Donald Trump is a man with an interesting mind – perhaps too interesting for someone who wants to be president.
Consider his problems with the girlie stuff: for instance, the examples discussed in an op-ed column by Frank Bruni in the December 23 New York Times. In it Bruni notes several cases of the Donald’s extraordinary squeamishness about what we might term bodily products, in one case Marco Rubio’s sweat, but in many more, and with greater revulsion, women’s various secretions. The column was occasioned by Trump’s effusions at a meeting in which Trump went off at length on Hillary Clinton’s taking a bathroom break during Saturday’s Democratic debate (in which Trump himself played no role, of course). You can savor the Trump discours in this clip.
As Bruni notes, Trump’s “fastidiousness” is nothing new. He has repeatedly found it necessary to comment, always irrelevantly and always with “disgust” and loathing, on women’s bodily fluids. Everyone remembers (how could anyone forget?) his effusion against Megyn Kelly after she had the temerity to question him about his misogyny: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” This coment was both bizarre and ingenious: bizarre because there was no blood coming out of her eyes, figuratively (whatever the figure might mean), nor as far as the eye could see, out of her wherever, which was perfectly clothed; and because this is just not the sort of statement one hopes for from someone who might just possibly in the near future become our President. But it was crazy like a fox, designed to direct the hearer away from any intellectual response, toward a purely emotional response to the imaginary specter of flowing menstrual blood – the worst kind.
In another of Bruni’s examples Trump encounters a problem with another female bodily fluid:
When a lawyer who was questioning him during a 2011 deposition asked for a break so that she could leave the room and pump breast milk for her 3-month-old daughter, he was unhinged.
“You’re disgusting,” he berated her, according to a story in The Times earlier this year by Michael Barbaro and Steve Eder. Then he stormed out of the deposition.
And then there’s the current one:
On Monday he said this of Hillary Clinton’s mid-debate bathroom break: “I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting.”
So we’ve got blood, milk, and pee, all when female, “disgusting.”
Now it’s true that there are circumstances under which one or two of the above might reasonably be disgusting: in particular, when someone encounters the products themselves directly. I might be repelled on finding moisture on a public toilet seat or bloody menstrual products strewn about. A member of our fastidious society could reasonably find it inappropriate (though hardly “disgusting”) if a lactating woman pulled out a breast and a pump (or a baby) during a deposition and went to work. But true disgust would seem to require direct encounters with the fluids in question. In two of the cited cases, Trump merely imagines that the fluids that “disgust” him have been produced, and even if they had been, it would have been out of his sight and hearing. Even in the breast-pump case, while there is explicit mention of the procedure, it was not done in Trump’s presence or discussed at any length. So his “disgust” is pathological.
Bruni, seeking a theory to explain the Trump pathology, suggests that his is a case of arrested development. Small children, as those of us who have had or been them know well, delight in disgust:
Scab sandwich, pus on top, monkey’s eyeball, camel snot….
we used to sing with delight, when I was little. But as adults, we usually fail to be either amused or unnecessarily repelled by bodily effluvia. The Constitution requires that the President have attained the age of thirty-five, but unfortunately doesn’t specify whether that is a physical or mental age. Trump is certainly over thirty-five physiologically, but psychologically, his obsession with disgusting things is more typical of a five year old.
Zachary A. Goldfarb, in the Washington Post clip above, suggests another theory: Trump is neither infantile nor neurotically germophobic, but “clever.” Goldfarb discusses a lot of social science research showing that conservatives are more susceptible to disgust than are normal people. In these studies, subjects are asked how they feel about (for instance), sitting on a moist toilet seat, or drinking from a straw that had been used by someone else. Subjects who identify as conservative report stronger feelings of disgust than do others. So, says Goldfarb, by his continual evocations of disgust, Trump is seeking to strengthen his bond with conservative voters.
I am not so sure. First of all, as I am sure I have said before, I have a deep suspicion of social science studies, on many grounds. For one, these studies obscure a useful distinction between actually experiencing disgusting things (like the wet toilet seat), and hearing about them. I find the first pretty disgusting (and am I a conservative?), but the second, not so much. And Trump’s audience is experiencing the urine and the blood, if at all, second-hand. (Not to mention the fact that in the deposition-lactation case, there was no conservative audience Trump wanted to bond with.)
And then there is the fact that Trump’s disgust is disproportionately evoked by female fluids. (Trump, you will recall, “cherishes” women.) The conservatives-disgust-easily theory does not account for this. So neither Bruni nor Goldfarb really gets to the bottom (if that word is not disgusting per se) of what’s going on in the Trump minibrain.
Yes, Trump is using the common fear and loathing of female fluids (and thus, metonymically, females) to bond with conservatives; but ultimately and more dangerously, as a way of justifying their contempt of women, making women (not for the first time, of course) justifiable objects of loathing and mistreatment, and reinforcing the belief that a woman has no business trying to be President of the United States. This is not unrelated to Trump’s birtherism: he and his folks dis and dismiss Barack Obama as Kenyan, which is code for “black,” and therefore as someone with no business trying to be President. In both cases the arguments are thoroughly and evilly specious, but they are comforting to a certain segment of the populace.
There is a disturbing analogy in anti-Semitic propaganda. In Nazi Germany, many movies were made representing Jews as vermin (rats and mice) literally infesting our granaries and, disgustingly, spoiling with their excretions the food we eat. The images are visceral. Because Jews are vermin, they are not human; because Jews are harming us with their disgusting behavior, we can destroy them – and because they are not human, we have the absolute right to destroy them and must destroy them. The emotional power of disgust overrides any attempt at logical analysis.
This is exactly what Trump and his fans are striving for. (I think if Sanders were to get the nomination, we would encounter precise analogs of the Nazi propaganda.) Not only does this rhetoric diminish the particular female Trump might be running against, making her into an animal that pees and worse, but it justifies the mistreatment of all women.
I recall a story from my college Soc. Sci. class, about the puberty rites of an African tribe (at this remove, I can’t be more specific). The boys were instructed that thereafter they must never allow women to see them urinate or defecate: they were to tell them that during the rituals, their excretory organs had been sewn shut so they didn’t have to do those things any more. In a society without bathrooms, this expectation must have created many problems for the men (and for the women, trying to keep from snickering every time the subject arose). Yet it remained an integral part of achieving manhood. Why?
I think that the tribal belief is not too different from Trump’s: both are about purity, a topic much discussed by anthropologists. Purity is something humans possess; animals are by nature impure (they defecate, urinate, and fornicate where everyone can see). By this standard, anyone whose excretory and/or sexual functioning is accessible to others is impure and animal, and such people are predominantly female, since females have more and ickier fluids to control. So any reference to women’s disgusting fluids has the effect of reminding all of us (women of course included) that women are less than human and therefore undeserving of equality, let alone honor and power.
You have to wonder how Trump, if this is how he “cherishes” women, has managed to sire five children. IVF, perhaps?
There is one good thing in this discouraging story of psychological impairment among the rich and famous. Normally, when Trump goes off on Clinton in a speech to his peeps, they laugh and jeer and applaud, ever more loudly and raucously. But his remarks on December 19 had a different effect. After his first “disgusting,” there were a couple of muffled giggles or murmurs, but more, I thought, out of embarrassment or uncertainty than approval. Perhaps the reason he felt he had to go on with the same topic was just that – he needed his crowd’s approval and felt that maybe they just were too dim to get his wit and wisdom the first time around. But the rest of the bathroom shtick was greeted by stony silence. Has the Donald finally gone too far? But he has to keep going further and further in each outing, to keep the crowds coming back. What will he do for an encore? And will his desperation for applause and approval finally do him in?
Psychoanalytically, perhaps the Donald is decompensating. Decompensation is the inability to maintain the appearance of normality under stress. So someone who has been able to keep it together, just barely perhaps, using defense mechanisms, may when stressed lose that capacity and start showing symptoms of grave mental illness. A growing weird preoccupation with women’s bodily functions might be an early symptom. Trump may have been able to suppress the worst of his symptoms before he became a candidate: as a rich and celebrated man, he was insulated from the pressures and criticisms that might cause a typical individual to decompensate. But now he’s forced to maintain a 24/7 schedule; he’s probably not eating as he should; and people are not asking questions “nicely,” even in front of TV cameras. Can Trump continue to take it?
Dare we hope that the Donald is coming apart? Or should we fear that he is? Since Trump may be the best candidate for HRC to take on, the fact that he may be coming apart may be a pity. Either way, the specter of a lunatic running the country in these perilous times is not comforting.