Trump and the Meaning of Egoism

Here’s an observation that may surprise people: Donald Trump is not an egoist. And I say that not as praise, but as criticism.

An egoist is someone whose self-interest is his highest value. But our genuine self-interest is not achieved by doing whatever we happen to feel like doing. Life is conditional. Since some actions clearly benefit us while others clearly harm us, acting on blind feelings is self-destructive. Selfishness — that is, rational selfishness — therefore requires a certain commitment: a commitment to reason and reality. It requires the use of our minds to grasp, and to be guided by, the facts of reality. The selfish individual understands that crude emotionalism is inimical to human life.

This is precisely what Trump does not understand.

Being concerned with our self-interest means being concerned with the truth. It means forming conclusions based on evidence, not arbitrary assertions. It means, for example, that one does not irresponsibly declare — as Trump has — that vaccines cause autism or that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.

Someone who lives by reason comprehends the importance of ideas. When campaigning, he appeals to people’s minds, not to their unthinking prejudices. He does not adopt the populist, anti-intellectualist tactics of a William Jennings Bryan, who explained his approach as follows: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.” He does not cavalierly proclaim, as Trump has, that Mexican immigrants consist largely of drug gangs and rapists. He does not engage in demagogic rabble-rousing, as Trump has, by denouncing hedge-fund operators as merely “guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.”

The selfish individual is a practical individual — and realizes that nothing is as practical as a true principle. He is not a seat-of-the-pants pragmatist, operating by unprincipled expediency and by impulsive whim. Instead, he is guided by a moral code, one which he has rationally arrived at and which informs him of the long-range consequences of his choices.

And when the question concerns America’s political situation, he recognizes that our problems stem from bad ideas, and he offers different ideas as the solution. Contrary to Trump, he does not attribute our basic problems to “poor management,” and does not define the cause of those problems by saying, “We are led by very, very stupid people, very, very stupid people,” with the solution being simply the election of non-stupid people. Rather, he understands that the crucial factor is people’s ideas, not their IQs.

Unlike Trump, the true egoist does not regard society as consisting of predators and prey, of people whose interests inevitably clash, of winners and losers in a zero-sum game. He knows that he achieves his self-interest not by victimizing others, but by interacting with them voluntarily — by offering value for value, to mutual advantage.  He understands, therefore, that a free economy is in everyone’s interests. He grasps that all parties gain by unrestricted trade between people, whether they live on different streets or in different countries.

Trump bemoans the fact that “They have in Japan the biggest ships you’ve ever seen pouring cars into Los Angeles, pouring them in. I’ve never seen anything like it. . . . It’s going to end.” The genuine egoist, by contrast, welcomes those cars. He does not take a myopic, small-minded view of self-interest. He does not pander to xenophobes who want to stop voluntary trade by keeping foreign goods, and foreign workers, out of the country. Instead, he realizes that if the Japanese can build a cheaper car, then every dollar saved by an American buyer is a dollar available to purchase additional goods. If a Japanese car costs less than its American counterpart, it means that the buyers can now afford both the car and, say, a new computer, enhancing their standard of living. And if there is one less worker in an automobile plant, there will be one more worker in a computer plant.

Trump’s narcissistic bluster is often mistaken for self-esteem. An egoist experiences authentic self-esteem because he has earned it. A man of reason judges himself as capable of dealing with reality and as being worthy of the effort. However, a man of unreason — a man with a spur-of-the-moment mentality — has only a pseudo-self-esteem. His sense of self comes not from his independent judgment of his own character, but from the opinions of others. He is driven by a need to impress people. His constant boastfulness is a sad attempt to gain a sense of self-worth from their fawning praise. His ego is fragile, unable to tolerate anyone’s disapproval. This is why Trump is so thin-skinned, so threatened by criticism, that he responds not with refutations, but with the most sophomoric and boorish insults.

And this is why Trump is so enamored of polls, continually citing them as supposed proof of his worthiness to be president. In Trump’s world, it is not facts, but people’s opinions and assertions that are decisive. When asked, for instance, to explain “why you are a serious candidate and what your qualifications are to be commander-in-chief,” Trump’s essential answer was: “Obviously, I’m doing pretty well. I’m No. 1 in every poll by a lot.” He is good — in other words — because people say he is good.  Something becomes true for him only when others believe that it’s true. That is not the mark of a self-confident, self-respecting individual, but of someone wracked by self-doubt.

Donald Trump may well be described as a narcissist, a braggart or a windbag. But an egoist? Definitely not. ♦♦

[This article was published at Huffington Post on Sept. 28, 2015.] 

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