"I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, OK, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK. It's, like, incredible." (Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Iowa on Jan. 23, 2016)
I remember that day and reading the quote. I recall then watching the video clip to see if it was an accurate quote. It was. What the video captured that Trump’s quote alone did not was the audience’s reaction. They laughed.
A part of me wanted to dismiss that as Trump adlibbing, as another example of Trump hyperbole, another example of Trump’s reckless sense of humor. All political candidates and politicians occasionally say some dumb stuff. If you and I had all our spoken words recorded all day every day we would eventually be lit up for saying something offensive or at least bizarre. And nobody says more total words during an average day than a campaigning politician.
But I recall not just cringing at the echo of Trump’s words to the Iowa gathering of his supporters that day. This felt ominous, foreboding. Of course, I knew Trump wasn’t going to shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue or anywhere else. But I felt like I had just gotten a glimpse into the man’s mindset and it disturbed me.
Revealing the Heart
Therapists often refer to a patient making a “revealing statement” — a phrase or sentence or two they didn’t plan to utter in the session. Often in therapy a patient discovers what they’re really thinking and feeling when they hear themselves say it. It’s as if the patient makes the statement and then sees the words in a bubble above their head like a character’s quote bubble in a comic strip. And often the patient will pause to take in what they just heard their uncensored selves say. The revealing statement is not some overdue confession about some past action. A revealing statement is not one that the patient prefaces with “I’ve never told anyone this before.”
A revealing statement is a core belief, attitude, or feeling that’s been held down, unexpressed, perhaps held deep beyond even one’s awareness. Sometimes the “revealing statement” is about themselves. Sometimes it’s about a spouse or a parent, or about a relationship.
On Jan. 23, 2016, Donald Trump made a revealing statement. The veil slipped and we got a glimpse of what he believes about himself and what he believes about his supporters (or at least wants to believe about his supporters).
Validating a Hypothesis
Over and over candidate Trump and then President Trump seemed to test his theory and hypothesis about himself and his supporters in the laboratory of words (recorded tweets, interviews, speeches, and press conferences) and behaviors/actions. The experiments, ever increasing in testing the boundaries of what is appropriate, what is true, what is real, and what is legal, only validated his beliefs. His research results steadily confirmed his hypothesis — that there’s nothing I can/will do or fail to do that will diminish the support of my followers.
It was illustrated in 2018 in the exchange between an interviewer and a small group of voters who had supported Trump in the 2016 election. The interview reflected the members’ varying levels of heightened, sustained, or reduced enthusiasm in their endorsement of Trump. All three levels were expressed. And then there was this moment…
Interviewer: Is there anything President Trump could do that would change your mind, your support?
Interviewer: Nothing? You’re saying that there is nothing the President could possibly do that would ever change your mind.
I understand that is just one person expressing her views in time so that is “anecdotal evidence.” The woman was not an appointed spokesperson, and she cannot be confirmed as a statistical representative of millions or even thousands. Nevertheless, her immediate and calm matter-of-fact response stunned me slightly. I recall thinking about the implications of her answer to the question and saying to myself, “That’s really scary.”
Sending a Message
The implied message I hear there and that I’ve seen and heard repeated over and over since 2016 is something like this: “Donald Trump supports my agenda, my values and what I believe; he supports what I want the government to do; and he reflects what I want my America to be. Therefore, the end justifies the means. Therefore, anything that Trump does to support my beliefs and advance my agenda is acceptable to me and has my unwavering support. His personal character is irrelevant to me. I see no flaws. He is either the Victor or the Victim to me. Donald Trump is a Victor and a champion of my beliefs and causes. Simultaneously, he is a Victim. A victim of the liberal, persecuting, and lying mainstream media; a Victim of the Democrats’ lies, conspiracies, and fraud; a Victim of betrayal by the former members of his cabinet, and a Victim of cowardly Republicans and weak RINOs. But as Victor, Donald Trump will make his victory my victory, our victory. And at the end of the day that’s what really matters to me — that I’m a Victor who is no longer a Victim. For once I am on the winning side, the side with the power and control. Plus I’m confident and convinced that what I personally believe and what I want happens to be what all of America needs.”
Failing the Experiment
Fast forward to Wednesday Jan. 6, 2021. Just shy of five years since the Iowa quote, Trump went to the lab one more time to test out his theory, and launch his boldest experiment yet — an experiment on the Capitol on the day his election defeat would be confirmed, resulting in an unparalleled dark day that this country will never forget…and never should.
Personal note to the readers: I’m fully aware that my column here is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. I’m writing to speak my truth. With a limited word count and with my personal bias I acknowledge that “my truth” is hereby incomplete and it is slanted. No individual is truly objective about anything important; he only naively believes he is or can be.
I’m also writing to go on record to my children and someday my grandchildren in case they ever wonder where I stood during this period in our nation’s history. They’ll know where I stood as a white moderate registered Republican, as an ordained minister and assistant pastor in four large conservative evangelical churches, as a psychologist and marriage and family therapist, as an author and columnist. And frankly, whichever side you’re on, what my children and grandchildren learn and believe about me on that day will be immeasurably more important to me than what your opinion is of me on this day. We’re all writing and leaving a legacy. And sometimes we get to put it on paper.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.