My Never Trump friends base their opposition on what they see as the president’s pathological narcissism, his hunger for the limelight and celebrity, his vanity that seems to dwarf the self-focus of all his Miss Universe contestants put together. What else would lead a man to spend more on hairdo upkeep than I earn in a year? A wound to such outsize narcissism, a psychotherapist relative of mine opines, could lead an enraged Trump to push the nuclear button in retaliation for a merely personal insult, or start a war out of pique rather than a sober calculation of national interest.
The narcissism is real enough. What but vanity would impel a tycoon to appear in an old Sex and the City episode that, if rerun today, would drive thousands of New York and San Francisco women into the streets in their knitted pink pussy protest caps?
Nevertheless, the sheer presidential fluency, vigor, clarity, generosity, and good sense of the president’s speech to Congress last night, however light on details it might have been, strengthened an idea I have been mulling ever since he began assembling his capable cabinet before the Inauguration. Suppose his vanity turns out to be a force for good rather than evil?
Such an idea would not have startled Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, or the Duc de La Rochefoucauld. Their psychological theory held that men don’t behave virtuously out of any inborn benevolence or love of righteousness for its own sake. What impels them to behave in virtuous, socially acceptable and even beneficial ways—to do daring, heroic, and sometimes even self-sacrificing deeds, is their inborn love of praise or fame: the vanity that really is part of man’s inborn psychological endowment. Such pride or vanity is not a virtue in itself, but it often produces effects that we deem virtuous. That paradox led one of the leading love-of-fame theorists, Bernard Mandeville, to subtitle his major work, “Private Vices, Publick Benefits.”
The most luminous exemplar of that theory in action is George Washington, who never hesitated to admit that “to stand well in the good opinion of my Countrymen constitutes my chiefest happiness,” and that his battlefield heroics sprang from the “laudable ambition” without which no army can be victorious. In his second presidential year, though, the opposition press began criticizing him in terms more partisan and scurrilous than the New York Times would ever dare stoop to, and Washington came to hate it as personally and vituperatively as Trump does, though he had the good sense never to say so publicly but only raged and swore at the papers during cabinet meetings. By his second term, our greatest president realized that he himself, with the incomparable wealth of experience and wisdom he had gained, was by far the best judge of his own conduct, and thereafter ankle-biting critics irritated but did not enrage him.
Not for a moment am I suggesting that Donald Trump will turn into George Washington. But I do wonder if his vanity will drive him to try his best to succeed as president, since fortune has given him the opportunity to be greater than perhaps even he ever dreamed. He knows he will go down in the history books, and it’s up to him to shape how history will paint him. I have already been pleasantly surprised by his intention to govern as a conservative, though of his own unorthodox style. Many of his proposals augur well for the nation, as stock investors clearly believe. Could it be that last night’s speech signals a move to look more presidential, and perhaps even to be more presidential—to restrain his personal insults and barroom crudity, to work with all his considerable intelligence to improve his understanding of the world? Character is fate, Heraclitus rightly says, and vanity is at the core of Trump’s. But psychological predictions are as risky as financial ones, so it’s not unreasonable to hope that the president’s vanity could produce public benefits, and meanwhile to wait watchfully to see if it does.
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