It is plain to see that Donald Trump is a sick man. Even those who voted for him now realize they have made a poor choice, a mistake. Their decision is hung over the shoulders of all of us and the next couple of years will be hard to take. Social security will go private, Medicare will become a tax credit voucher program and any one who compliments Trump will own him as Putin has does. We have had nut jobs run for president before but this is the first time we have elected one. This entire issue will be devoted to understanding Trump's mental problems. He's 70 years old and he's not going to change.
A neuroscientist explains: Trump has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader.
According to a number of top U.S. psychologists, like Harvard professor and researcher Howard Gardner, Donald Trump is a “textbook” narcissist. In fact, he fits the profile so well that clinical psychologist George Simon told Vanity Fair, “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops.” This puts Trump in the same category as a number of infamous dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Saddam Hussein. And although there are narcissists out there who entertain us, innovate, or create great art, when a narcissist is given immense power over people’s lives, they can behave much differently. As the 2016 presidential election grows nearer we must ask ourselves, if elected president would Donald Trump act on the behalf of the will of the people, or would he behave more like a dictator—silencing any dissenting voices, perpetually refusing to compromise, and being oppressive to certain groups? To answer that, we should ask a little bit more about what makes a narcissist tick, and how they tend to behave when given free rein.
What is it exactly that makes someone a certifiable narcissist and not simply a person who has a healthy amount of confidence and a burning desire to achieve great goals? According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others.”
Trump’s shortage of empathy can be seen clearly by his stances on topics like immigration. Instead of recognizing that the data shows that most Mexican immigrants are not violent, but instead people simply looking for a place where actual opportunity exists, with a broad brush he claims that they are “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” In a similar vein, Trump has vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the country should he be elected. It appears that his lack of empathy has distorted his mind’s ability to grasp the fact that the refugees he speaks of are actually seeking safety from the same murderous maniacs that he wants to keep out. Perhaps if Trump had relatives in countries like Syria and Iraq, he might understand the constant fear that most live under, and in turn become more willing to welcome them with open arms rather than leaving them to be slaughtered.
But a lack of empathy is just one part of narcissistic personality disorder. Just beneath the surface layer of overwhelming arrogance lies a delicate self-esteem that is easily injured by any form of criticism. We have all seen Trump unjustifiably lash out at a number of people with harsh and often extremely odd personal attacks. When he thought he had been treated unfairly by Fox News host and Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly, he responded by calling her a “bimbo” and later saying that she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” In response to the strange, misogynistic comments Kelly said that she “may have overestimated his anger management skills.” If the news host would have pegged him as a bona fide narcissist from the beginning she might have expected such shamelessly flagrant behavior.
To be fair, it is certainly true that not all narcissists are terrible people. Some of our most beloved celebrities and musicians have been suspected narcissists, including Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Kanye West, and even Alec Baldwin. Not only are these decent people, some have also done a lot of good through philanthropic work. Surely Donald Trump has more in common with these individuals than he does with a psychopath like Saddam Hussein.
There is no doubt that this has been true of the past, yet there is one critical difference between those people and Trump or Saddam. Only the latter two were in or are pursuing positions as heads of state—a role that grants enormous power over world affairs and people’s lives. While a narcissistic personality might be one of the traits that allowed Trump to be such a successful businessman and reality TV star, it is also the trait that makes him potentially dangerous as a political leader.
What happens when another world leader who is a loose cannon doesn’t give Trump the admiration that he feels he deserves? We can be sure that notoriously anti-American dictators like Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei aren’t going to give him any respect, let alone praise. How would a President Trump react when he feels he is being put down or undermined? Will we see the start of World War III because the leader of the most important nation in the world doesn’t feel that others are kissing his ass as much as they should be? Narcissistic personality disorder is known to have strong negative effects on relationships, and when it comes to being an effective and responsible world leader, diplomacy is everything.
If it is not clear how the promise of great power can change an essentially harmless narcissist into someone oppressive, let’s see how Donald Trump’s political views have changed thus far. Prior to this presidential race, most of us knew Donald Trump as a charismatic, cheeky, highly entertaining figure that seemed like anything but a bigot. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York told CNN that the Trump he knew, and the Trump New York knew, was nothing like the intolerant xenophobe he appears to be today. It is a well-known fact that in the past Trump was a registered democrat who was in favor of liberal causes like abortion rights and pals with the Clintons. But since the promise of power has consumed him, he has become the poster boy for ultra-right wing intolerance. This change in personality and core values perfectly illustrates how the promise of power can transform narcissists. And as the race for the Republican nominee progresses, it has become increasingly obvious that Trump’s yearning to rule greatly exceeds his desire to “Make America Great Again,” as his slogan says.
The position of President of the United States is one that requires great empathy, a certain amount of humility, the ability to preserve relationships, and a willingness to establish new ones. These are all qualities that the narcissist lacks, and with their absence comes danger. Do we really want to put all Americans, and even the entire world, at great risk by giving a narcissist the nuclear code? Donald Trump is very much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and the presidency is his “one ring to rule them all.” In this case we do not have the option of destroying the ring. The best we can strive for is keeping it out of the possession of those who cannot resist abusing its power.
Whether narcissism is a real disorder - as opposed to a dimension of personality on which we all vary - is controversial. Does Donald Trump conform to the clinical pattern?
Professional psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, are loath to go on record saying that Trump has a psychiatric disorder on the premise that one cannot do a diagnosis without an office visit and most narcissists are quite unlikely to recognize that they have a problem and to schedule an appointment.
Fortunately, the DSM is written so clearly, and so simply, that anyone can make a diagnosis. Here are the symptoms. Make up your own mind.
Does Trump have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? You Decide
According to DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most (at least five) or all of the symptoms listed below (generally without commensurate qualities or accomplishments).
1 Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment by others.
2 Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
3 Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions.
4 Needing constant admiration from others.
5 Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others.
6 Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain.
7 Unwilling to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs.
8 Intensely jealous of others and the belief that others are equally jealous of them.
9 Pompous and arrogant demeanor.
Among other criteria, the symptoms must be severe enough to impair the individual’s ability to develop meaningful relationships with others and reduce an individuals ability to function at work. As far as the first of these is concerned, Trump evidently has no close personal friends.
Work function is also an issue. The ghost author of Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, found it impossible to interview Trump who quickly became bored. He gleaned most of the necessary information by being a fly on the wall in Trump’s office.
Some of the DSM criteria are less relevant to Trump given his birth to money and life as a plutocrat that guarantee contact with high-status persons and being fawned over as a VIP. For those that are clearly relevant, he checks out on all symptoms, it seems. According to DSM criteria, Donald Trump suffers from narcissistic personality disorder.
Can a Narcissist Function as a US President?
It is, perhaps, no surprise that widely held impressions about Trump’s narcissism are corroborated by the DSM criteria. The key question to ask is whether, having come so far despite his psychiatric disorder, Trump, or any other narcissistic personality can communicate well enough to be an effective leader of the free world.
There have been many narcissistic heads of state before but the clearest examples, such as Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, and Hugo Chavez, have been dictators.
Narcissists are difficult to deal with, whether as friends, or as politicians. They do not feel the need to build consensus, which is why most are screened out by democratic systems of government.
Take away all the ‘other’ labels of Donald Trump - such as racist, bigot, fear monger, elitist or fascist - which are in and of themselves hard to fathom as characteristics of a U.S. presidential candidate, and there is something even more disturbing about Mr. Trump that every American voter should be concerned about: Mr. Trump appears to be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Although saying those words may sound humorous when someone first hears them, NPD is a serious mental disorder, and someone with NPD should never be allowed to lead this country as president. When Hillary Clinton said in her acceptance speech at the DNC last week that a man with his temperament should not be anywhere near the nuclear button, she was right, but she should have gone even further to say that he should be nowhere near a position of authority in government, much less as president.
The Mayo Clinic’s definition of NPD is: “A mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others."
Behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism. If you have NPD, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious, you often monopolize conversations, you may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior, and you may feel a sense of entitlement (when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry). At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.” Does this sound like Mr. Trump? You bet it does!
Many psychology experts use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions. DSM-5 criteria for NPD includes these features:
• Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
• Expecting to be recognized as superior.
• Exaggerating your achievements and talents.
• Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
• Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people.
• Requiring constant admiration.
• Having a sense of entitlement.
• Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
• Taking advantage of others to get what you want.
• Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
• Being envious of others and believing others envy you.
• Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.
Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others. Does this sound like Mr. Trump? You bet it does!
A personality disorder is a pattern of deviant or abnormal behavior that the person doesn’t change, even though it causes emotional upsets and trouble with other people at work and in personal relationships. It is not limited to episodes of mental illness, and it is not caused by drug or alcohol use, head injury, or illness. There are about a dozen different behavior patterns classified as personality disorders by DSM. All the personality disorders show up as deviations from normal in one or more of the following:
(1) Cognition (i.e. perception, thinking, and interpretation of oneself, other people, and events);
(2) Affectivity (i.e. emotional responses);
(3) Interpersonal functions; and
People with NPD won’t (or can’t) change their behavior even when it causes problems at work, when other people complain about the way they act, or when their behavior causes a lot of emotional distress to others (or themselves). Narcissists never admit to being distressed by their own behavior — they always blame other people for any problems. Does this sound like Mr. Trump? You bet it does!
Narcissists are a danger to others because they are in complete denial of reality and they lack empathy. One of the key presenting traits of narcissists is their utter incapability to empathize, which can manifest itself in a variety of ways:
• Ignoring requests to cease behavior (such as cheating and lying).
• Name calling, criticizing, belittling, mean “jokes”, jabs and put downs (verbal abuse).
• Arguments surrounding the same issues over and over.
• Turning around a partner’s concerns to blame him/her and block the conversation.
• No closure - no apologies, no accountability, no consequences, no change.
• Narcissists are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt.
I am not a psychiatrist, but I suspect that one would have to say that, based on this description (from some authoritative sources), that Mr. Trump would be diagnosed as having NPD — a widely recognized mental disorder that should disqualify him from becoming president of the U.S. A person should certainly not be voted into office knowing in advance that he has cognition impairment, affectivity, abysmal interpersonal skills, or impulsivity. Any combination of the four would undoubtedly prove to be lethal, set this country on a course to ruin, with potentially horrendous implications for the rest of the world. Voters were not smart enough to pass on Trump.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
The same feeling perplexed Mark Singer in the late 1990s when he was working on a profile of Trump for The New Yorker. Singer wondered what went through his mind when he was not playing the public role of Donald Trump. What are you thinking about, Singer asked him, when you are shaving in front of the mirror in the morning? Trump, Singer writes, appeared baffled. Hoping to uncover the man behind the actor’s mask, Singer tried a different tack:
“O.K., I guess I’m asking, do you consider yourself ideal company?”
“You really want to know what I consider ideal company?,” Trump replied. “A total piece of ass.”
I might have phrased Singer’s question this way: Who are you, Mr. Trump, when you are alone? Singer never got an answer, leaving him to conclude that the real-estate mogul who would become a reality-TV star and, after that, a leading candidate for president of the United States had managed to achieve something remarkable: “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
Is Singer’s assessment too harsh? Perhaps it is, in at least one sense. As brainy social animals, human beings evolved to be consummate actors whose survival and ability to reproduce depend on the quality of our performances. We enter the world prepared to perform roles and manage the impressions of others, with the ultimate evolutionary aim of getting along and getting ahead in the social groups that define who we are.
More than even Ronald Reagan, Trump seems supremely cognizant of the fact that he is always acting. He moves through life like a man who knows he is always being observed. If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so—superhuman, in this one primal sense.
Many questions have arisen about Trump during this campaign season—about his platform, his knowledge of issues, his inflammatory language, his level of comfort with political violence. This article touches on some of that. But its central aim is to create a psychological portrait of the man. Who is he, really? How does his mind work? How might he go about making decisions in office, were he to become president? And what does all that suggest about the sort of president he’d be?
In creating this portrait, I will draw from well-validated concepts in the fields of personality, developmental, and social psychology. Ever since Sigmund Freud analyzed the life and art of Leonardo da Vinci, in 1910, scholars have applied psychological lenses to the lives of famous people. Many early efforts relied upon untested, nonscientific ideas. In recent years, however, psychologists have increasingly used the tools and concepts of psychological science to shed light on notable lives, as I did in a 2011 book on George W. Bush. A large and rapidly growing body of research shows that people’s temperament, their characteristic motivations and goals, and their internal conceptions of themselves are powerful predictors of what they will feel, think, and do in the future, and powerful aids in explaining why. In the realm of politics, psychologists have recently demonstrated how fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. While a range of factors, such as world events and political realities, determine what political leaders can and will do in office, foundational tendencies in human personality, which differ dramatically from one leader to the next, are among them.
Trump’s personality is certainly extreme by any standard, and particularly rare for a presidential candidate; many people who encounter the man—in negotiations or in interviews or on a debate stage or watching that debate on television—seem to find him flummoxing. In this essay, I will seek to uncover the key dispositions, cognitive styles, motivations, and self-conceptions that together comprise his unique psychological makeup. Trump declined to be interviewed for this story, but his life history has been well documented in his own books and speeches, in biographical sources, and in the press. My aim is to develop a dispassionate and analytical perspective on Trump, drawing upon some of the most important ideas and research findings in psychological science today.
I. His Disposition
Fifty years of empirical research in personality psychology have resulted in a scientific consensus regarding the most basic dimensions of human variability. There are countless ways to differentiate one person from the next, but psychological scientists have settled on a relatively simple taxonomy, known widely as the Big Five:
Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior
Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions
Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization
Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty
Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas
Most people score near the middle on any given dimension, but some score
toward one pole or the other. Research decisively shows that higher scores on extroversion are associated with greater happiness and broader social connections, higher scores on conscientiousness predict greater success in school and at work, and higher scores on agreeableness are associated with deeper relationships. By contrast, higher scores on neuroticism are always bad, having proved to be a risk factor for unhappiness, dysfunctional relationships, and mental-health problems. From adolescence through midlife, many people tend to become more conscientious and agreeable, and less neurotic, but these changes are typically slight: The Big Five personality traits are pretty stable across a person’s lifetime.
The psychologists Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, in conjunction with about 120 historians and other experts, have rated all the former U.S. presidents, going back to George Washington, on all five of the trait dimensions. George W. Bush comes out as especially high on extroversion and low on openness to experience—a highly enthusiastic and outgoing social actor who tends to be incurious and intellectually rigid. Barack Obama is relatively introverted, at least for a politician, and almost preternaturally low on neuroticism—emotionally calm and dispassionate, perhaps to a fault.
Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness. This is my own judgment, of course, but I believe that a great majority of people who observe Trump would agree. There is nothing especially subtle about trait attributions. We are not talking here about deep, unconscious processes or clinical diagnoses. As social actors, our performances are out there for everyone to see.
Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (and Teddy Roosevelt, who tops the presidential extroversion list), Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner. He is a dynamo—driven, restless, unable to keep still. He gets by with very little sleep. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump described his days as stuffed with meetings and phone calls. Some 30 years later, he is still constantly interacting with other people—at rallies, in interviews, on social media. Presidential candidates on the campaign trail are studies in perpetual motion. But nobody else seems to embrace the campaign with the gusto of Trump. And no other candidate seems to have so much fun. A sampling of his tweets at the time of this writing:
3:13 a.m., April 12: “WOW, great new poll—New York! Thank you for your support!”
4:22 a.m., April 9: “Bernie Sanders says that Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president. Based on her decision making ability, I can go along with that!”
5:03 a.m., April 8: “So great to be in New York. Catching up on many things (remember, I am still running a major business while I campaign), and loving it!”
12:25 p.m., April 5: “Wow, @Politico is in total disarray with almost everyone quitting. Good news—bad, dishonest journalists!”
A cardinal feature of high extroversion is relentless reward-seeking. Prompted by the activity of dopamine circuits in the brain, highly extroverted actors are driven to pursue positive emotional experiences, whether they come in the form of social approval, fame, or wealth. Indeed, it is the pursuit itself, more so even than the actual attainment of the goal, that extroverts find so gratifying. When Barbara Walters asked Trump in 1987 whether he would like to be appointed president of the United States, rather than having to run for the job, Trump said no: “It’s the hunt that I believe I love.”
Trump’s agreeableness seems even more extreme than his extroversion, but in the opposite direction. Arguably the most highly valued human trait the world over, agreeableness pertains to the extent to which a person appears to be caring, loving, affectionate, polite, and kind. Trump loves his family, for sure. He is reported to be a generous and fair-minded boss. There is even a famous story about his meeting with a boy who was dying of cancer. A fan of The Apprentice, the young boy simply wanted Trump to tell him, “You’re fired!” Trump could not bring himself to do it, but instead wrote the boy a check for several thousand dollars and told him, “Go and have the time of your life.” But like extroversion and the other Big Five traits, agreeableness is about an overall style of relating to others and to the world, and these noteworthy exceptions run against the broad social reputation Trump has garnered as a remarkably disagreeable person, based upon a lifetime of widely observed interactions. People low in agreeableness are described as callous, rude, arrogant, and lacking in empathy. If Donald Trump does not score low on this personality dimension, then probably nobody does.
Researchers rank Richard Nixon as the nation’s most disagreeable president. But he was sweetness and light compared with the man who once sent The New York Times’ Gail Collins a copy of her own column with her photo circled and the words “The Face of a Dog!” scrawled on it. Complaining in Never Enough about “some nasty shit” that Cher, the singer and actress, once said about him, Trump bragged: “I knocked the shit out of her” on Twitter, “and she never said a thing about me after that.” At campaign rallies, Trump has encouraged his supporters to rough up protesters. “Get ’em out of here!” he yells. “I’d like to punch him in the face.” From unsympathetic journalists to political rivals, Trump calls his opponents “disgusting” and writes them off as “losers.” By the standards of reality TV, Trump’s disagreeableness may not be so shocking. But political candidates who want people to vote for them rarely behave like this.
Trump’s tendencies toward social ambition and aggressiveness were evident very early in his life, as we will see later. (By his own account, he once punched his second-grade music teacher, giving him a black eye.) According to Barbara Res, who in the early 1980s served as vice president in charge of construction of Trump Tower in Manhattan, the emotional core around which Donald Trump’s personality constellates is anger: “As far as the anger is concerned, that’s real for sure. He’s not faking it,” she told The Daily Beast in February. “The fact that he gets mad, that’s his personality.” Indeed, anger may be the operative emotion behind Trump’s high extroversion as well as his low agreeableness. Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.
Imagine Donald Trump in the White House. What kind of decision maker might he be?
It is very difficult to predict the actions a president will take. When the dust settled after the 2000 election, did anybody foresee that George W. Bush would someday launch a preemptive invasion of Iraq? If so, I haven’t read about it. Bush probably would never have gone after Saddam Hussein if 9/11 had not happened. But world events invariably hijack a presidency. Obama inherited a devastating recession, and after the 2010 midterm elections, he struggled with a recalcitrant Republican Congress. What kinds of decisions might he have made had these events not occurred? We will never know.
Still, dispositional personality traits may provide clues to a president’s decision-making style. Research suggests that extroverts tend to take high-stakes risks and that people with low levels of openness rarely question their deepest convictions. Entering office with high levels of extroversion and very low openness, Bush was predisposed to make bold decisions aimed at achieving big rewards, and to make them with the assurance that he could not be wrong. As I argued in my psychological biography of Bush, the game-changing decision to invade Iraq was the kind of decision he was likely to make. As world events transpired to open up an opportunity for the invasion, Bush found additional psychological affirmation both in his lifelong desire—pursued again and again before he ever became president—to defend his beloved father from enemies (think: Saddam Hussein) and in his own life story, wherein the hero liberates himself from oppressive forces (think: sin, alcohol) to restore peace and freedom.
Like Bush, a President Trump might try to swing for the fences in an effort to deliver big payoffs—to make America great again, as his campaign slogan says. As a real-estate developer, he has certainly taken big risks, although he has become a more conservative businessman following setbacks in the 1990s. As a result of the risks he has taken, Trump can (and does) point to luxurious urban towers, lavish golf courses, and a personal fortune that is, by some estimates, in the billions, all of which clearly bring him big psychic rewards. Risky decisions have also resulted in four Chapter 11 business bankruptcies involving some of his casinos and resorts. Because he is not burdened with Bush’s low level of openness (psychologists have rated Bush at the bottom of the list on this trait), Trump may be a more flexible and pragmatic decision maker, more like Bill Clinton than Bush: He may look longer and harder than Bush did before he leaps. And because he is viewed as markedly less ideological than most presidential candidates (political observers note that on some issues he seems conservative, on others liberal, and on still others nonclassifiable), Trump may be able to switch positions easily, leaving room to maneuver in negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders. But on balance, he’s unlikely to shy away from risky decisions that, should they work out, could burnish his legacy and provide him an emotional payoff.
The real psychological wild card, however, is Trump’s agreeableness—or lack thereof. There has probably never been a U.S. president as consistently and overtly disagreeable on the public stage as Donald Trump is. If Nixon comes closest, we might predict that Trump’s style of decision making would look like the hard-nosed realpolitik that Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, displayed in international affairs during the early 1970s, along with its bare-knuckled domestic analog. That may not be all bad, depending on one’s perspective. Not readily swayed by warm sentiments or humanitarian impulses, decision makers who, like Nixon, are dispositionally low on agreeableness might hold certain advantages when it comes to balancing competing interests or bargaining with adversaries, such as China in Nixon’s time. In international affairs, Nixon was tough, pragmatic, and coolly rational. Trump seems capable of a similar toughness and strategic pragmatism, although the cool rationality does not always seem to fit, probably because Trump’s disagreeableness appears so strongly motivated by anger.
In domestic politics, Nixon was widely recognized to be cunning, callous, cynical, and Machiavellian, even by the standards of American politicians. Empathy was not his strong suit. This sounds a lot like Donald Trump, too—except you have to add the ebullient extroversion, the relentless showmanship, and the larger-than-life celebrity. Nixon could never fill a room the way Trump can.
Research shows that people low in agreeableness are typically viewed as untrustworthy. Dishonesty and deceit brought down Nixon and damaged the institution of the presidency. It is generally believed today that all politicians lie, or at least dissemble, but Trump appears extreme in this regard. Assessing the truthfulness of the 2016 candidates’ campaign statements, PolitiFact recently calculated that only 2 percent of the claims made by Trump are true, 7 percent are mostly true, 15 percent are half true, 15 percent are mostly false, 42 percent are false, and 18 percent are “pants on fire.” Adding up the last three numbers (from mostly false to flagrantly so), Trump scores 75 percent. The corresponding figures for Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, respectively, are 66, 32, 31, and 29 percent.
In sum, Donald Trump’s basic personality traits suggest a presidency that could be highly combustible. One possible yield is an energetic, activist president who has a less than cordial relationship with the truth. He could be a daring and ruthlessly aggressive decision maker who desperately desires to create the strongest, tallest, shiniest, and most awesome result—and who never thinks twice about the collateral damage he will leave behind. Tough. Bellicose. Threatening. Explosive.
In the presidential contest of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the most electoral votes, edging out John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Because Jackson did not have a majority, however, the election was decided in the House of Representatives, where Adams prevailed. Adams subsequently chose Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson’s supporters were infuriated by what they described as a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Clay. The Washington establishment had defied the will of the people, they believed. Jackson rode the wave of public resentment to victory four years later, marking a dramatic turning point in American politics. A beloved hero of western farmers and frontiersmen, Jackson was the first nonaristocrat to become president. He was the first president to invite everyday folk to the inaugural reception. To the horror of the political elite, throngs tracked mud through the White House and broke dishes and decorative objects. Washington insiders reviled Jackson. They saw him as intemperate, vulgar, and stupid. Opponents called him a jackass—the origin of the donkey symbol for the Democratic Party. In a conversation with Daniel Webster in 1824, Thomas Jefferson described Jackson as “one of the most unfit men I know of” to become president of the United States, “a dangerous man” who cannot speak in a civilized manner because he “choke[s] with rage,” a man whose “passions are terrible.” Jefferson feared that the slightest insult from a foreign leader could impel Jackson to declare war. Even Jackson’s friends and admiring colleagues feared his volcanic temper. Jackson fought at least 14 duels in his life, leaving him with bullet fragments lodged throughout his body. On the last day of his presidency, he admitted to only two regrets: that he was never able to shoot Henry Clay or hang John C. Calhoun.
Combined with a gift for humor, anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma.
The similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump do not end with their aggressive temperaments and their respective positions as Washington outsiders. The similarities extend to the dynamic created between these dominant social actors and their adoring audiences—or, to be fairer to Jackson, what Jackson’s political opponents consistently feared that dynamic to be. They named Jackson “King Mob” for what they perceived as his demagoguery. Jackson was an angry populist, they believed—a wild-haired mountain man who channeled the crude sensibilities of the masses. More than 100 years before social scientists would invent the concept of the authoritarian personality to explain the people who are drawn to autocratic leaders, Jackson’s detractors feared what a popular strongman might do when encouraged by an angry mob.
During and after World War II, psychologists conceived of the authoritarian personality as a pattern of attitudes and values revolving around adherence to society’s traditional norms, submission to authorities who personify or reinforce those norms, and antipathy—to the point of hatred and aggression—toward those who either challenge in-group norms or lie outside their orbit. Among white Americans, high scores on measures of authoritarianism today tend to be associated with prejudice against a wide range of “out-groups,” including homosexuals, African Americans, immigrants, and Muslims. Authoritarianism is also associated with suspiciousness of the humanities and the arts, and with cognitive rigidity, militaristic sentiments, and Christian fundamentalism.
When individuals with authoritarian proclivities fear that their way of life is being threatened, they may turn to strong leaders who promise to keep them safe—leaders like Donald Trump. In a national poll conducted recently by the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams, high levels of authoritarianism emerged as the single strongest predictor of expressing political support for Donald Trump. Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border to keep illegal immigrants out and his railing against Muslims and other outsiders have presumably fed that dynamic.
As the social psychologist Jesse Graham has noted, Trump appeals to an ancient fear of contagion, which analogizes out-groups to parasites, poisons, and other impurities. In this regard, it is perhaps no psychological accident that Trump displays a phobia of germs, and seems repulsed by bodily fluids, especially women’s. He famously remarked that Megyn Kelly of Fox News had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and he repeatedly characterized Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate as “disgusting.” Disgust is a primal response to impurity. On a daily basis, Trump seems to experience more disgust, or at least to say he does, than most people do.
The authoritarian mandate is to ensure the security, purity, and goodness of the in-group—to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. In the 1820s, white settlers in Georgia and other frontier areas lived in constant fear of American Indian tribes. They resented the federal government for not keeping them safe from what they perceived to be a mortal threat and a corrupting contagion. Responding to these fears, President Jackson pushed hard for the passage of the Indian Removal Act, which eventually led to the forced relocation of 45,000 American Indians. At least 4,000 Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears, which ran from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory.
An American strand of authoritarianism may help explain why the thrice-married, foul-mouthed Donald Trump should prove to be so attractive to white Christian evangelicals. As Jerry Falwell Jr. told The New York Times in February, “All the social issues—traditional family values, abortion—are moot if isis blows up some of our cities or if the borders are not fortified.” Rank-and-file evangelicals “are trying to save the country,” Falwell said. Being “saved” has a special resonance among evangelicals—saved from sin and damnation, of course, but also saved from the threats and impurities of a corrupt and dangerous world.
Trump appeals to an ancient fear of contagion, which analogizes out-groups to parasites and poisons.
When my research associates and I once asked politically conservative Christians scoring high on authoritarianism to imagine what their life (and their world) might have been like had they never found religious faith, many described utter chaos—families torn apart, rampant infidelity and hate, cities on fire, the inner rings of hell. By contrast, equally devout politically liberal Christians who scored low on authoritarianism described a barren world depleted of all resources, joyless and bleak, like the arid surface of the moon. For authoritarian Christians, a strong faith—like a strong leader—saves them from chaos and tamps down fears and conflicts. Donald Trump is a savior, even if he preens and swears, and waffles on the issue of abortion.
In December, on the campaign trail in Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump stoked fears in his audience by repeatedly saying that “something bad is happening” and “something really dangerous is going on.” He was asked by a 12-year-old girl from Virginia, “I’m scared—what are you going to do to protect this country?”
Trump responded: “You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”
II. His Mental Habits
In The Art of the Deal, Trump counsels executives, CEOs, and other deal makers to “think big,” “use your leverage,” and always “fight back.” When you go into a negotiation, you must begin from a position of unassailable strength. You must project bigness. “I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after,” he writes.
For Trump, the concept of “the deal” represents what psychologists call a personal schema—a way of knowing the world that permeates his thoughts. Cognitive-science research suggests that people rely on personal schemata to process new social information efficiently and effectively. By their very nature, however, schemata narrow a person’s focus to a few well-worn approaches that may have worked in the past, but may not necessarily bend to accommodate changing circumstances. A key to successful decision making is knowing what your schemata are, so that you can change them when you need to.
In the negotiations for the Menie Estate in Scotland, Trump wore Tom Griffin down by making one outlandish demand after another and bargaining hard on even the most trivial issues of disagreement. He never quit fighting. “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition,” Trump writes. When local residents refused to sell properties that Trump needed in order to finish the golf resort, he ridiculed them on the Late Show With David Letterman and in newspapers, describing the locals as rubes who lived in “disgusting” ramshackle hovels. As D’Antonio recounts in Never Enough, Trump’s attacks incurred the enmity of millions in the British Isles, inspired an award-winning documentary highly critical of Trump (You’ve Been Trumped), and transformed a local farmer and part-time fisherman named Michael Forbes into a national hero. After painting the words no golf course on his barn and telling Trump he could “take his money and shove it up his arse,” Forbes received the 2012 Top Scot honor at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. (That same year, Trump’s golf course was completed nonetheless. He promised that its construction would create 1,200 permanent jobs in the Aberdeen area, but to date, only about 200 have been documented.)
Trump’s recommendations for successful deal making include less antagonistic strategies: “protect the downside” (anticipate what can go wrong), “maximize your options,” “know your market,” “get the word out,” and “have fun.” As president, Trump would negotiate better trade deals with China, he says, guarantee a better health-care system by making deals with pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, and force Mexico to agree to a deal whereby it would pay for a border wall. On the campaign trail, he has often said that he would simply pick up the phone and call people—say, a CEO wishing to move his company to Mexico—in order to make propitious deals for the American people.
Trump’s focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating pays respect to a venerable political tradition. For example, a contributor to Lyndon B. Johnson’s success in pushing through civil-rights legislation and other social programs in the 1960s was his unparalleled expertise in cajoling lawmakers. Obama, by contrast, has been accused of failing to put in the personal effort needed to forge close and productive relationships with individual members of Congress.
Having said that, deal making is an apt description for only some presidential activities, and the modern presidency is too complex to rely mainly on personal relationships. Presidents work within institutional frameworks that transcend the idiosyncratic relationships between specific people, be they heads of state, Cabinet secretaries, or members of Congress. The most-effective leaders are able to maintain some measure of distance from the social and emotional fray of everyday politics. Keeping the big picture in mind and balancing a myriad of competing interests, they cannot afford to invest too heavily in any particular relationship. For U.S. presidents, the political is not merely personal. It has to be much more.
Trump has hinted at other means through which he might address the kind of complex, long-standing problems that presidents face. “Here’s the way I work,” he writes in Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, the campaign manifesto he published late last year. “I find the people who are the best in the world at what needs to be done, then I hire them to do it, and then I let them do it … but I always watch over them.” And Trump knows that he cannot do it alone:
Many of our problems, caused by years of stupid decisions, or no decisions at all, have grown into a huge mess. If I could wave a magic wand and fix them, I’d do it. But there are a lot of different voices—and interests—that have to be considered when working toward solutions. This involves getting people into a room and negotiating compromises until everyone walks out of that room on the same page.
Amid the polarized political rhetoric of 2016, it is refreshing to hear a candidate invoke the concept of compromise and acknowledge that different voices need to be heard. Still, Trump’s image of a bunch of people in a room hashing things out connotes a neater and more self-contained process than political reality affords. It is possible that Trump could prove to be adept as the helmsman of an unwieldy government whose operation involves much more than striking deals—but that would require a set of schemata and skills that appear to lie outside his accustomed way of solving problems.
III. His Motivations
For psychologists, it is almost impossible to talk about Donald Trump without using the word narcissism. Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
When I walk north on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where I live, I often stop to admire the sleek tower that Trump built on the Chicago River. But why did he have to stencil his name in 20‑foot letters across the front? As nearly everybody knows, Trump has attached his name to pretty much everything he has ever touched—from casinos to steaks to a so-called university that promised to teach students how to become rich. Self-references pervade Trump’s speeches and conversations, too. When, in the summer of 1999, he stood up to offer remarks at his father’s funeral, Trump spoke mainly about himself. It was the toughest day of his own life, Trump began. He went on to talk about Fred Trump’s greatest achievement: raising a brilliant and renowned son. As Gwenda Blair writes in her three-generation biography of the Trump family, The Trumps, “the first-person singular pronouns, the I and me and my, eclipsed the he and his. Where others spoke of their memories of Fred Trump, [Donald] spoke of Fred Trump’s endorsement.”
In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns. The story provides the mythical source for the modern concept of narcissism, which is conceived as excessive self-love and the attendant qualities of grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. Highly narcissistic people are always trying to draw attention to themselves. Repeated and inordinate self-reference is a distinguishing feature of their personality.
Narcissism in presidents is a double-edged sword. It is associated with historians’ ratings of “greatness”—but also with impeachment resolutions.
To consider the role of narcissism in Donald Trump’s life is to go beyond the dispositional traits of the social actor—beyond the high extroversion and low agreeableness, beyond his personal schemata for decision making—to try to figure out what motivates the man. What does Donald Trump really want? What are his most valued life goals?
Narcissus wanted, more than anything else, to love himself. People with strong narcissistic needs want to love themselves, and they desperately want others to love them too—or at least admire them, see them as brilliant and powerful and beautiful, even just see them, period. The fundamental life goal is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see. “I’m the king of Palm Beach,” Trump told the journalist Timothy O’Brien for his 2005 book, TrumpNation. Celebrities and rich people “all come over” to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s exclusive Palm Beach estate. “They all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say, ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ But I’m the king.”
The renowned psychoanalytic theorist Heinz Kohut argued that narcissism stems from a deficiency in early-life mirroring: The parents fail to lovingly reflect back the young boy’s (or girl’s) own budding grandiosity, leaving the child in desperate