The Incredible Trump

“Caught in the blast of gamma radiation, brilliant scientist Bruce Banner is cursed to transform in times of stress into the living engine of destruction known as THE INCREDIBLE HULK. “

With a start like that, you have every reason to think that this essay is either a parody or a rant. It is neither. Except for the assist from Marvel Comics in establishing the basic metaphor, this is a fairly mild-mannered analysis. Let’s see how it goes.

What does “incredible” mean?

And let’s begin with “incredible.” The “incredible” in Incredible Trump means that youmechanism 4 can’t believe what he says. He is not credible. That’s the old basic meaning, but it isn’t the meaning that is reflected most in current usage.

The “incredible” in current usage means that the truth is so amazing that you will be tempted not to believe it (“credit” it) at all. And that is what it means in the Incredible Hulk; it means that the story of his prowess is so fantastic [1] that it is hard to believe. Same word. Different meanings entirely.

Why is Trump incredible?

If you imagine, as I am, for the purposes of this essay, that there is a “real Donald Trump,” then I will say that he is a Bruce Banner-like character. Eats lunch, sits and talks to people, plays golf, makes decisions. But then he “goes somewhere else” and “he”—IT, by then—is not Bruce Banner any longer

As the Hulk, he does things that are terribly destructive, but when this fit is over, he is Bruce Banner again and he is overcome with guilt and remorse. I retain the “guilt and remorse” element to keep the parallel with Banner.  I realize there has been no actual evidence that Trump has had these feelings himself.  The analogy I would like to play with is that when Trump hits the criterion condition—the blurb says “times of stress”—he “is transformed” [2] and then he “is” IT.

mechanism 3Let’s look at what that boundary condition means because as much fun as it is to have an enormous monster with great pecs and a bad disposition, it is less fun to have a Chief Executive who frequently leaves the common human condition and does “incredible things.”

What kinds of events have counted as “stress” so far? I can think of two broad categories. One is failure; the other is ridicule.

Now most of the damage so far has been done in tweets [3] so let’s add the tweeting environment to the “stress condition.” And let’s look at some examples just to see if this makes any sense. “The media” say that there weren’t many people attending Trump’s inauguration. This is a way of belittling him, one of the boundary conditions, and late at night, he read this and tweets a false crowd estimate and an attack on all the ordinary estimates. This is the act of an IT. It denies truths that can be shown to be true; it attacks people whose cooperation will be crucial to governing.

The Trump leaves a trail of destruction behind him, but at the time, there is nothing else he could have done. That one point is the principal value of the Hulk metaphor. He can’t help it. He is transformed. Note the passive form of the verb.

When and Why?

“Times of stress” says the clip from the internet on which I base my entire grasp of the Hulk. I think for Trump, the analogous conditions are failure and disapproval. Let’s explore those.

hulk 5President Trump has not had a major legislative victory yet and probably won’t ever have one because his inability to win the early battles causes him to declare war on his teammates. Trump needs to be seen as a winner. That means that high profile programs need to be passed by the Congress. But when the early votes fail, he experiences “signs of stress” and begins to attack his team members. Trump has major conflicts going on now with Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and with Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate.

No one—Trump included—thinks that going to war with the two most important congressional allies you could have, will make passing he program any easier. It is not a tactic for Trump. It is a fit. He changes into the Hulk and becomes “a living engine of destruction.” Analysts who try to see what sense it makes as a tactic us using a bankrupt metaphor.

I’m going to stay with this, so you might just as well settle in. The point I am trying to make with this metaphor is that this is not a choice Trump makes. Watch Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk and ask yourself at what point does Banner decide this is a good idea. He does not. The stress has the same effect on him that the failure of a high-profile commitment has on Trump. He become “IT” and starts tweeting.

The second trigger is disapproval. Trump despises the people who criticize him. He has no regard for the criticism itself. So, for instance, when he was criticized for his late and tepid “condemnation” of the white racist violence in Charlottesville, he turned on the critics. Disapproval of an action IS disapproval of him. It is personal, not programmatic. Disapproval raises the stress levels and you know what happens when the stress levels get too high. A change takes place; the intemperate violence begins, reprisals are threatened and carried out. And—again—this is not instrumental. It is not a means to an end. It is the inevitable behavior of that kind of person—not the Banner person, but the Hulk person.

What to do?

The administration has no ready solution for this radical personalization of the processes of government. It will continue to be very difficult for President Trump to fill the empty positions in his administration because people come there to administer programs. This erratic personalization of issues is not consistent with the formulation and the pursuit of administrative goals, so people will not want to serve.

The Republican party has no ready solution either. Throwing their lot in with President Trump means not only abandoning traditional Republican values, but abandoning values at all. Values are long lasting things, so they don’t adapt readily to Hulkish outbursts.

And the Constitution has no ready solution. The 25th Amendment imagines ways to cope with “presidential disability” but in no circumstances has that been imagined as erratic and recurring. Woodrow Wilson faded at the end of his presidency and other people, notably his wife Edith, stepped up to prevent constitutional crisis. Nancy Reagan played a very large role at the end of the Reagan presidency. That’s not what we are looking at here.

There are circumstances in which some body to be named by the Congress or the presently constituted Cabinet, could act to remove the President—substituting their judgment of his “fitness” for his own—but all the arrangements imagine that there will be a “condition,” not that there will be recurrent episodes of “being transformed” into an “engine of destruction.”

This is, in fact a new kind of thing. And what I like best about the Hulk metaphor is the way is discards explanations that would otherwise be futile. What did he mean? What is he trying to do? Does he have a goal in mind? What could it possibly be? All those go away. Another stress-fueled episode has occurred and he has been transformed and will do, under those conditions, whatever he chooses.

It’s a new kind of issue, I think, and this Hulk metaphor offers some clarity, even though it does not offer hope.

[1] This is another example of the escalation of adjectives so common in the English in our time. It is common to say that something was “fantastic,” meaning that it was very good. That draws our attention away from the more focused meaning, “having the characteristics of a fantasy.” Fantasies, of course, are not true, however nice they might be. You could play both sides of that, just for the fun of it, if you wanted to. The announcement is made that President Trump is going to shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for the Wall. An excited conservative might rejoice, “That’s fantastic!” to which a liberal might reply, “Oh yes. That’s exactly what it is.”
[2] All the blurbs use the form “transforms,” as “he transforms into the monster.” But that blurs the nature of the transaction. It is important to say that he is transformed—use the passive voice—and is therefore powerless to affect it.
[3] I am considering only the damage to the presidency. Much greater damage is being done by putting in charge of federal agencies people who are opposed to the lawful pursuit of the agency mission.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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