Yet, even if golf had a reputation for physical brutality, irreparable injuries and fan violence, President Trump’s recent use of the sport as a metaphor for police violence would have been shocking. When lobbed a softball by Fox News’s Laura Ingraham in an interview broadcast Monday — “It’s more dangerous to be a police officer today, do you not think, than it has been in a long time?”— Trump responded with an analogy borrowed from his favorite pastime. Police shootings, such as the seven shots fired into the back of Jacob Blake, an African American man from Kenosha, Wis., were often the result of officers “choking” under pressure: “Just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt,” he said.
Trump’s repeated use of the idea of choking — which is also how people in police custody too often are killed — was bad enough. But Ingraham also immediately jumped in to warn the president off the larger comparison, invoking the likely media reaction to any equation of the more than 1,000 police shooting deaths in the United States a year to an unknowable number of missed three-foot putts.
But Trump’s metaphor didn’t need any elaboration. It was callous but also simple, and perhaps effective, evoking something of which almost everyone on the planet is familiar: performance anxiety. Whether it is public speaking, playing an instrument or fearing heights — which can make a three-foot cliffside path feel as narrow as a tightrope — the possibility of “choking” under pressure is common to most people. Fortunately, few of us are required to regularly make life-or-death decisions, but all of us experience the anxiety of making decisions under pressure, and it was that anxiety that Trump wanted to generalize and capitalize on.
The three-foot putt image underscores fundamentally Trumpian ideas about leadership and society. It recalls themes from popular psychology that have been current since at least the 1970s, when performance anxiety became more widely understood among professional psychologists and the public. When Trump was emerging on the New York real estate scene, books such as “The Inner Game of Tennis,” which explored how we often overthink things in ways that are self-defeating, were finding a wide and enthusiastic audience. The message of that book, now a commonplace of pop psychology and the Hollywood worldview, is that we must learn to trust ourselves, our skills, our inner power. It is the rational mind and self-doubt that make us choke.
Dancers, musicians, actors and public speakers know that there is some measure of truth in this. A crippling self-consciousness is an enormous distraction when we’re under pressure. But this pop psychology bromide offers a limited understanding of how high-level performance works. Successful performances are self-aware; they aren’t done unconsciously or purely by instinct. And they succeed based on the quality of the behind-the-scenes labor and mastery that performers develop over years of practice.
The idea that good cops can simply “choke” elides the essential background to responsible policing, which is rigorous training, strict protocols, vigorous oversight and career-long professional development. The comparison of a three-foot putt to a life-or-death decision with devastating consequences in the world — hundreds of deaths every year in acts of police violence disproportionately directed at people of color — isn’t just odious as a metaphor.
It’s also an invitation to embrace an even uglier notion of leadership — that leadership isn’t rational, isn’t learned or practiced, and isn’t governed by norms. It is about instinct, about always trusting your immediate impulses. This is, of course, Trump’s style of leadership, which is rarely hindered by any overactive reflex of self-consciousness.
But instincts and impulses can be dangerous, which suggests an even darker reading of the three-foot-putt metaphor. Throughout the interview, Trump evoked a dualistic world of instincts — the right ones (embodied in good cops and himself) and the wrong ones (common to crowds and protesters). When asked about public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump suggested that this came from people who didn’t know what they were doing. In a rambling passage with crosstalk, he seemed to say that rich people and corporations were acting blindly, that the protests were being supported by “some very stupid rich people that have no idea that if their thing ever succeeded . . . they will be thrown to the wolves like you’ve never seen before.”
This fits with a consistent but terrifying ethical understanding of the world, including how we govern ourselves. Only the instincts of strong people can save us from the instincts of weak ones, which is Trump’s way of saying that only good people can govern bad ones.
Democracy thus conceived can’t be governed by anything approaching consensus or steered by rational discourse. Manichaean politics is a winner-takes-all game. There is no hope of persuasion, no room for constructive argument. Trump governs by instinct and then projects that same style of governance on everyone else. If the projection is successful — if we all accede to a purely impulsive idea of leadership — he wins the game, and we devolve from the imperfectly conceived world of Madison and Jefferson to the darkest ideas of an ungovernable state of nature.
Trump’s three-foot-putt image recalls an earlier, even more potent narrative, used to illuminate a fundamentally different idea of governance and leadership. In Friedrich Schiller’s 1804 drama “William Tell,” a tyrannical governor compels the title character to prove his skill as a marksman by shooting an apple off the head of his own son, standing some 80 feet away. Tell was terrified, the world swam before his eyes, his hands shook, but he took and made the shot.
He also brought an extra arrow. If he missed and killed his boy, he would have killed the bully who put him in this horrible predicament. No one was better trained at or more confident of this kind of marksmanship, but even Tell had a rational distrust of his own skill. Perhaps just as important was the faith his son placed in him and the horror of those who were compelled to watch such a grotesque, authoritarian spectacle.
Police are sometimes put into terrible situations, forced to trust their instincts when a life, perhaps their own, is in danger. Which is why police power should be entrusted not just to people who are highly trained, but also to those who are deeply compassionate and self-aware. It may be difficult to sort the cops whom Trump calls “the bad apples” from the ones who have the skills, judgment and decency to do the job. But one test is this: If they think there’s any analogy between wielding a gun in defense of civil society and making a three-foot putt, they’re not up to the job.