I agree. But so much has been written about Trump’s character and businesses, what more is there to say? Perhaps his supreme self confidence is noteworthy. On ABC, Former secretary of defense Robert Gates said of Trump, “He believes that he has all the answers, that he’s the smartest man in the room.” (Gates is nonpartisan with this observation; on Morning Joe, he third-person quotes Obama (7:15) in similar context.)
In America, part of the generally helpful myth we create for ourselves is that supreme self confidence promotes risk-taking, which enables entrepreneurial success. But part of the process is a Darwinian winnowing of talent. Out of ten supremely self confident entrepreneurs, perhaps one will be that great success. The rest crash, hopefully do not burn too badly, and pick themselves up to try again.
Trump’s TV show, The Apprentice, is a microcosm of this. Contestants compete in the arenas of property management, marketing, and hospitality. His TV demeanor, combined with the impressions of the campaign trail, are of a person specialized to Darwinian success in these niches of capitalism. Nota bene: Trump is always the smartest guy in the room. This is a form of narcissism, an exploitable trait.
This is the basis of Morell’s concern, not that Trump can be recruited as a spy, but that he can be manipulated. Although “spy” catches our fancy, a head of state who can be manipulated is perhaps the ultimate prize. The narcissistic head of state might be unaware that he was the lab rat of an entire laboratory of behavioral scientists working in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR.
The concern is further justified by the aspect of Trump’s narcissism that sees himself as the “smartest guy.” A collegial style of decision making can moderate individual defects. But the smartest guy delusion releases the narcissist to full flight of fancy, which could be a really, really bad decision.
How could a guy as tough as Trump be manipulated by the Russians? Henry Kissinger’s remarks in White House Years are suggestive. He observed that the Soviets had a tendency to sacrifice good will for marginal advantages and barely extant opportunities. Kissinger cites several cases where the personal contact involved in negotiating SALT, and a couple of other issues, resulted in a personal situation that might be described as good will or camaraderie (friendship never applied, except with the possible exception of ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.) The good will was then sacrificed gratuitously, as with a completely unacceptable, last minute clause insertion, the radio jamming of Kissinger’s communications with Washington, or the combination “safe” in Kissinger’s working area that seemed designed to convey documents down to the basement.
To put it bluntly, there was a Soviet tendency to work around the margins, to be a little sneaky, to honor an agreement somewhere between faithfully and “in the breach.” We see echoes of this in the Ukraine and Syria.
With this, we can sketch a plausible example of manipulation. A camaraderie develops between Trump and Putin, and conceivably, a bunch of “buddies” supervised by the SVR to stroke Trump in just the right way. Supreme in confidence of his people skills, Trump decides to trust. They negotiate a Syria military partnership with Russia. It includes some reputational safeguards for the Trump Administration. “Reputational” is used instead of “human rights” as significant to his business experience. The Russians work around the edges, bombing maternity hospitals that might also contain rebels of unknown allegiances. They manage to fuzz who did this.
There ensues a dialog of conflict with the Russians, carefully designed by them to elicit a desirable reaction, which could be:
- Disengagement with the moderate opposition.
- Committal of ground troops, symmetrizing the American role with the Russian. With all the disadvantages the Russians currently enjoy.
Secretary of State John Kerry is currently attempting this negotiation. But there is a difference. Whatever he comes up will be vetted by some very skeptical people, experts in their fields, people who know more.
But even if chagrin puts Trump’s narcissism into temporary suspension, the effects cannot be reversed. It might be possible to play Trump like a punch-drunk fighter.
These eventualities are mentioned without mechanism, all indirectly the results of a character flaw:
- Russia peels Greece away from NATO.
- The Baltic states are neutralized.
- Russia annexes eastern Ukraine.
- The Philippines fall into the China orbit
Has supreme self confidence been our undoing before? Harry Dexter White was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in 1946, U.S. representative to the Bretton Woods conference, and co-creator of the International Monetary Fund. He had numerous contacts with Soviet Intelligence that has lead to the somewhat debated conclusion that he was a Soviet spy. Robert Skidelsky writes,
“A combination of naivety, superficiality and supreme confidence in his own judgment -together with his background – explains the course of action White took. There is no question of treachery, in the accepted sense of betraying one’s country’s secrets to an enemy. But there can be no doubt that, in passing classified information to the Soviets, White knew he was betraying his trust, even if he did not thereby think he was betraying his country.”
Was Harry Dexter White also a narcissist?