How Donald Trump Uses Impulsiveness As a Weapon

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Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

On December 8, Kanye West, one of America’s most impulsive celebrities (no small feat, considering) emerged from a period of mental-health-related seclusion to attend an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles. It was his first public appearance in weeks. Word of his return to the outside world spread quickly; an Instagram post pictured him in his usual attire — watch, white shoes, dark sweatshirt, tight black jeans — and for the most part, he seemed to be back to his old self. Except for one key detail: At some point over the previous three weeks, he’d dyed his hair blond.

Why? Articles appeared across the internet offering various theories. West was suffering from psychosis. He was protesting Frank Ocean’s Grammy snub. He was emulating Dennis Rodman. The hashtag #Blondye began trending. The New York Times eventually did a story on all the fuss, concluding: “Of course, it’s possible everyone is overthinking the matter, and Mr. West just felt like changing things up.”

Five days later, West would make another public appearance, this time in New York, where he’d sit down for a meeting with none other than the current president-elect of the United States — a man who also happens to give West a run for his money in the competition for most impulsive celebrity.

Which brings us to the reason we’re discussing Kanye West’s choice of hair color in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: West is a fascinating figure in his own right, but the larger point I’d like to make is this: Our unceasing appetite for this specific sort of spontaneous behavior also happens to be one of the main reasons a certain Donald John Trump has succeeded in shifting attention away from the startling ramifications of his recent demagogic ascent.

We usually think of impulsivity in terms of individual actions, the things we do and say. But a better definition of impulsivity goes beyond the concept of action alone to include a broader awareness of consequences — or the lack thereof. Impulsive behavior is a matter of stakes; it represents the capacity, in certain individuals, to separate the outcomes of their choices from the process through which they decide to act in the first place.

Trump, during his unlikely success in both the Republican primary and the general election, relied on this exact type of disconnect to stymie his opponents. For Donald Trump, impulsivity is best described as a weaponized version of overreaction. He functions like a bared nerve, receiving and responding to stimuli in the same endless moment, as if he’s managed to arrest the arc of his life exclusively within the present tense. It’s why he has no problem mocking the appearance of the multiple women who’ve come forward to accuse him of sexual assault, or suggesting that a political rival’s father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy, or making promises he can’t possibly fulfill, or tweeting out conspiracy theories in the middle of the night, or refusing to acknowledge the irrefutable fact that he’s been caught in a boldface lie. It’s also why he questions the validity of anyone who challenges him, the quickest and purest form of attack he can offer. At all times, he follows the path along which his impulses meet the least amount of resistance.

In this sense, his identity can’t be separated from such reactions. Unlike other celebrities — and in contrast to Kanye West, specifically, who sustains his position in our cultural discussion by retreating from the world, every so often, to create music — Trump is his impulsivity: nothing more and nothing less.

It’s a weapon he uses to distract us, again and again, from the real issue at hand, which goes a long way to explain why he’s been so successful. And the question we need to keep in mind, moving forward, is the degree to which his new role as president will irrevocably alter the stakes of his unremittingly impulsive behavior.

The danger of pure reaction, as I’ve said, is really a matter of risk. And while impulsivity has proven time and again to be an immensely powerful weapon in various celebrity-centered feuds — from the rapper/singer variety to our Republican/Democratic nominees — the position of the presidency (and this should go without saying) in no way resembles the modern campaign-style competition that determines its occupant.

As president, Trump will encounter a never-ending variety of atypical opposition. He’ll be attacked in a manner that nothing in his life up to this point has prepared him to comprehend. As a result, his response will be to attack back, especially as the situation around him rapidly disintegrates. We’ve selected from our ranks an individual whose core mode of functioning stands in direct opposition to the nature of the task he’ll be asked to carry out.

Which begs the question: Why, as a culture, do we continue to associate this sort of behavior with personal authenticity — a trait that, all things considered, actually is beneficial to human functioning? If Trump doesn’t think about what he says or does ahead of time, does this mean that his statements and actions are actually more genuine than someone else’s? And are we really supposed to reward people for acting authentically if they’re constantly revealing, through outlandish and damaging behavior, that the truest aspect of their personality is the complete inability to perceive the deeper consequences of their decisions?

At the end of Kanye West and Donald Trump’s recent morning meeting, the two appeared together in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower. A crowd gathered around them, reporters screaming questions at them both. In a video of the encounter, West is wearing an outfit that’s identical to the one he’d donned nearly a week earlier in Los Angeles: dark sweatshirt, black jeans, white shoes. His hair, like his gold chain, is burnished and bright. And as the two of them emerge from the elevator to answer questions from the media — as Trump searches, as always, for the right extemporaneous platitude (“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he says to a reporter, adding, “We discussed life”) — it’s hard not to notice that the blond color West bleached his hair is, in fact, eerily similar to the signature, floppy quiff perched atop the head of the very person looming at his side.

How Donald Trump Uses Impulsiveness As a Weapon