Those who expected the worst from President Donald Trump have every reason to feel vindicated. In the first six days of his presidency, two patterns are already evident. First, despite winning an election and being elevated to the position of the most powerful man in the world, Trump remains deeply insecure, constantly searching for validation from his coterie of cronies. Second, despite hopes that Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric was just to please his supporters, Trump is fully committed to carrying out his most extreme promises, including a ban on Muslim immigrants and building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
The first fact is psychological, the second political. But they are deeply intertwined, because Trump is a creature of impulses: Unmoored from traditional party loyalty or ideology, and governed by an insatiable need for affirmation. Trump won the election, but not in the convincing fashion he wanted. As a populist who claims to speak for all Americans, he was deeply wounded by the reality that his opponent got nearly three million more votes than he did. This has set the terms for his presidency: It made him susceptible to flattery by advisers who believe his smartest political move is to please the base that elected him. It also caused Trump to continue to lie about election fraud—a quixotic obsession given his victory, but one that’s in keeping with his (and his team’s) instincts to run a polarizing presidency.
The Washington Post’s Robert Costa tweeted this morning that, despite winning the Electoral College, Trump sees the popular vote “as a rating that, in his view, wasn’t fairly won by [Hillary Clinton]. And he won’t let that view go.” Costa’s analysis—that Trump’s self-pity makes him vulnerable to the most extreme voices around him—is supported by other reporting. There are now multiple accounts of Trump ascending to the presidency in a funk because of the opposition he has received. Three of Costa’s colleagues at the Post reported that Trump’s “anger began to build” as he watched TV reports comparing his inauguration attendance to Saturday’s larger Women’s March:
Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements, and he feels demoralized that the public’s perception of his presidency so far does not necessarily align with his own sense of accomplishment.
The Associated Press wrote that the “bad press over the weekend has not allowed Trump to ‘enjoy’ the White House as he feels he deserves, according to one person who has spoken with him.” And The New York Times painted this grim picture:
Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury.
It was in this seething state that Trump sent Press Secretary Sean Spicer to berate the media on Saturday. During that press conference, Spicer complained about (accurate) reports about the relatively small crowd at Trump’s inauguration, saying, “I think that it’s just unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.”
Size matters to Trump. He made his fame with looming skyscrapers—whose height he intentionally exaggerated—and he won’t abide even the slightest suggestion that his fingers are unusually short. So he was wounded by reports that his inauguration crowd was much smaller than it was for Barack Obama or the Women’s March. When he’s in such a state, feeling besieged by the press and protesters, he finds comfort in those who supported him all along. This has empowered not only ideological extremists like senior adviser Steve Bannon, a hero of the racist alt-right, but Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, who Costa says is the “most influential player” in the administration because of Trump’s focus on immigration, voting laws, and the border wall.
Trump has a narcissistic personality, and thus is always looking for validation. While campaigning for president, he faced hostility, not only from Democrats but from many mainstream Republicans. He found adulation, meanwhile, in sycophantic advisers and angry white voters drawn to his platform of protectionism, nationalism, and immigration restriction. At the rocky start of his presidency, Trump’s extremist advisers and white nationalist base remain his comfort zone, the only people who give him the approval he craves. So he’s going to do everything possible to keep them happy—starting with his worst promises.