucial in making sense of that departure from it.

The large mass of the 3,500 Trump-involved lawsuits uncovered by USA Today exposes the reality of how Trump operates. He rips off everyone he works with, from hourly workers to the biggest banks. “No candidate of a major party has had anything approaching the number of Trump’s courtroom entanglements,” USA Today reported. Nor did other entrepreneurs. "I think we have far less litigation of companies of our size," Alan Garten, general counsel for the Trump Organization, told them. But a comparison with five top real-estate executives found that “Trump has been involved in more legal skirmishes than all five of the others — combined.”

The fact that he even stiffs his own lawyers and has several times been sued by them is a prime indicator of his overall pattern. Attorneys are initially eager to work for such a high-profile client, and things go well for a while -- until the checks stop coming. The Levine Staller law firm won $40 million in tax settlements for Trump, was promised $7.25 million but only got paid $6 million, and had to sue for the rest. On the low end, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer named Bill Scherer had to sue Trump in small claims court to collect less than $5,000. One who wasn't stiffed was nonetheless sufficiently appalled to write 20 reasons not to vote for him.

With this broad record in mind, let's take a closer look at how "Snakes in Suits" describes the three phases. Regarding the assessment phase, the book says:

The chance to con and manipulate others is a primary motivator for someone with a psychopathic personality disorder; psychopaths like to play games with people. They often are on the lookout for individuals to swindle or scam, and this first phase of the psychopathic approach involves identifying and assessing targets or prey. Some psychopaths are opportunistic, aggressive predators who will take advantage of almost anyone they meet, while others are more patient, waiting for the perfect, innocent victim to cross their path.

While Trump has certainly kept his eye out for particularly big scores, his willingness to cheat business associates out of even trivial amounts of money puts him in the class of opportunistic, aggressive predators. (Even dealing with reporters, he constantly looks for weak points, for those he can exploit or woo, like Tony Schwartz, who had written very critically of him before agreeing to ghostwrite "The Art of the Deal.") It's not that he plans to cheat everyone he meets, but cheating people — taking advantage of them in whatever way he can — is always within the range of options he has in mind. And in some situations, keeping a person vulnerable to exploitation may be the main motivation behind Trump's continued interest in them. That leads to the next phase — manipulation.

Following identification of individuals who may be useful to them, psychopaths begin to create a shroud of charm and deceit that we have labeled the psychopathic fiction. This is the beginning of the manipulation phase. The first goal here is to gain the trust of the individual through ingratiation and various impression-management techniques. Perhaps one of the most effective skills psychopaths use to get the trust of people is their ability to charm them. They often have an engaging manner and make great first impressions on people. Upon this first impression, they may build an elaborate fictitious character, persona, or mask. A psychopath can appear strong, naive, dominant, honest, submissive, trustworthy, worldly, or whatever he or she believes will get others to respond positively to manipulative overtures.

Trump-as-winner is clearly one of his favorite psychopathic fictions, part of the foundation of virtually everything he's done in business or politics. But Trump-as-everyman is another psychopathic fiction that's always ready at a moment's notice. The two fictions feed each other in multiple ways — the more one believes in the second fiction, the more the first one seems remarkable, for example. When the first fiction comes into question (losing the popular vote, for example, or having small crowds at his inauguration), he can take refuge in the second one, crying out for every other loser to identify with him! The two fictions fused into one during the presidential campaign: Trump as true champion of a once-great America, who alone can restore its lost glory.

Finally, we come to the abandonment phase:

Once psychopaths have drained all the value from a victim — that is, when the victim is no longer useful — they abandon that victim and move on to someone else. Abandonment is most often abrupt — the psychopath just disappears one day — and it can occur without the current victim even realizing the psychopath has been looking for someone new to use. In crimes such as identity theft, credit card fraud, and construction swindles, the psychopath effectively disappears, typically reappearing with a new identity in another geographic location. The arrival of the Internet has made the psychopathic criminal’s life easier, as running and hiding are easily carried out, and targets are plentiful and readily accessible.

In Trump's case, his inherited wealth and connections made abandonment easy long before the Internet arrived. This is large part of why he has so many lawsuits in his life — as well as why he has lost so few of them (though he has settled many more than he likes to admit). He can simply outlast the vast majority of those who would sue him, even governments. In fact, Trump has repeatedly used his wealth and connections to do more than escape from past responsibilities, but to regain allegiance of those he's wronged. There's nothing he likes more than the adulation of those those he has humiliated.

One case in particular stands out as an illustrative turning point, a case called American Dream Enterprise Inc. v. Donald Trump, as reported in the Boston Globe:

It began as a planned partnership between Trump and a Florida couple, George Houraney and Jill Harth, who operated American Dream Calendar Girls, staging elaborate events in which winning contestants were featured, provocatively posed, in wall calendars. Houraney and Harth were eager to tap into the cachet and glitz of Trump and his casinos [Trump actually formally interviewed them as part of the assessment phase]. It ended in a bitter, drawn-out legal battle when the planned partnership crumbled after the first pageant [classic abandonment phase].

Given the large number of lawsuits Trump has been involved in, the outcome was hardly surprising, but the importance of the brief relationship — foreshadowing his current reputation for sexism and misogyny — is impossible to overstate:

The foray into the Calendar Girls pageant, however, also ushered in Trump’s interest in the business of entertainment. He later bought the Miss Universe pageant and gained national renown for his reality show, “The Apprentice.”

“I don’t believe there would have been an ‘Apprentice’ if there wasn’t a pageant first,” said Jim Gibson, a consultant and longtime pageant host who guided Trump into the pageant business and eventually to the Miss Universe event. “That got him in the higher hierarchies of the television business. And it did exactly what Donald wanted to do: It built his name.”

In short, this little-noted episode was the pivot point that took Trump from property owner to hosting events to staging them, ultimately on network TV. Not only did Trump renege on the partnership, he (allegedly) repeatedly sexually harassed Harth, who sued him separately on that account. Trump walked into doing business with the couple having nothing but a venue and a name — no experience whatsoever in their line of business. He was interviewing pageant operators arranged by Gibson. Harth and Houraney not only had years of experience but growth plans as well — “designs on a cosmetics line, a television show, calendars, and computer screen savers that would be distributed nationwide,” all of which Trump took advantage of. Here's the Globe's summary of the abandonment phase:

A few weeks after the contest, Trump sent a letter to Houraney.

“My congratulations to you, Jill and all your staff for successfully planning, promoting and producing a fantastic event,” he wrote. “The American Dream Festival surpassed all my expectations, and I am confident it will be bigger and better each year. Bravo for a job well done!”

But it was one of the last times Houraney would hear from Trump.

Earlier in the year, when they met at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had refused to sign a written contract. He told them verbally that they would go into business together, Houraney and Harth allege, but he wanted them to prove themselves first. Put on a good show, and they would continue working together.

Now Trump seemed to be reneging on the deal. A letter arrived from the Trump Castle saying they had lost money, and would no longer sponsor the event. Trump wasn’t calling them back anymore.

Simple as that: From effusive praise to stony silence and exile, in barely the blink of an eye. Houraney told the Globe he was “baffled by the amount of time, energy, and legal fees Trump put into the case,” considering the small amount of the ultimate settlement: “He owed me about $100,000! That’s it!”

Shortly after, as a coda, Trump invited Houraney to a Mar-a-Lago Christmas party, which he attended simply out of curiosity. “What the hell is this all about?” he recalled asking Trump, who replied, “I’d much rather have you on my side than against my side.”

Money or the promise of money can cure everything in Trump's mind — not that he's actually going to spend it. Simply being so successful makes it hard for others to stay mad at him, regardless of how good their reasons may be -- a lesson Republicans have been struggling with for going on two years now. So it was in this case, too.

In her harassment lawsuit, Harth said she “became nauseated and vomited profusely” in response to Trump pawing her genitals on one occasion. Yet the Globe reported that she seemed to have reconciled with Trump, attending a recent rally and even going backstage to meet him — though still standing by her complaint.

While running for president, Trump engaged in assessment and manipulation constantly, with all manner of different people. One classic case was the United Technologies workers whose jobs Trump claimed he would save during the campaign. When the company announced plans to close its Carrier air-conditioner plant and move jobs to Mexico, a cell phone video of the announcement went viral, turning it into a campaign issue, which Trump quickly took advantage of. He claimed it would never happen if he were president, and if it did, Carrier would face a hefty import tax of 35 percent. 

Although Carrier workers were his ostensible target, they were generally not impressed, and mostly supported Bernie Sanders instead, in part because they were unionized and well-informed on the policies and positions affecting them. But the much larger mass of unorganized workers were Trump's real targets, and Trump wooed them in many places by invoking the Carrier workers and portraying himself as their salvation — a classic example of the psychopathic fiction in the manipulation phase.

As soon as the election was over, Trump engaged in a typically duplicitous move. Symbolically, he fulfilled his campaign promise by “saving” the Carrier plant jobs, even before taking office. He and Mike Pence gave well-publicized speeches patting themselves on the back for their working-class heroics. In reality, however, Trump had abandoned the Carrier workers in several ways — the deal rested on an Indiana state government bribe, rather than the threat of a federal tax, and most of the factory-floor jobs actually did go to Mexico, with no future guarantees for workers who still had their jobs. 

"Just a short few months ago, Trump was pledging to force United Technologies to 'pay a damn tax,'" wrote Sanders in a Washington Post op-ed at the time. "He was insisting on very steep tariffs for companies like Carrier that left the United States and wanted to sell their foreign-made products back in the United States. Instead of a damn tax, the company will be rewarded with a damn tax cut. Wow! How’s that for standing up to corporate greed? How’s that for punishing corporations that shut down in the United States and move abroad?"

Summing it up, Sanders wrote, "United Technologies took Trump hostage and won.”

Now, just over half a year later, Carrier has announced another round of outsourcing, with Trump nowhere in sight. Abandonment complete.

Maybe it's Jeff Sessions' turn now, and maybe not. Sessions' political alignment with Trump's supposed goals clearly matters little, if at all, in Trump's thinking. The fact that three other top figures left instead — Scaramucci effectively before he had even started — only shows how much Trump needs to use abandonment right now. But to facilitate what, exactly? That's something even the president himself doesn't seem to know. But that lack of planning and foresight is just another facet of psychopathic psychology. “We'll see what happens,” as Trump so often says. But as outside observers wonder about the fate of the nation, his outlook is likely much narrower.

“The president actually quite likes it when people who've worked for him sort of blow themselves up, and then sort of have to work their way back,” Vickie Ward of HuffPost recently told MSNBC's Ari Melber.

“What does he like about it?” Melber asked.

“It's an extra demonstration of loyalty, isn't it? That even after kamikaze, they're still there,” Ward replied. That is the sort of loyalty Trump craves the most — the loyalty of those that he has abandoned. That's part of his distinctive twist on the general psychopathic pattern. Who knows who he could bring back from the politically dead in the days to come?

In the meantime, even if the most recent abandonments mean an influx of military men bringing some semblance of order to the White House — a new theme for the chattering classes to discuss — will that have any real lasting impact? Does it bear any resemblance to what's actually going in the world as seen by Donald Trump? A world in which Sessions was “very unfair” to him by simply following the law?

What may be in store is an even more profound act of abandonment, with Trump increasingly turning his back on the Republican Party as a whole. Now that they've joined the Democrats in the Senate by blocking his path to replace Sessions with a recess appointment, the odds favoring a wholesale break like that must surely be rising. Trump's campaign-style rally in West Virginia may be a vivid foretaste of what's to come: the more solid Robert Mueller's case against him becomes, the more we will argue that everyone in Washington is being unfair to Donald Trump.

Of course Trump won't be abandoning the GOP, in his telling -- the party will be abandoning him. It's the same old psychopathic fiction that won him election in the first place. The number of people still buying it may be decreasing considerably, but there are still enough of them to fragment the country disastrously. It's just what a psychopath would want: a new source of excitement. 



By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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