There’s nothing funny about the affluenza defense. I’m not trying to be funny. I’m serious. A light bulb came on over my head this morning when I read a letter to the editor. In all seriousness, is there not some sense in which the affluenza theory could be applied legitimately to Donald Trump?
Instead of trying to explain his behavior according to the political spectrum, even extending to fascism, might we not come closer to understanding him if we thought of him as the kind of person who is sometimes described colloquially as a rich idiot?
The revulsion many of us felt here in North Texas, where a rich teenager named Ethan Couch took four lives and ruined another in a drunk-driving crash in 2013, was directed at the use of affluenza, a made-up word, as part of Couch’s successful legal defense.
Revolting. But even at that, I harbored a doubt. How do we know — why are we so certain — that affluenza might not have elements of validity, not as a legal defense but as a pretty good explanation?
Inaccurately reported as the unique invention of child psychologist G. Dick Miller, who used the word in a deposition in the Couch case, affluenza or something like it has been kicking around for years in psychology, at least as an informal theory, maybe more of a hunch based on multiple exposures.
Last January when Couch and his mother were still on the lam in Mexico, I exchanged emails with Suniya S. Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State who has written about certain kinds of mental instability associated with certain kinds of rich kids.
I thought one of the most interesting things she had to say to me was that affluence alone — the money itself — is by no means the culprit. Everything depends on what people do with their money and what other qualities rich parents and families may bring to the table.
“Humility and compassion definitely offset the effects of single-minded investment in one's personal status,” she said. “And our research has shown that in upwardly mobile, upper middle class communities, children who see their parents as valuing attributes such as decency and integrity — as opposed to personal ‘getting ahead’ — are far less vulnerable than others to problems such as drugs and alcohol use, as well as high depression and anxiety.”
Old money used to have its own old ways of keeping a kid’s head on straight, the most brutal of which was the New England boarding school. There may be no society better equipped to knock the narcissism out of somebody than a bunch of boys or girls locked up together in the same walls in a harsh winter climate. Whatever else they may be, children are neither subtle nor forgiving with each other.
Trump did not attend a traditional boarding school. He was either kicked out or withdrawn by his parents from the Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills, Queens, a day school where his father was on the board of trustees, and where Trump says he violently attacked a teacher.
After that, his parents sent him to a military academy, a type of school, at least in his time, that usually served as a private reform school for rich incorrigibles. His school, New York Military Academy, closed last year after alumni refused to bail it out of bankruptcy and after unpaid faculty deserted en masse.
At traditional WASP boarding schools, at least back when Trump was a kid, students curbed each other’s antisocial narcissistic tendencies with that cruelly effective sanction that was used in most Native American cultures to control unwanted behavior — ridicule. No Native American ever wanted to find himself or herself at the center of a ring of laughing taunting fellow tribes persons, nor did any preppie. That particular form of social pain is pan-cultural.
So think about Trump. And, yes, without trying to be funny about it, think about Ethan Couch and his parents. What quality do they share? Isn’t it a kind of separation from reality? In Trump’s case, isn’t it expressed most visibly as a childishly thin-skinned irascibility?
He behaves like someone who has never suffered the bumps, the social abrasions, the little (or big) ego punctures that somewhere along the line must have brought the rest of us, rich and poor, into contact with the social universe just outside the bubble of our own ego-spheres.
We know. Don’t we? You can’t do certain things, you can’t say certain things and not expect a level of push-back. Of course, it’s America, and we are blessed with the protections of the First Amendment, and if we want to stand up in public and say insulting things about Mexicans, we can. It’s right there in the Bill of Rights. Top of the list.
Go out on stage and utter slurs against ethnic groups in a presidential campaign and you’re covered. But then you know you’re going to have to deal with a level of blowback. Don’t you?
But Trump was furious with the inevitable blowback to his recent attack on the judge in the Trump University litigation. What else are we to make of the Bloomberg story about his subsequent conference call with surrogates? Trump told his acolytes he wanted them to double down on attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel and to attack journalists working the story as racists.
The Bloomberg piece, based on phone notes from two people who were on the call, said former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer interrupted the conversation to point out that Trump’s own people had just instructed the surrogates to back away from discussions of the judge.
“Take that order and throw it the hell out,” Trump is reported to have told his troops on the phone. “Are there any other stupid letters that were sent to you folks? That's one of the reasons I want to have this call, because you guys are getting sometimes stupid information from people that aren't so smart.”
That’s not a strategy. That’s a tantrum, expressing exactly the kind of thin-skinned chip on the shoulder that gets knocked off a preppie kid’s shoulder in boarding school, off a poor kid’s shoulder on the street, off a middle class kid’s shoulder at soccer practice.
Donald Trump is a grown man, and nobody has ever knocked that chip off his shoulder. He still lives inside the smooth super-inflated ego-sphere of an overprotected, out-of-it affluenza sufferer.
The Bloomberg piece is only one story, based on unnamed sources, so nobody is required to take it as gospel. But, c’mon. Isn’t it pretty consistent with Trump’s very public behavior, standing at the podium with the cameras rolling?
There’s the especially perplexing habit of publicly insulting people — Mexicans, for example — and then publicly professing love for them, in that case by posing with a taco salad. And then getting angry when he’s criticized for it.
The only way for that kind of behavior to survive into late adulthood is for the person who behaves that way to be perfectly insulated from challenge, surrounded and sealed off from reality by sycophants who live and breathe flattery and subservience.
Take for example the loud and louder talking-through behavior whenever Trump doesn’t like a question. He amps up his own volume as if to prevent himself from hearing the full question — the adult equivalent of slapping both palms against his ears and chanting nana-nana until the other person stops speaking.
Is that something we’re really required to analyze as political behavior?
I read a witty letter to the editor in The Dallas Morning News the other day in which a reader, Kate French of Waxahachie, addressed Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel: “Well, I have a solution to all the Donald’s problems,” she wrote. “Get Ethan Couch’s judge: she’ll likely let Trump off because of ‘affluenza.’”
At first I smiled. But then I thought, “Wait a minute. Forget Trump’s problems. What about my problems? What about the problems the whole country is starting to have figuring out what his problem is?” All of a sudden affluenza looked better, again not as a legal defense but as a pretty good explanation.
I remembered the words of Professor Luthar at Arizona State, who stressed that families may be wealthy, even very wealthy, and still impart to their children at least enough of the values of humility and service to keep their kids’ heads on straight when the children must head out the gilded door into the rough-and-tumble real world.
I tried to think what I knew of Trump’s upbringing. I know that revered cultural icon Woody Guthrie took time to write a special song about Trump’s father, based on one of his early housing projects. Guthrie called the song, “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
The lyrics are distinctive, if not catchy:
"I suppose Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial hate he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his Eighteen hundred family project.”
Wow. Having your own Woody Guthrie song. That’s a very unusual distinction, not one I would want to have. My dad was pretty grouchy about table manners, but it never reached Mr. Guthrie’s attention.
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In some ways it’s all written on our faces, anyway. You don’t have to know every chapter of a person’s autobiography. Scratch the haughtiest WASP or the toughest street player the right way: he or she will know when to counterattack, when to back down strategically and wait for a better opening.
It’s when they get scratched and they don’t know enough to pause and shut up. Can’t get a grip on themselves. Can’t listen. Can’t hear. Can’t get outside their own bubble. That’s affluenza. Gotta be. He’s definitely a carrier. Kate French of Waxahachie put her finger on it.
You know what else? I flat do not believe he makes it to November. I don’t believe a person suffering from his degree of affluenza can get that far in a presidential campaign.
Between now and vote day he runs off to Mexico, runs up astronomical bar tabs and orders pizza with his mom’s credit card. You read it here first.