The Bhagavad Gita and many schools of Indian philosophy speak of the three guNas, or categories of human nature – Satvik, Rajasik and Tamasik. My theory of Trump is that he is Tamasik while we expect people in his position to be good or bad in Rajasik ways. This is a mistake that his supporters as well as detractors make.
What are the three guNas? I don’t claim to be an expert, but here is how I would interpret them:
A person with the Satvik guNa will perform his appointed role in life unmoved by the pleasure or pain it gives him. A Satvik president or prime minister, when faced with a difficult political decision, will ask himself only “What will a platonic chief executive do when faced in this situation?” and do it. Whether the outcome of that decision is favourable to him or not does not come into the picture, and the question of what the decision will do to the next elections and to his own political survival are relevant only to the extent that they are good or bad for the country.
Needless to say, a Satvik guNa is an entirely theoretical construct, and no such person exists or has existed in real life. But people may:
- Rise to the occasion and behave as such when the situation demands
- Believe, and possibly convince themselves that they are behaving in a Satvik manner
- At least make an attempt, and struggle with themselves in the process
- Claim to be be Satvik, and try to convince their constituents that their actions are driven only by Satvik motives
The point to be noted though, is that do any of these things, you need to have the ability to conceive of these higher order motives. To an extent you have to fake it till you make it, but even when you are faking it, you should know what you are faking.
Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, demonstrated his Satvik nature when he planned his leadership transition – or did he? In his autobiography, he describes, with a high degree of self-awareness, that he realized that his mental acuity was reducing as he got older, and therefore, it was time for him to pass on the mantle to someone else. So he undertook a well-planned search for a successor, found one, and handed over the reins to him.
Except of course, he sincerely believed that his son, Lee Hsein Loong was the right person to succeed him, but he nominated Goh Chok Tong because it would be unseemly to pass on power directly to his son. And oh, having decided to retire, he did not actually retire. He stayed on in the cabinet as Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor till he reached an advanced age and was eventually forced out by his son a few years before his death.
Was Lee demonstrating his Satvik nature and making disinterested decisions for the benefit of Singapore? Given that both Goh and the younger Lee have turned out to be good Prime Ministers, that is certainly a possibility. Or did he convince himself of the Satvik nature of his actions, but in reality, his decisions were tainted by his love for his family and desire to cling to life? Or perhaps he was aware of his imperfections and tried to do the best he could. Or it is possible that this was all a ruse. We will never know and perhaps he never did; such is human nature.
Most functional adults are Rajasik. They are driven by ambition and desire. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We recognize ambition as natural and even desirable. We celebrate romantic love and love for one’s children. When a politician we support displays the killer instinct and acts like he wants to win the elections, we appreciate it, though if he uses corrupt means to do so, we should ideally oppose it.
If Lee’s retirement was actually a long-drawn strategy to install his son in power, it was a perfect demonstration of the Rajasik guNa. The goal was driven by familial love, but in the means employed to reach it, he was able to control his impulses emotional drives and follow a multi-year strategy to achieve it. This is more than someone driven by his Tamasik nature would be capable of .
Trump, as I was saying, is Tamasik. He is driven by his impulses, and in his case, the impulses are all negative ones. Now, to be fair, all of us struggle with our impulses and emotional drives, but becoming a functional adult involves learning to rein them in, and converting them into higher order goals. We all have sexual desires, for example. The Rajasik nature involves sublimating them into a higher order emotion called love, and pursuit of love involves choosing one person and forgoing others; not giving into the impulse of going after every woman you find sexy. Trump has not made that transition at all. A Clinton may give into his impulse; Trump is his impulse.
You can see that in every one of his behaviours. An example of this that I found fascinating was the bleach incident. In the video, Trump is insecurity given human form. Any person who reaches a senior position in an organization will be familiar with the feeling. You find people reporting to you who have much greater expertise than you in their field. When you talk to them, you, who have always prided yourself on your knowledge, feel that bit of insecurity. You are afraid of asking a dumb question and being shown up. But you are an adult and you reach back to the techniques that you have learnt along the way. You display faux humility, you praise people for being very smart and say things like “Forgive me if this is a dumb question” and then ask your question.
Trump is completely unable to do that. He is unable to recognize his own insecurity and therefore unable to maintain a distance from it. He sees scientists talking and what matters to him is not the content of what they are saying, but the fact that they are coming off as smarter than he, so he has to say something to remedy the situation. Whether it is appropriate in that context is irrelevant to him.
A common thing people say about Trump is that he tells it like it is. That is not actually true. He lies quite flagrantly. The reason for the misconception is that people are confusing the transparency of his lies with honesty. He is like my six year old son, who, when woken up at 7:30 AM to be in time for his class at 8, throws a tantrum complaining about not being woken up at 6 AM as he had asked for the previous night (He always asks to be woken up at some ungodly hour, we say yes and wake him up when we want.) Of course, the real reason for the tantrum is that he is sleepy and is annoyed and having been woken up, but he knows that he can’t complain about that, so he makes up some reason, and it’s clear to us what the real reason is.
Now, we are all human beings, and we continue to get groggy when we do not get enough sleep even in adulthood. A person displaying Satvik guNas would have enough self-awareness to put a distance between himself and his grogginess. He will say “I am not the person who is feeling sleepy and irritable. I am the person who has a job to do and needs to rise about the irritableness.” The Rajasik person will have this self-awareness as well, but his lack of sleep will still steep through and he will show his irritation in some other way that seems completely justified to him but probably leave the target of his ire confused about what his fault was. My secondborn’s tantrum seems much purer in comparison to a Rajasik person’s and a lot more comprehensible.
Trump’s lies are like that – they are much more transparent, communicate his feelings much more viscerally than a normal adult’s lies do. When they reach others who share his feelings, they feel real, never mind the factual content.
The other reason for people getting confused about Trump is that it is difficult to imagine that a purely Tamasik person like Trump can get so far in life, so it is understandable that many people substitute him with an imaginary Rajasik person in their heads, and end up behaving as Vidyottama did with Kalidasa
The princess raised her index finger . Kalidasa, quickly replied by showing two fingers. He had thought that Vidyottama was meaning to poke him in one eye. He was obviously thinking of outdoing her. Actually she had indicated that God is one without a second. Kalidasa’s answer was wisely interpreted as the truth has two parts the supreme God and the individual soul. She was surprised by this wisdom. Venturing further, she showed her five fingers to indicate five senses. Kalidasa thought she was about to slap him so he showed his fist. This time Vidyottama thought it to mean that controlling the five senses can lead to ultimate greatness. Thus impressed, she then agreed to marry Kalidasa.
Growing into functional adulthood involves overcoming, sublimating or at least rationalizing your basest Tamasik impulses. Perhaps you overcome your cowardice and sublimate your pride into higher order values like courage, honour and bravery. Or perhaps you are a cynic who see your country as worth fighting for, and you rationalize that feeling into a higher order value called pacifism.
When we deal with a normal Rajasik person, it is sometimes possible to see the underlying Tamasik being powering him, but it is also possible to have a dialogue with the Rajasik person he has constructed. Perhaps he is a bully who has sublimated that emotion into support for strong law enforcement, but it is still possible to have a discussion with him on the merits of his policies around law enforcement. Perhaps he is a transactional person who is cynical about US foreign policy engagements and wants to pull back, but it’s still a valid policy option with pros and cons, the timelines around said disengagement and the extent of it.
With Trump, there is no higher order Rajasik person. Sure, maybe his gut feeling aligns with your policy preferences – perhaps his instinct for minimizing the COVID crisis and push for reopening the economy aligns with your considered policy preference on navigating the tradeoff between deaths due to the pandemic and the economic disaster, but do you want someone as impulsive as he in charge of making that tradeoff? In case of Trump, we need to ignore Eleanor Roosevelt’s dictum that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. There are no big ideas sitting on top of his personality flaws. He is entirely his flawed personality.
It is not just his supporters who mistake him for a Rajasik person. His opponents do as well. Look at Trump’s COVID response. Yes it is not the response of a decent or competent person. But it’s also not the response you would expect if you model Trump solely as a populist authoritarian either. Dictators are Rajasiks. A Rajasik dictator would have taken advantage of the crisis. He would have blamed China, whipping up xenophobia. He would have rallied his people, made it sound like he was fighting a war and he would have cast the inevitable economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger. Which idiot dictator wastes a crisis like this? Trump got the blaming China and the xenophobia part down, but his genius was to make himself sound whiny and weak while doing so. The rest of the tricks from the dictator’s playbook were useless to him as it required him to display Rajasik guNas which he is unable to even play-act at, just like my secondborn.
He is unable to make inspiring speeches because he is a cynical man. To cast the economic hardships as wartime sacrifices from which the nation would emerge stronger would require three things that were out of his capability. First, it would require him to acknowledge setbacks, which he is chronically unable to do, because he is continually looking for wins. Secondly, the notion of making sacrifices for the common good is foreign to someone as self-absorbed as he. Thirdly, he is unable to conceive of the future. He lives in the past and the present.
He and his supporters endlessly whine that the Coronavirus crisis was engineered to make him lose his reelection. That is amusing, because there was nothing about the crisis that made it inevitable that his election would be at risk. In fact, if you had told an unbiased observer in 2019 that a virus from China was on its way and that it would cause hardship to the people of the US, that observer, assuming he did not understand Trump’s personality flaws, would have predicted that it would lock in Trump’s reelection, as my friend Karthik did (though this was in April 2020, not 2019).
To summarize, I believe that people’s misunderstanding of Trump comes about in one of two ways:
- His Tamasik nature is good at communicating his unadulterated visceral feelings to others who think like him. This communication is mostly one-way. He is unable to understand others, pick up cues from others and adjust his messages accordingly, which is why his playbook is limited and repetitive.
- People are unable to believe that he is who he is, so they mentally substitute a Rajasik in his place. But his madness does not have a method to it. As Groucho Marx said ““Gentlemen, Chicolini here may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
And that is all there is.