Reading Trump’s Tells

Alan Zendell, October 8, 2020

Donald Trump’s most notable talent is a native ability to create chaos, sow discord, and enrage his adversaries in the hope that it will either intimidate them or negatively impact their judgment. He touts unpredictability and his ability to constantly keep everyone else guessing. Since people like Trump are thankfully rare, most of us were unprepared when he came on the political scene in 2015.

The way he decimated fifteen other Republican candidates in the 2016 primary race was testimony to both his power and its limitations. He reminds me of a major league baseball player from my youth. Ryne Duren pitched for the Orioles and Yankees in the 1950s and early 1960s. When he first came on the scene his trademarks were a previously unheard of 100 mph fastball and coke-bottle glasses. He would begin his warmup pitches by throwing the ball as hard as he could, missing the catcher by twenty feet.

The idea was to convince batters that his vision was so bad, his aim so erratic, it would be dangerous to get in the batter’s box. Yankees manager Casey Stengel said he’d be terrified to hit against him. Duren’s mystique worked – for a while. He convinced me, but I was only eleven. After a while, batters figured out Duren’s act. He was still formidable, but hitters stopped fearing him and they learned to hit 100 mph pitches routinely.

One trick ponies like Duren and Donald Trump always come back to Earth. Trump’s ability to make people’s heads spin has a finite lifetime. The shock and awe he practices whenever the cameras are on him loses its opacity after a while. Listen carefully to him, and his meaning and intent become clear.

One reason he succeeds is that Americans are loath to believe people are evil. Despite mountains of circumstantial and substantive evidence, it takes a lot to make us suspend our disbelief. Trump is a narcissistic sociopath; if you keep that in mind it’s easy to spot his tells. Consider his actions Wednesday afternoon. First, he released a video claiming he was fine. He’d beaten the COVID virus and was a “perfect specimen” of health. He was no longer contagious, and he was ready to resume campaign rallies.

Physicians watching him unanimously blasted the video, and his own doctors have been unwilling to offer specifics on his condition, despite voters’ right to know the health of the person they vote for. Doctors who knew what to look for easily spotted his difficulty breathing and accused him of lying. He is still a sick man whose symptoms are being masked by the drugs he’s taking. There is no evidence that he is no longer shedding the virus.

The tell for us non-doctors was the part about getting back to his raucous, maskless tight-packed rallies. The only thing that matters to Trump is looking tough to his base, no matter how many of them he infects and possibly kills. It matters so much, he was willing to steal the spotlight from his running mate, Mike Pence, who was about to debate Democratic candidate Kamala Harris.

The interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business News, yesterday, had a similar tell. When the Federal Debate Commission announced that next week’s presidential debate would be virtual, Trump was furious. “I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate. It’s ridiculous, and then they cut you off whenever they want.”  

If you listen carefully, he always telegraphs his genuine intent. His objection to a virtual debate is that it undercuts his ability to ignore the rules and dominate the proceedings with bluster and constant interruptions. He cannot accept the idea of following the same rules Biden agreed to or of agreeing to limit his personal freedom to speak whenever he wishes. Allow some loser CSPAN host to turn off his microphone?

I shudder when I think of the harm he can do between now and January, to our country and the world.

Does Trump seem more erratic and crazy than usual? Many physicians believe he is being affected by psychotropic side effects of the medicines he’s taking, which led Nancy Pelosi to suggest he is living in an “altered state.” That, combined with desperation over his failing poll numbers, may be why he is acting like a caged animal. He seems more reckless every day as the election draws near. He changes his mind  daily about a new stimulus bill as more and more people become sick with COVID and employers lay off workers and cancel their health insurance. And he still holds the nuclear missile codes.

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2 Responses to Reading Trump’s Tells

  1. William Kiehl says:

    Trump has gone off the rails. His behavior is becoming more and more erratic. His interviews are unhinged rants which make no sense. I think the steroids are pushing over the edge.

    More and more people are realizing that he is an incompetent liar. Trump is making no attempt to win over swing voters, he only plays to his base. He calls a woman of color who is a US Senator a “monster” and “communist.” Really?

    Trump encouraged right wing “militia” groups to mobilize against Democrat Governors. Now, we have a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Whitmer by a group of right wing kooks. Trump has said nothing about this. These kooks are his people.

    I think that Biden is going to win but Trump is still President until January 20. That is a lot of time for him to engage in mischief. I wish the Republican leadership of the Senate would confront him.

    By the way, I remember Ryne Duren. He had a couple of decent years, but the pitchers who have great careers are smart pitchers like Jim Palmer and Whitey Ford who know how to set up a hitter to chase a bad pitch. They know how to change speeds and location and keep the hitter guessing.

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