Donald Trump

How Star Trek Explains Donald Trump

Kirk, Spock, and Khan have much to teach us about contemporary politics.


YouTube Screenshot via MEGA/Newscom

Sociopaths have haunted fiction since fiction began, and no wonder. Sociopathy is civilization's greatest challenge. Richard III and Iago; Raskolnikov, Kurtz, Willie Stark, and Humbert Humbert; J.R. Ewing, Frank Underwood, and even HAL 9000. How do we understand the narcissist, the demagogue, the liar, the manipulator, the person without scruples or conscience? The creative imagination can probe dark places that psychology and medicine can't reach. So I am not being cute when I say that Star Trek is a source of insight into the universe of President Donald Trump.

Actually, Star Trek—the original television series, at least—is a source of insight into many things. The show, which aired for three seasons, from 1966 to 1969, was ahead of its time and breathtakingly ambitious. Amid the wasteland of 1960s television, it explored genetic engineering, automated warfare, the divided soul, the qualities of leadership, and much more.

Its leading obsession, however, was sociopathy, which in Star Trek's world—as in our own—is an ever-present danger. Why is the sociopath so charismatic? Why are good people vulnerable to his machinations? Why do sociopathic leaders rise to power throughout history, despite the toll they inflict? How can their excesses and influence be contained?

In the second-season episode "Amok Time" (1967), the show delivers a warning. Reason and dispassion are weak reeds, and they are weakest among those who presume them to be strong. Spock, the ultra-rational Vulcan, turns out to harbor deep tribal impulses, which break through all the more violently for having been suppressed. He proves capable of the ultimate sociopathic act, murdering his commander and best friend.

During the 1990s, the era of the "end of history," we thought we had mastered our tribal impulses and set off on a new course of liberal enlightenment. With the Cold War over, ventures like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement beckoned toward a globalized, post-tribal future. Star Trek knew better.

What constrains, or unleashes, the human tendency toward primitive unreason? In "Mirror, Mirror" (1967), we see that individual sociopathy is not merely an individual characteristic. Because of a transporter malfunction, Captain Kirk (along with some shipmates) finds himself in a parallel universe where social norms and incentives are skewed toward exploitation, domination, and brutality. The crew of the starship Enterprise, though biologically unaltered, are transformed by their environment into thugs and assassins—the same sort of effect that, for example, Saddam Hussein had on Iraq, and that President Trump and his ilk, if they were to become too powerful, might have here.

As America's founders understood (but as today's Americans too often forget), we all harbor an inner sociopath. If a sociopathic leader gets control of our institutions and incentives, he can twist the settings towards lying, cheating, and bullying. He can bring crowds of decent people to their feet with praise for violence against reporters and chants of "Lock her up!" He can make decent politicians look away from violations of decency that they would not have previously tolerated. The mirror universe is not so far away.

In "Mirror, Mirror," the normal Kirk, realizing he has entered a barbaric parallel world, is able to impersonate a barbarian long enough to save himself and his shipmates. In our own universe, meanwhile, Kirk's corrupt counterpart cannot fake values like empathy, trust, and fair play, and quickly finds himself locked in the brig. The sociopath may be charismatic, wily, and manipulative, but he lacks the moral depth and imagination to fool people who do not wish to be fooled.

Consider, in that connection, President Trump, who can read empathetic words from a teleprompter but invariably, and usually immediately, undermines them with sneers and rants. Typical was a rally in October, just after the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. "After pleading for peace and harmony," reported The Washington Post, "Trump seemingly couldn't resist reverting to his favorite political insults." Indeed, the president himself acknowledged: "We can't resist. Can we resist?" For Trump, demagoguery and lying are not strategic choices. Like Mirror Kirk trying to bribe his way out of the Enterprise brig, he cannot function any other way.

If Trump, like Kirk's doppelganger, is transparent, why is he also so seductive? "Space Seed" (1967) dissects sociopathic charisma. The Enterprise encounters Khan, whose intellect and strength are genetically enhanced, but whose ego and ambition are comparably swollen. Determined to dominate, he has personal magnetism, impregnable confidence, and a sure instinct for the weaknesses of others. Plying them cannily, he persuades crew members to help him take over the Enterprise. Even Kirk, his rival, is drawn to Khan until it is almost too late. As magisterially portrayed by actor Ricardo Montalbán, Khan also seduces the viewer. He embodies a warning: Do not assume you can resist. Despite our better judgment, the sociopath's exorbitant promises and commanding confidence beckon us to follow.

Sociopathic charisma is magnetic. It is dangerous. It is also sometimes necessary, as we learn from "The Enemy Within" (1966). Kirk is again the victim of a transporter malfunction, but this time he is split into two versions of himself, one an empathetic, conscientious Jekyll, the other a libidinous, reckless Hyde. Yet the gentle, well-behaved Kirk proves too indecisive to command in a crisis. Only if he is reunited with his sociopathic side can he lead.

Many of society's disruptors and builders, from Alexander the Great to Lyndon Johnson, have had dark, antisocial sides. The challenge for any society is to reap the fruits of sociopathic ruthlessness while constraining the excesses. That is the challenge Trump poses to America's institutions. If they can meet it, future historians may see Trump as a figure like Andrew Jackson: in some respects appalling, but ultimately, despite himself, a vector of necessary change.

If we can contain him. Can we? Or will the forces that Trump exemplifies and unleashes overwhelm all constraints? "Day of the Dove" (1968) suggests a way to think about the challenge. An alien parasite that feeds on the energy of hostility smuggles itself aboard the Enterprise, where it contrives to trap earthlings and Klingons in escalating conflict and mutual destruction. Only after the alien's influence is discovered do the two hostile groups manage to de-escalate, and even then, only barely. Starved of energy, the alien is driven from the ship. But, we realize, the parasite is not dead; it is merely off in search of new conflicts to inflame.

Modern social psychology has much to say that validates the premise of "Day of the Dove." Outrage and conflict are powerful tribal unifiers. Vilifying an out-group is a sure way to tap atavistic tribal energies. As every demagogue understands, give people an enemy and they are yours. Thus, in Trump's telling, Mexicans are rapists and murderers; media are enemies of the American people; foreigners are out to get us.

Still, de-escalation is possible. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said, human tribalism may be pre-wired, but it is not hard-wired. With effort, it can be overcome. We know this because for most of two centuries Americans have made their diverse, conflict-ridden society work, partly by finding paths to de-escalation.

Trump, Steve Bannon, Breitbart News, and "Lock her up!" are feeding the tribal parasite and receiving its energy. Star Trek warns us that this parasite is difficult to defeat; that our sociopathic tendencies are profound and universal; and that we can never conquer them, even if doing so were desirable. Containing them is the best that we can hope for. In the age of Trump, that is our most pressing enterprise.