To understand Trump, you have to set aside the scripted speeches he gave before his election and the canned videos he has released since. You also have to set aside the caricature of him as a Klan-loving, Nazi-sympathizing woman hater who will deport every immigrant he can find. Instead, look at the four interviews he has given since his election: to the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and a group of TV anchors and executives. In these exchanges, all of them conducted outside the behavior-warping context of the campaign, you’ll see how squishy he is. Trump did run a despicable campaign, and he’s a menace to the country and the world. But it’s not because he’s a strongman. It’s because he’s a weakling.
That’s the short version. The longer story is more complicated. Here are the various facets of Trump’s personality, how they fit together, and why they make him dangerous.
3. His ego is fragile. After winning the Republican nomination in May, Trump gloated about it for months. Now he’s gloating about the election. In tweets and interviews, he has crowed that he beat Clinton “easily.” On Tuesday, he ran another victory lap, trumpeting the addition of Michigan to his “landslide.” To understand how central this is to Trump’s sense of himself, check out the first 19 paragraphs of his interview with the Times.
Invited by the publisher to give opening remarks, Trump spoke at length, not about the future but about his genius and prowess on the campaign trail. In his Nov. 11 interview with 60 Minutes, he bragged about the number of Twitter followers he had gained.
A president-elect who is self-assured doesn’t behave this way. Nor does he snap at a late-night sketch comedy show. Nor does he summon TV executives to complain that particular pictures they have aired are unflattering to him. Trump does these things because he’s deeply insecure and easily wounded.
Trump was just being nice. But that kind of niceness can cause trouble. During the campaign, Trump said he would keep jobs in the U.S. by threatening companies that plan to move their operations elsewhere. But as president-elect, he’s not using threats. He’s using bribes. He described to the Times one of “numerous” conversations he’s had with CEOs since the election. “We’ll create the incentives for you,” Trump told the executive. “We’re going for a very large tax cut for corporations, which you’ll be happy about.” So the jobs will stay. But they’ll be funded by taxpayers, and employers will control the transactions.
Trump is a patsy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, too. He effused to the Journal about a “beautiful” letter Putin sent him after the election. “I would love to be able to get along with Russia,” Trump told the Times. He claimed, based on reactions at his rallies, that getting along with Russia would also make Americans happy: “I’d say this in front of thousands of people. … ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia? Wouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together?’ … And the people [would] stand up and give me a massive hand.”
Trump treats the presidency the way he treated The Apprentice: It’s all about ratings. There’s no limit to the moral lines he would cross to give the audience what it wants. In the Times interview, he said he might withdraw his support for waterboarding if it were found to be ineffective at extracting useful information. But he added: “If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that.”
Trump is just as dismissive about financial transparency. “Are you gonna release your tax returns?” Lesley Stahl asked him on 60 Minutes. “Nobody cares,” Trump replied. “Obviously, the public didn’t care, because I won the election very easily.” He gave a similar brushoff to concerns about his scorched-earth political style. The Journal reported that it had asked Trump “whether he thought his rhetoric had gone too far in the campaign.” His answer, according to the paper: “No. I won.” Winning means people don’t mind what you did. And if they don’t mind, then what you did wasn’t wrong.
What expertise did Trump’s uncle have in climate forecasting? Not much, since the uncle specialized in medical and communications technology. What evidence did he have? Again, not much, since he died 31 years ago. But he did have “feelings,” as Trump points out. So do all those “people on the other side.” The only scientific instrument Trump needs is a finger in the wind.
Trump is virtually lobotomized. Unable to acknowledge his role in stirring up hatred and fear, he blames others. When Stahl told him that “African Americans think there’s a target on their back,” and “Muslims are terrified,” he shrugged that such fears were “built up by the press, because, frankly, they’ll take every single little incident … and they’ll make [it] into an event.” In his interview with the Times, Trump claimed that low black turnout showed how popular he was: “A lot of people didn’t show up, because the African-American community liked me.” The vanity of this man is bottomless.
But when people who feel threatened by Trump challenge his friends, he rushes to defend his friends. On Nov. 18, Vice President–elect Mike Pence went to see Hamilton. After the show, the cast delivered a short speech to Pence on behalf of “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.” The message concluded: “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Trump responded by attacking the cast on Twitter, charging that they had “harassed” Pence and violated the theater as “a safe and special place.”
Trump also rose to the defense of his right-hand man, Steve Bannon, after a Times reporter asked about Trump’s appointment of Bannon, “who has been described by some as racist and anti-Semitic,” to a White House job. Trump called Bannon “a decent guy” who had “been treated very unfairly.” The exchange was bizarre in part because Bannon himself, in an interview at the Republican National Convention in August, had proudly declared, “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” Yet Trump assured the Times: “I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time. If I thought he was a racist, or alt-right, or any of [those] things … I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.” Trump doesn’t fuss about Bannon’s record. He just thinks: He’s my friend, so he’s good, and whatever he said is OK.
The second model is Times columnist Tom Friedman. In the group session at Times headquarters on Nov. 22, Friedman worked Trump like a horndog in a bar, trying to get him into bed on climate change. “You own some of the most beautiful links golf courses in the world,” Friedman told Trump. “I’d hate to see Royal Aberdeen underwater,” the columnist added. When Trump ragged on windmills, Friedman whispered sweet nothings: “General Electric has a big wind turbine factory in South Carolina.” Trump, eager for approval, told the Times staffers about his “many environmental awards” and bragged, “I’m actually an environmentalist.” By the end of the session, Friedman had Trump eating out of his hand.
The third model is a story Trump told about his threat to narrow the First Amendment. During the primaries, Trump had pledged to “open up our libel laws so when [journalists] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” But in his meeting with the Times, Trump said someone had later warned him, “It’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.” “You’re right, I never thought about that,” Trump recalled telling this person. And that reflection led Trump to assure the Times that on the question of libel laws, “You’re going to be fine.”
That’s how you move Trump. You don’t talk about ethics. You play the toughness card. You appeal to the art of the deal. You make him feel smart, powerful, and loved. You don’t forget how unmoored and volatile he is, but you set aside your fear and your anger. You thank God that you’re dealing with a narcissist, not a cold-blooded killer. And until you can get him safely out of the White House, you work with what you have. People in other countries have dealt with presidents like Trump for a long time. Can we handle it? Yes, we can.
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.