Friday , July 19 2024
Donald Trump has lost touch with his inner self. He has what Parker J. Palmer refers to as “the empty-self syndrome.” This empty self is constantly and chronically hungry but the host lacks utter awareness of his own hunger. This is what makes Trump, and so many other bullies utterly dangerous.

Trump and the Empty-Self Syndrome

What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For “it” is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs — diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives. – Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

Our selfhood, true nature, integrity, or self-esteem (call it what you will) is a collaborative effort and integration of our inner self with our outer world. Just as in nature, we cannot separate our inner life from the outer world in which it is placed. “Everything” as John Muir so famously said, “is connected to everything else.”

So what does Donald Trump have to do with “it” – with my (or your) spiritual life? Our selfhood? Our integrity?


On second thought: nothing.

No, everything.

donald trump
Trump at a Rally

I recently watched the 1997 Titanic movie, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, again with my husband. We witnessed a variety of passengers’ responses, dramatized as the ship began to sink: deny and then ask for another cocktail, accept the inevitable in various ways, bully others (the main bully played by Billy Zane admitted a willingness to do anything to get what he wanted), keep outward appearances at all costs, share their gift (in this case music) to alleviate others’ suffering, get stuck in shame and blame (the captain went down with his ship but couldn’t help others), become their best heroic selves, panic, focus on only saving themselves; basically let fear turn them into bullies, heroes, or wimps.

Donald Trump is a bully (For more see The Portrait of a Bully). Those who participate in his dramatics and posturing because his message resonates with them, or simply like to be entertained, or are easily gaslighted, become bullies themselves. (See Ryan Lizza’s article “The Duel” in The New Yorker.) History has shown us how disastrous this dynamic of bullying a nation can be for us all. (For more on gaslighting see: How Bullies Bully).

Is there a sinking ship?

Can Donald Trump win the presidency?

Initially in the election I had hoped he would win the primaries. Because at first I was in denial that it was even possible that he could win the presidency. I believed (forgive me my stupidity) that if he won his party’s vote the democratic candidate would be a shoe-in for the presidency.

Then I thought of what has happened within my state of Wisconsin, with our voting in Scott Walker (twice), another classic bully. Bullies will do whatever they need to do to get what they want, and keep what they have.

In one of my young adult books I wrote about young adults’ attraction to dark and apocalyptic movies:

Why do the machines take over, or the aliens destroy cities? Sometimes we humans prevail in these stories only by rebuilding a new world from the one that was destroyed. How is it we see ourselves destroying what we have?

It makes sense to me now that we envision the future as a black hole that sucks in everything beautiful. We are in Utopia now. There is enough of everything to go around today. If we shared the way we were taught in kindergarten we would all be fine. But we don’t share. We are not cooperatively waiting in lines either. We are pushing the person in front of us. There are bullies running the recess grounds! We are being naughty students and getting away with it. We’re in the Garden of Eden, and we don’t appreciate it. We know that at some time we will have to go to detention hall for all our wrongdoings – but like little children, we don’t want to ruin our fun now. So we project this awareness of impending detention (doom and disaster) into our movies and stories about the future.

There are many ways we respond to the bullies and sinking ships in our lives.

Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe, we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts…The perceived incongruity of inner and outer – the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us – constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work. – Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

Donald Trump has lost touch with his inner self. He has what Parker J. Palmer refers to as “the empty-self syndrome.” This empty self is constantly and chronically hungry but the host lacks utter awareness of his own hunger. This is what makes Trump, and so many other bullies utterly dangerous. They lack the ability or aspiration to know an inner reality from which the outer becomes manifest. Furthermore, they are out of touch with both their shadow selves (such as their hunger, their fears and doubts) and their true capacities as human beings (their most heroic selves).

So what does Trump have to do with “it” for me? For us who claim a path of integrity and selfhood?

We are already being bullied. We must admit that from the get-go. Then we need to recognize if we are becoming bullies ourselves to get our seat on a “life” boat; or if we are giving up, denying that our efforts can make any difference (sip the metaphorical cocktail as the ship sinks), or feign indifference or righteousness ourselves? Trump is running for the presidency, yet he is able to spin hatred, animosity, cruelty, and divisiveness like a game show host. Does he get away with encouraging hate crimes because he is entertaining? Or is it because our “capacity for good work” has been utterly undermined?

But what can one person do?

To save ourselves and as many “souls on board,” as possible, we have to act now, and we have to start with (or return to) our own inner lives. We have to face ourselves, as it were – our inner beauty and inner beasts. Earnie Larsen who lived and taught in Minneapolis when I lived there in the 1990s spoke most about “stage two recovery” for addicts and their families. This stage two recovery was about owning our part in the bigger story:

Once we began to realize that the “afflicted person” is not the only affected person, it became clear that for any kind of normalcy to be regained (or gained for the first time) everyone in the family system must be seen as either part of the problem or part of the solution.

– from Stage II Recovery: Life Beyond Addiction

I wholeheartedly agree that even on a larger scale, we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. And to be part of the solution, we must live our life aware of our “it,” our inner life. We must live life from the inside out.

When we can accept and can be open about our “brokenness,” we make a safe way for others and ourselves. Bullies are disembodied not only from their brokenness but from their wholeness and capacities to work for good as well. Trump is a dangerous man because his brokenness and dividedness resonates with others who are out of touch with their inner world of emotions, brokenness, and ultimately a sense of selfhood (“it”).

Of course, living life from within means being aware of our emotions, our beliefs, as well as the shadowy (broken) parts of our nature. Inevitably living from the inside out means we will be of better service to others. We will be part of the solution. We will know our capacities for good work. And we are less likely to let ourselves be bullied.

The vulnerability that goes with knowing our selves and “being” our selves with others brings a richer and, paradoxically, safer experience for all concerned. This isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being real. If I am not hiding any part of myself, I am not frightened of being “found out.” I am already “out.”

Bullies do not allow for such vulnerability. They are deeply afraid of being “found out” but they lack a workable awareness of such fears. They live armored in denial of the inner life. And therefore continue to bully their way through life.

Because we are inevitably bound to one another, living on the same ship as it were, I choose to stay alert to the outer bullies. I choose to live my life, as best I can, tuned in to “it,” my inner life and selfhood. And I will maintain this awareness because, as Palmer writes: “The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.”

Originally published at the author’s blog.

About Julie Tallard Johnson

Julie Tallard Johnson is a psychotherapist, creative writing consultant and concept manager for individuals and businesses. She has been studying the scientific basis of thought transformation, inspiration, and creativity for 35 years. She is the author of several books, her latest, The Zero Point Agreement: How To Be Who You Already Are is available now in paperback and Kindle. She is a writing instructor at the UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. She enjoys being a writer for Blogcritics and is in search of her next article. She lives in rural Wisconsin on 40 acres of restored prairie and woods.

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  1. Dr Joseph S Maresca

    Donald Trump often uses the phrase “punch back” in reference to his response to personal attacks both real and perceived. The important aspect here is the concept of proportionality. This concept means that the retaliation isn’t excessive like swatting a fly with an ax. In addition, there are some situations that are so trivial that a response is either unwarranted or not needed.

    The concept of temperament may come into play here because intensity, mood , distraction, attention span and sensitivity are all important components. (Thomas, Chess; 9 Temperament Characteristics)

    In the introduction to “Think Big…” by Trump and Zanker ’09, the authors describe an intensive work experience:
    “I was working 24/7 in the days leading up to our first Wealth Expo in New York City in 2004.”

    Readers come away with the notion that Donald Trump gets no sleep or little sleep. And so, sleep deprivation could explain sporadic discontinuities in temperament.

    Across the political spectrum, our leaders need to be aware of factors which impact temperament and take steps to accommodate to a demanding schedule.

  2. Yes, Trump is a bully all right. That issue was settled for me as I watched footage from the Nov. 24, 2015 Trump Rally, when he flailed his arms in mimicry of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a muscular movement disorder. Kovaleski was calling Trump out on his claim to have personally witnessed Muslims celebrating in the street over USA’s 911 humiliation.

    Here’s the thing, though. Hillary Clinton has a personable grandmotherly aura, but she sounds much more inclined to involve the USA in a war with Russia than does Trump. I’m not saying that Trump’s bullying of people one-on-one doesn’t extend to larger groups of people — it does ,witness his remarks on Mexicans, for example. It does seem though, that he is somewhat less likely than Clinton to continue the USA’s role as world military bully.

    I’m still afraid what might happen if Trump gets into it with another world leader one day (perhaps after a night with too little sleep, per Dr. Joseph Mareska’s comment) and the bullying escalates to the point where Trump’s pushing the nuke button to show him who’s boss. I am not looking forward to voting day.

    The good news is, whether or not there is a bully representing the US as president, we are still in charge of our power as individuals to modulate our responses, to de-escalate when we can.