Donald Trump and the Object Permanence of History

The past week, was book-ended by tweets from Donald Trump that attacked Meryl Streep as "overrated" and civil rights icon John Lewis as "all talk and no action."

Perhaps Trump's twitter stumbles this week are a turning point; and the reasons for the public outrage over both is important to note.

The public easily grasped that the achievements of Meryl Streep and John Lewis were not subject to Donald Trump's opinion du jour. The outrage over his tweets against Meryl Street and John Lewis, demonstrate that Trump has come up against a solidity of "brand" that is not the creation of a moment. Streep's iconic status as one of the most brilliant actors of our time, and Lewis's iconic status as a hero of the Civil Rights movement are indeed based on ACTIONS, HISTORY and DEMONSTRABLE ACHIEVEMENT. There is a permanent record of their achievements that we can confirm and verify.

Object Permanence is defined in developmental psychology as "the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed (seen, heard, touched, smelled or sensed in any way)." Every child passes through this; hence, a child's delight in "Now You see it, Now you don't" as an adult ducks out of sight. Most move past this.

In political terms this means that history is real—that history has consequences in the present. Most know this.

During the course of his campaign Trump mocked the idea that John McCain was a hero because he was captured. "I like people who weren't captured." McCain's history as a war hero does in fact give him standing to speak about military issues—especially about torture.

But Trump does not even understand the reality of the history of his own record or his own statements. He and his apologizers are constantly contradicting statements that are on the record. Most notable, of course, are the wildly self-contradictory statements regarding his connections to Russia. Even re-plays of what he actually said are dismissed.

Loser. Sad. Ratings.

Trump has consistently applied the idea of an immediate ratings system to every political and personal event. His world exists in the momentary now—without context or history. His promises to release his tax returns "as soon as" he was elected, or to address his conflicts of interest "in a few days" are without reference to real time frames.

More curiously, he equates every slight or challenge without regard to the stakes involved. A criticism by an award-winning actress at the Golden Globes is treated with equal weight as a diplomatic challenge issued by China. Elton John's snub of refusing to sing at his inauguration is treated with the same dismissive snark as the entire intelligence community's concern that he is manipulated by a foreign super-power.

And even more disturbingly, Trump responded to John Lewis' statement that he would not attend the inauguration by tweeting: "All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!"

Either Trump is ignorant beyond belief about John Lewis' history-changing courageous actions; or he is without a sense of object permanence. He even doubled down by the end of the day with the following: "Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!" The rhetoric of Trump scolding a champion of civil rights by countering with his own racist notion of the inner cities is staggering in its cluelessness.

Like a child that has not reached the developmental stage of maturity where it can distinguish between the tenses of time, Donald Trump seems to have no attention span beyond the immediate moment. Nor does he have a recollection of past events as they apply to the present.

Even as he steps into the most powerful office in the world, there is no sense of what Walter Jackson Bate described as "The Burden of the Past." There is no awe at the achievements of his predecessors, or any sense of the struggles so many of them dealt with. Trump has never once expressed admiration of nor has drawn inspiration from any former President.

There is a story that when Truman was first informed of Roosevelt's rapidly declining health, he was so awed and humbled by the prospect of becoming president, that he began reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica to prepare for the office. Trump has famously said he "doesn't read."

Without the object permanence of history, Trump feels he can invent the Presidency as he goes along—according to his whim. In some ways, he has found success. Ideas of "tradition", "policy" or "expectation" are met with his counter-argument of what is specifically "legal". This micro-vision of the here and now is what has allowed him to completely circumvent any established understanding of ethics and conflicts of interest. Technically, Trump is right—he does not have to release his tax returns, nor does he have to divest his business interests.

But take this idea one step further. Congress is trying to pass a law that will prevent the Supreme Court from considering its own precedents in any new deliberation involving the repealment of The Affordable Care Act. (

A consistent part of the judicial system is precedent--a collective understanding of the meaning of laws over time. Laws are tested in the crucible of shifting situations and political ideologies. They are tempered to withstand those vicissitudes.

Trump's moment in time does not account for precedent; nor does it account for the accumulating lessons of history. Precedent is one way in which we can collaborate with the brilliant minds of the past. It is unclear whether a Trump presidency will even consider issues of history and context as it moves forward in foreign policy. Trump's childlike isolated focus also excludes facts, or changing conditions.

Trump said he didn't need security briefings because he was "very smart." Within the past two weeks he has dismissed every foreign service appointee as of January 20th; and perhaps most shockingly, the commander of the D.C. National Guard, Maj. General Errol R. Schwartz is to be relieved of his post as of 12:01 in the middle of inauguration ceremonies. Maj. Gen. Schwartz was originally appointed by George Bush and served with distinction throughout the Obama administration as well[Trump may have backed off this as of publication because of public outrage].

While these strange—and dangerous—dismissals may be attributed to the absolute exercise of power, there are other decisions that defy explanation. Donald Trump arbitrarily fired Charles Brotman, the man who has been announcing the parade since Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration in 1957. Brotman who is 89 years old said that the decision left him "heartbroken."

Even if Trump does not understand the Object Permanence of History— the public and the press do.

As the details and timeline of Trump's Russian connections emerge, and as the facts are connected they will emerge as substantive—real. They will be historically verified.

Let's not forget that the truth about Watergate emerged only after a painstaking investigation by Woodward and Bernstein that literally connected the dots of the Watergate break-in to the actions of the Nixon White House. Let's not forget that Nixon was forced to resign only after the long hearings that sought to uncover a truth—"What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

There is permanence to our past actions. Those actions have consequences. These consequences can't be dismissed in a tweet.


January 15, 2017

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