Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Let’s talk about projection, the psychological impulse to project on other people what you’re actually feeling.
Webster’s dictionary defines it, in part, as: “the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility as a defense against anxiety.”
Here’s one recent, relevant example: “The one who’s got the problem is Biden, because if you look at what Biden did, Biden did what they would like to have me do except there’s one problem: I didn’t do it.”
That, of course, was President Donald Trump, trying to deflect accusations about the covered-up whistleblower’s complaint. It reportedly raised concerns about his call with the Ukrainian President, during which, Trump has essentially admitted, he asked for dirt on a political rival’s family.
Projection is a regular part of the Trump playbook. He’s taken the impulse and elevated it to an effective political tactic.
For example, during the 2016 campaign, his favorite attack on his final GOP rival for the nomination was to call him “Lyin’ Ted.”
Of course, this comes from a person who lied throughout the campaign and has lied more than 12,000 times as president, according to The Washington Post.
Cruz was pretty quick to diagnose the problem: “This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth. And he had a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook. His response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”
This impulse to deflect and project continued in the general election against Hillary Clinton. So, when Trump was accused of being the “most corrupt candidate ever,” she became “Crooked Hillary.”
When Trump came under fire for racist appeals, he called Clinton a “bigot.”
When Clinton raised questions about Trump’s erratic and impulsive behavior, he called her unstable, unhinged, lacking the “judgment, temperament and moral character to lead this country.” And who can forget his, “No puppet … You’re the puppet,” response when she accused him in a debate of being a puppet for Vladimir Putin.
To be sure, that one was more of an impulsive bleat than evidence of strategy, but of course the pattern of projection has continued in the White House:
For example, during the Mueller investigation, when he kept asserting without evidence that “there was no Collusion except bye Crooked Hillary and the Democrats.”
And in saying that Russia really wanted Clinton to win – despite Putin saying the exact opposite.
These projections may be absurd, but they serve a serious political purpose. They muddy the water between fact and fiction and make people think that everyone is guilty of what Trump’s been credibly accused of. This increases apathy and cynicism in our democracy by aiming to obliterate citizens’ ability to recognize reality.
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Because tone comes from the top, you see the President’s surrogates and even Cabinet officials echo it. But sometimes they go too far and give away the game. Case in point, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on “Face The Nation”:
“If there was election interference that took place by the Vice President, I think the American people deserve to know.”
I’m sorry, what’s that now?
Because literally no one is suggesting that Joe Biden was involved in election interference.
But, of course, that’s exactly what President Trump is being accused of, and if you can’t defend the President’s alleged actions, you just deflect and project.
Here’s the thing: Projection is actually a sign of deep insecurity. Which makes you wonder about the President’s favorite insults, which he deploys over and over again on Twitter.
An analysis by The Washington Post’s Philip Bump found that his top five insults were “fake,” “failed,” “dishonest,” “weak” and “liar.”
It’s enough to make you think President Trump doesn’t actually think of himself as a “very stable genius” after all.