A Presidential “Othering” Ethics Puzzle: What IS This Statement? Misleading? Ignorant? Biased?


In a column today, Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza writes,

“The simple fact is that Trump has never had real friends in the sense you or I think of the term. The relationship world of Trump has long been split into two groups: (1) his family and (2) people who work for him. And people who work for you are rarely your actual friends.”

This was written in the context of an article titled “The very peculiar isolation of Donald Trump.”

What’s going on here? It is definitely one more “othering” exercise from the news media, part of a concerted effort to avoid “normalizing” this President so that tactics previously regarded as unthinkable, undemocratic and unAmerican will be accepted by the public when they are used against him. The message is that this President is strange, weird. He’s not like us. He’s a monster. Today, for example,  MSNBC’s Katy Tur insinuated that the President might be planning to start murdering journalists, asking a guest.

“As we know, there’s, since 2000, been a couple dozen suspicious deaths of journalists in Russia who came out against the government there.Donald Trump has made no secret about going after journalists and his distaste for any news that doesn’t agree with him here. Do you find that this is a dangerous path he is heading down?”

I was struck by Cillizza’s column  because the topic is one of several upon which I wrote my honors thesis in American government. (If you are in Cambridge, Mass., you can find a copy in Widener Library.)  Cillizza’s statement made me realize, for the first time, really: Ah! There’s at least one aspect of his personality that is typical of American Presidents!” I studied exactly that aspect of Presidential biographies to test my thesis that the U.S. Presidency attracted a specific character type, and the type was not “normal” by the public standards.

Cillizza speaks of Trump being “a man apart” as if this makes him a freak in the White House, and as if being isolated is an unusual state for a leader. Neither is true. Leaders become leaders at an early age precisely because they see themselves as people apart from the crowd. They don’t tend to have real friends, and not only because an unsettling number of them are sociopaths and narcissists.  Leaders will often keep close to them loyal individuals whom they trust, but these are not what you or I would call friendships.

Quick: who is Bill Clinton’s closest friend? George W. Bush’s closest friend? Obama’s best friend? If there really were such close friends, don’t you think we’d know about them? LBJ, JFK, Eisenhower: who were their close personal friends? Who was Lincoln’s close friend, once he became a national leader? Who was George Washington’s friend? John Adams, we all know, was “obnoxious and disliked,” and his sole confidant was Abigail. Even many of the Presidents who had  reputations for being garrulous, like Jefferson, kept a group of friends who were wider than deep. (Thomas Jefferson, moreover, had a bad habit of betraying his “friends.”) Richard Nixon was often linked to Charles Gregory “Bebe” Rebozo a Florida banker and businessman who became famous as Nixon’s friend and confidant. I found little evidence that he was a close friend in the normal sense of the word. He was merely the closest thing to one Nixon had.

Ronald Reagan had many friends, but his biographers all describe  him as distant, with his only close friend being Nancy. This, again, is the norm for Presidents, and the leadership type generally. Yes, most of them are weird. That’s why they are leaders. It is the miscast Presidents who tend to break the mold. Grant had close friends, and was an easy mark for scoundrels. Harding wanted everyone to love him; he was also manipulated by those he thought were his “friends.” Gerald Ford had close friends, but he was an accidental, unelected President.

William Howard Taft thought Teddy Roosevelt was his best friend, yet TR turned on him because he didn’t like Taft’s performance in the White House. By all accounts,Taft was broken-hearted, for he was not a Presidential leader type. What kind of man abandons his best friend because he doesn’t do his own job the way the alleged friend would like? Teddy Roosevelt was that kind of man. Taft wasn’t.

My question is, then, what we should call Cillizza’s statement? It is almost certainly true. What isn’t true is the implication he attaches to it. This aspect of President Trump just is not remarkable, nor is it ominous. This is the way leaders who have skill at leadership usually are. By suggesting that  this President’s isolation is remarkable, Cillizza is misleading his readers and conveying a false conclusion using accurate facts. But he is omitting a crucial fact that is essential  to understanding the story, as well as the man.

My guess is that Cillizza didn’t do this intentionally. He is ignorant about Presidential character, and confirmation bias did the rest. He already thinks Trump is “the other,” like most if not all of his colleagues, so the fact that Trump has no true confidantes outside of his family confirmed what he already believed.

The truth is, however, that for Presidents, especially effective ones, the absence of close friends is normal.

The well-adjusted Presidents were the weird ones.


24 thoughts on “A Presidential “Othering” Ethics Puzzle: What IS This Statement? Misleading? Ignorant? Biased?

  1. When MacArthur was leaving Corregidor, he had his family with him, and was told “We have room for one more”. He simply grabbed the closest person to him and took him to Australia.

    • MacArthur was appreciate of the sacrifice the Bataan Gang had made for him, so considering the limited resoures he had available at the time (a few PT boats), it doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t squeeze in one more nameless colonel in a boat. Too bad he couldn’t have chosen General Wainwright instead who had to endure years of harsh capativity when Corregidor fell.

      • I agree. However, he did manage to rail against Wainwright after Corregidor fell. MacArthur felt he should have ought to the last man. And, by-the-bye, he did take that nameless Colonel with him.

  2. Now, Hillary, she’s one of us. She had close friends. Her besties were Huma Abedin and ….

    Um ……

    Trump is Hitler! I’m With Her!

  3. The closest thing to a best friend Washington had, from what I remember, was Nathaniel Green, and he was close to the Marquis de Lafayette also. Unfortunately sometimes being a leader means you have to be a leader first, and a friend second. Trump didn’t get where he was by being a friend first.

  4. I remember Larry king saying they were close friends and another guy on his show was saying many considered Trump to be the type of loyal friend one can count on in times of trouble.

  5. What is this statement?

    The enactment at a social and public level of a devious psychological game. More than a game of course but *game* in a deadly sort of way. Surely it must be another outcome, another manifestation, of social media hysteria and what these communication tools now allow? Where this will go in coming years anyone may attempt to guess.

    The center for this ‘psychological diagnostic project’, though perhaps my reading is not wide enough and there are other sources, is the NY Times. It is the NY Intellectual Class which seems to me to have framed this sort of discourse and it is them who continue to carry it forward. One need to look at their formation, their assumptions, their predicates, to understand how they *see reality* to then be able to see how their psychological battle is being carried out.

    One might have thought it would have abated after the fracaso of having backed so boldly HRC. You’d have thought they would have sobered up, taken stock, sat on their own psychiatric couch. But no. In fact they are getting worse and the reason is, I think, because they fully understand the stakes.

    The NY Intellectual Establishment, to put it in the simplest terms, is deathly afraid of the common man, the man who has not received the particular indoctrinating education that they seem all to have got. This man is understood as ‘the enemy’. Trump is close to that common man and he seems to communicate with them and to them. Except reading the Times and other main periodicals one has the sense that the whole world, the whole wide world, is turning again this man. That is what one thinks reading their accounts.

    But so too is *the world* turning against a group of figures who do not represent acceptable and tolerable opinion. (Milo, Spencer, J Taylor and a whole group of people who are, in fact, represented demoniacally as ‘sick men’)

    There are very powerful inner barriers established in people which circumscribe their *opinions*. If someone is understood to have violated this inner-established limit, there seems to be a psychological energy which is provoked and which turns against the opinion and the opinion-carrier.

    Therefor, when we encounter a person with ideas that runs counter to our own, and that run counter to those on which we have built our own personality, we can only see that person as mentally ill. Postwar psycho-therapeutics have much to say about those who deviate.

    Everyone will tell you their opinion on just how messed America is. Everyone will diagnisticize according to their chosen and preferred criteria. And there are I think a fairly established set of diagnostics from which to choose, if one is inclined to the generic.

    Since ‘psychology’ is the logos of the psyche it is unavoidable to think about ‘the state of the soul’, the ‘national soul’, and also well-being, normality, and sane functioning of the person. But these categories are all in almost fantastical disarray! No one understand, no one agrees, and the differences developing, inch by inch, veer toward the result of complete rupture between people, a break-down in shared vision of *nation* *person* *reposnibility* *civic duty* *allegience* *value* and every other important category.

    • “The enactment at a social and public level of a devious psychological game. More than a game of course but *game* in a deadly sort of way.”

      Why do you always put asterisks before and after key words? Do they fill the same role as quotation marks? Are they meant to stress the pronunciation of words?

      “Postwar psycho-therapeutics”

      … which war? The Revolution? The Second Revolution? WWI? Desert Storm?

      “Everyone will tell you their opinion on just how messed America is. Everyone will diagnisticize according to their chosen and preferred criteria. And there are I think a fairly established set of diagnostics from which to choose, if one is inclined to the generic.”

      In other words, people’s experiences inform their opinions. Otherwise, this statement says nothing as it doesn’t delve into who set up those diagnostics, why some are drawn to them, or what it means. You state the most bland, basic point and then dress it up with intellectual rhetoric to make it sound fancier. Meanwhile, your points never seem to start or finish and instead just sort of meander from place to place without ever hitting a target.

      • The ‘postwar’ is nearly always understood to be the Second WW. We live in the ‘postwar’ era.

        Postwar therapuetics is a pretty transparent term, at least I think so. Eric Fromm and a school of psychology that became popular in the postwar and in the Sixties and thereafter. There are certain usages, Neil, which do not need to be footnoted.

        You can of course paraphrase what I wrote to say ‘people’s experience informs their opinions’ but I prefer my means of delivery and the content, and you could I suppose reduce it to meaninglessness, which you seem to feel it is.

        Any statement, and any statement that involves some difficulty (that is, that presses on the understanding of the reader and makes demands on him or her), is really a sort of dialectic, don’t you think? And that is what interests me more than anything else about the conversation on Ethics. So, my comments open into a conversation, a wider conversation, and your *questions* would all have to be answered, and can be answered. People who bother to read what I write will already have noticed that here on this Blog there are some people who use the ‘psychological diagnostic tool’ to condemn the ideas of others. Do I need to name the names?

        Perhaps they are ‘bland, basic points’ yet if that were so I think they would be spoken about with more frequency and even urgency. Yet I do not see the point as being bland at all, I see if as having a sharp point, and the point is turned toward our own self.

        What would hitting the target mean? How can any of us not ‘meander’ (a cool word by the way: [C16: from Latin maeander, from Greek Maiandros the River Maeander; see Menderes (sense 1), if, as I say, no one can define what the problem is?

  6. This post compelled me to Google Bebe Rebozo…I don’t know anything about Trump’s plans to start murdering “journalists”…

    Really, the most-often-seen, most-often heard anti-Trump talkers and writers of these days deserve a different descriptor. “Hacks” is close, but “hackers” is better: They are paid to hack into people’s minds, in a way similar to how computer hackers break into their chosen targeted machines. But moreover, they are paid for (and they are most personally satisfied by) devising untruths as insidious “truth,” in service to specific aims and agendas – which of course, counts for service to certain persons and business interests – which results in personal financial and other gain, as well as sustainment of public consciousness of certain pseudo-religious tenets. It’s a not-so-vast left-wing conspiracy which is, not ironically but rather self-awarely, saying that Trump is not the all-powerful Thought Leader of the resistance to said conspiracy. All the while, the illusion of democracy must be preserved; in the same way that a computer user obliviously allows his hacked machine to automate nefarious schemes, the sheeple of the hacker class pant with excitement at the apparent burgeoning “movement,” the signs of which tell their hacked minds what they want to hear (or, think they want to hear): They are powerful! They are unstoppable! They are making history! But most significantly and meaningfully, they are *correct*.

    • Hah, Lucky. You bet me to it. Any post that mentions Bebe Rebozo is noteworthy. I grew up in Miami during Bebe’s fame. He had a house on Key Biscayne on the water. It was the Nixon Whitehouse II. I remember seeing a presidential motorcade heading down the causeway. I don’t think they could helicopter him in to the house. Not enough room. I’ll need to wiki Bebe. I’ve always assumed he was shady. I doubt he was a banker in the sense of a guy who sat at a desk in a branch and reviewed loan apps when he wasn’t chatting up to local dry cleaner making his deposit for the day. Miami’s always been an outlaw place. As I recall, the Republican convention that sent NIxon back for his truncated second term was held on Miami Beach while the Dems were tearing up Chicago,

  7. I watched this and I thought President Trump to be thoughtful, considerate and intelligent. And he certainly is appreciated by these folks (who represent more the common man, and average people).

  8. I’m not sure how any of this is more “othering” of Trump than this one, written by you:

    Has Trump read any literature? Has he ever seen a play? Is he capable of a relevant famous quote or a cultural reference (saying that Bette Midler is “grotesque” doesn’t count, though “grotesque” may be the most sophisticated word that appears on the list)? If so, there is no hint of it.

    • Context is everything. That’s not othering. Plenty of other Presidents, some very effective, were not fans of literature or culture, nor were they all scholars.

      The one President famous for attending a play was not a good advertisement of the practice. We really don’t know which Presidents were really literary, except for a few like Jefferson and Teddy.

      • Maybe it isn’t exactly othering, on the other hand it is missing a chance to be relatable.

        In some parts of science fiction fandom we were happy to see familiar titles on President Obama’s reading lists. Maybe it only works for some values of literary but when Obama released a list and I could say, hey I read that book about space aliens coming for us, I have an autographed copy. Cool!* We can’t say it now, but for a few years The President of the United States was One Of Us.

        *Windsurfing enthusiasts would have probably gotten a kick out of John Kerry.

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