Each president brings with him more than just his agenda to Washington. He also brings personal qualities, those traits of character that shape and define his time in office as much as any event or policy. For Barack Obama, that quality was a confidence—or, critics might say, aloofness—exemplified by the nickname “No Drama Obama.” For George W. Bush, it was a resolve that crossed into stubborn rigidity. For Bill Clinton, a malleability that sometimes—or even often—skirted principle.
Donald Trump has just three months in office, but even now, we can see what he brings to the White House. Not the strength or mastery he works to project with every public appearance, but its opposite: insecurity. As president, Trump is profoundly insecure: insecure about his electoral victory, insecure about his public standing, and insecure about his progress as chief executive.
President Trump’s smothering insecurity is evident in his recent interview with the Associated Press. Throughout the long and meandering exchange, Trump repeatedly turns from questions of policy and program to the obsessions and insecurities that seem to consume his attention. When asked, for example, if he’ll reject a bill to fund the government if it doesn’t include funding for a border wall, Trump pivots from the issue at hand to a discussion of the Electoral College. “You know, it’s funny. The Democrats, they have a big advantage in the Electoral College,” said Trump, later adding that “the Electoral College is very difficult for a Republican to win.”
This focus on the Electoral College—and how difficult it’s supposed to be for Republican presidential candidates—is a regular tic for Trump. “You know, look, the Democrats had a tremendous opportunity because the Electoral College, as I said, is so skewed to them,” said Trump in response to questions about his White House team. “The Electoral College is so skewed in favor of a Democrat that it’s very, very hard.”
It’s difficult to discern the exact reason for these digressions. But the best explanation is that Trump remains self-conscious about his failure to win the national popular vote or is possibly already worried that he might lose re-election. Harping on difficulty of an Electoral College victory is a way of saying that he accomplished the hard part of an election and of creating an excuse for any potential future failure. Which is tied to another aspect of Trump’s insecurity: his childlike need for constant affirmation.
“I have learned one thing, because I get treated very unfairly, that’s what I call it, the fake media,” said Trump, in a long non sequitur that came after the AP asked about his work building relationships with Democrats. “I get treated so badly,” he said, at one point characterizing CNN, MSNBC, and CBS as nemeses and suggesting they were “fake media.” Indeed, this happens throughout. President Trump does not get very far without referring to what he feels is unfair treatment from the press, regularly saying that the media isn’t covering any of his accomplishments or giving him sufficient praise for his dealmaking. “Nobody wrote that story,” he said in reference to what he describes as major cost savings for military aircraft but what—in reality—is more modest and less tied to Trump’s negotiating skills.
Similarly, with the 100-days marker, Trump dismisses it as an “artificial barrier” and says voters shouldn’t judge him on it, while simultaneously arguing that he has accomplished most of the items on his list for the period. It’s as if Trump knows he is far behind on his agenda—that, a Supreme Court justice aside, he has done relatively little as president—but that he also has to affirm his self-image as a historic, consequential leader. It’s why, when the topic turned to his February address to Congress, Trump turned immediately to extreme hyperbole. “[S]ome people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber,” he said. Later, he repeated his false—or at least distorted—story about Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings. “He said, ‘You will be,’ in front of five, six people, he said, ‘You will be the greatest president in the history of this country,’ ” Trump claimed. When the AP disputed that characterization, he repeated himself. (The difficulty for Trump here seems to be an unacknowledged and very big if in Cummings’ remarks.)
With any given issue and on any given concern, Trump turns immediately to how he’s perceived; whether the press is unfair, whether he is getting his due. And while he denounces outlets like MSNBC and CNN, he is clearly preoccupied with the cable news and hyperattentive to what’s said about him. “By the way, I’m 10–0 for that. I’ve called every one of them,” said Trump about his early statement describing the recent attack in France as “terrorism” before all the details were known. Once again, here, he’s complaining about press criticism, eventually ending his digression by affirming his position as president. “Whatever. In the meantime, I’m here, and they’re not.”
Donald Trump is fond of statements like that, fond of reminding his interlocutors that he resides in the White House. One imagines he sees it as a statement of confidence. In reality, it’s the boast of someone who protests a bit too much, who feels less secure in his station than he might project.
One last point: Presidential insecurity isn’t harmless, especially for a commander in chief who is obsessed with winning and who seems to see life as a dominance game, where someone or something has to be a loser. What happens when the insecure president can’t move his agenda through Congress? What happens when his plans fail? What does he do to ensure that, above all, he isn’t a loser? If our recent national adventures with Afghanistan, Syria, and North Korea are any indication, we have a good, and worrying, answer for that question.