Donald Trump is the contemporary master of a little-used literary device: the narcissistic third person. On the indictment of Paul Manafort: “There’s not a mention of Trump in there.” On the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 election: “Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?” Even his very first tweet, back in the innocent days of 2009, employed this peculiar mirror-gazing perspective: “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman ….”
Like so much else that Mr. Trump favors — red baseball hats, caps lock — referring to oneself in the third person has, these past few years, come to seem tainted, almost pathological. It has entered the cultural lexicon — suitable only for the toweringly grandiose (LeBron) or the deeply immature (Elmo). When the writers of a drama wish to signal that someone is soon to die of tuberculosis, they have her cough blood into a handkerchief. When they wish to signal that someone suffers from a terminal case of self-regard, they have him refer to himself in the third person.
Which accounts for the sheepishness I feel when I tell you about my recent discovery: that referring to yourself in the third person is, well, kind of wonderful. Lately I’ve been walking around with an inner monologue that runs something like this: Ben is feeling tired; Ben is considering blowing off the gym; Ben is feeling regret about eating that entire baguette while walking home from the grocery store.
And I’ve not only found my ego swelling from all this Ben-ing. I’ve also found it tamer than ever before, as manageable and mild as a baby panda. Much as it pains me to admit, I’ve come to believe that our egotist-in-chief may have stumbled onto something profound.
Allow me to explain.
At the core of Buddhism is the concept of non-self. The idea, basically, is that the thing you think of as you — the entity whose well-being occupies your every waking thought — is an illusion. This doesn’t mean that your body is a hologram — that Uniqlo-clad lump of meat is indisputably there. What non-self refers to, rather, is the thing that you think of as your true self — the little captain who lives somewhere behind your forehead and looks out through your eyes. The thing that says, “I hope people like me” or “I can’t stand another minute on this train” — that, Buddhists believe, is what needs to be seen through and rooted out.
This teaching, Buddhists insist, has the potential to eliminate your suffering entirely. But it is destined to remain so much inert philosophy, no more life-changing than the quadratic equation, until you’re able to actually glimpse your little impostor, to fix him in your mental cross hairs. Which is where the Trumpian third person comes in.