I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.
To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.
Wait! Don’t hit me again: I can explain.
When a giraffe or a bluebird or an armadillo is born, he hits the ground with most of the guidelines for future interactions with other giraffes, bluebirds, or armadillos already programmed into his little brain. Over a period of days or weeks the adult animals in his life will provide updates and security patches, but the basic outline is pre-installed, and the little beast will know from the beginning how to behave in almost any situation that might arise involving others of his own kind.
We humans, on the other hand, resemble large pink sea-cucumbers at birth, squirmy tubes that take in food at one end and produce copious volumes of excrement at the other, sometimes simultaneously. We have a few basic reflexive actions programmed in, mostly having to do with moment-to-moment survival, such as sucking and grasping and a tendency to scream blue murder if confronted with the risk of falling or abandonment, but our social skills at that stage are, at best, incomplete.
This unfinished quality, called neoteny, leaves us incredibly vulnerable for the first few years of our lives, but in return it makes us something of a blank slate, capable of being trained to suit our specific environment. A human infant born to a naked cave-dwelling stone-age family requires a suite of skills and responses that are very different from those that might appertain to a silver-spoon baby in Westchester County coming home to a Swedish nanny and a trust fund. If humans started life with a one-size-fits-all set of internal guidelines like those of the giraffe, they would be equally limited in their ability to adapt, to spread, and to diversify. There are no giraffes living wild and proliferating in Greenland, or the Gobi desert, or Patagonia, or Chicago, or low Earth orbit; for better or for worse, there are humans in all those places.
There is a downside to this system, however, apart from the incredible challenges of keeping a human child alive and healthy long enough for her to survive on her own. What happens if, for some reason, the necessary programming is not all there when needed? Or if the programming is flawed, or outdated, or specific to a set of conditions that are not those that the child is actually experiencing?
Bear with me for a moment while I digress still further …
My social life involves occasionally showing up at other people’s houses for drinks, or food, or conversation, or some combination of the three. A specific time is usually indicated:
“Come over about five.”
“We’ll be having dinner at seven-thirty.”
“Let’s get together at six.”
I am, unfortunately, that terror of every host, the person who interprets the invitation absolutely literally. If you say 5:00, I’ll be coming up your front steps at 4:58 and then dithering on the doorstep for a minute and forty-five seconds before ringing the bell.
I’m not stupid: I know that my punctuality is not quite acceptable, but I simply don’t know how to make the adjustment. Does 5:00 mean 5:12? Does it mean 5:32? Is 5:05 too early? Is 6:00 too late? Other people seem to simply know what is intended, they show up at strange and patternless intervals over the entire course of the evening and it’s right. I’m doing precisely as instructed and it’s wrong.
This is an example of training that was correct under one set of circumstances, but which has not translated to a new milieu. My family was military, deeply conservative in its values: punctuality was drilled into me from the first delivery-room butt-slap, and reinforced – with additional butt-slaps when required – over subsequent years. We were not social, we didn’t go to other people’s houses for drinks or tiny sandwiches, or ask those people to visit ours. Everything worked according to a set of strict rules, and if we didn’t know the rules for a thing, then we didn’t do that thing.
I am very much aware of my ineptitude in areas like this, and I am grateful to the friends who tolerate it with such good grace. I show up at the wrong times, I say the wrong things, I read the wrong books, I listen to the wrong music … But as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” I’d upgrade my programming if I could, but it’s too deeply ingrained, and the new patterns are too vague, too uncertain, to overwrite it.
Now back to London.
Looking at the President’s face, his body language, his ill-fitting suit, his spray-on tan, flopping necktie and awkward, shambling gait, I saw the same arrogance and self-absorption that everyone else saw, but beneath that I also saw a man who had simply never been taught how to be nice, how to behave in social settings, how to be courteous to an old woman whose whole life has been spent bound up in rigid protocol and an elaborate and unbending system of rules governing her every waking moment. I saw a man whose parents had trained him relentlessly to eat or be eaten, to do unto others before they could do unto you – to never ask, to never admit, to never back down. To never, ever, let someone else get ahead of you.
In 1969, Canadian educator Lawrence J. Peter published a book describing what he called “The Peter Principle”. His thesis stated, essentially, that in a hierarchy, individuals rise to the level of their own incompetence – meaning that you do well, you master your craft, you get promoted, you climb the ladder … until you climb beyond your ability to perform, at which point your movement stops, and you settle in at that level, unwilling to backtrack, but unable to function where you are or to move forward, trapped and miserable.
Maybe I’m projecting, but he looked pathetic to me: he looked like someone who was tragically out of his element, ignorant of even those simple “Yes, ma’am/No ma’am/After you, ma’am” kind of rules that most people take for granted, and that can ease so many awkward situations. He was a big mangy mongrel hound at the Westminster Kennel Club, shedding all over the shih-tzus, expressing his anxiety in aggression and excessive barking.
He didn’t belong.
Life is easy when you can just yell at everybody, demand respect – or at least a reasonable imitation of it – because you’re the Boss, and (as Mr Trump is so fond of pointing out) the Boss always gets to do whatever he wants. But what happens when you come up against an Angela Merkel, or a Queen Elizabeth, or a Barack Obama – people who always seem to know exactly which fork to use, and where to stand, and when to bow? People who have read all the right books and can quote all the right philosophers? If you’re me, you apologize, you ask for help – but I was trained to do that when necessary. What if you’re a man like our President?
Then, perhaps, you just stumble along – miserable, breeding misery, waiting for the first opportunity that comes along to make someone else feel even worse.