TRUMP 101: The Psychology of the American President-Elect, his Supporter, and his Critic

by David King on November 12, 2016

Donald Trump

For brevity’s sake, I’m going to cut right to it—and leave the frills and prose for another post. After spending a good part of this teaching term discussing and analyzing Donald J. Trump with my students, I thought I might offer some additional insight on the madness that has befallen the United States of America and the Western world at large. 

I believe there are three primary perspectives worth considering in psychological terms. The first is the man himself, Donald J. Trump. He served as our second case study in my personality course, and so some credit is owed to my students whose thoughts and views have contributed to these conclusions. The second perspective is that of the Trump supporter, whose psychology may indeed bear the greatest burden of responsibility in this election. The final perspective is that of the Trump critic. Unsurprisingly to most, I identify with the third (and I make no apologies for this bias in my analysis). I should also note at this juncture that I am Canadian, so this is an outsider’s perspective. Let’s take a closer look…

1. Donald Trump

Despite his significant impact on the field of psychology, Sigmund Freud wavers in popularity today. Of course many of his ideas seem downright wacky when considered in a contemporary context (see the concept of penis envy, for example). But I believe all is not lost with Freud, and Trump may help illustrate this point. Take Freud’s proposed organization of the psyche: the most primitive part of the mind is responsible for our basic urges and instincts (the id), while another (the superego) internalizes the morals and values of society, resulting in what best resembles our notion of a conscience. These two parts of the mind place pressure on the individual, battling for control over behaviour. It is the role of the ego to maintain balance (or at least try), so that the id is constrained to the realities of the world and the person is able to function normally. Although the id is relatively innate and the ego develops quite early in life, the superego does not begin emerging until around age 5.

There was little doubt among my students as to how these concepts generally apply to Trump: the man does not have a fully developed superego. This may at first sound like an oversimplification of an individual’s personality, but it may offer an appropriate starting point in this case. Trump exhibits frequent immoral and unethical behaviour (the main thorn in his critic’s side), from his unbridled lying and bullying to his very apparent lack of remorse for these behaviours. He may be responsive to immediate social demands (for example, at his rallies), but there indeed appears to be a real lack of moral fortitude. No better case can be found than in his comments about women, and his support of what is nothing less than sexual assault behaviour. In the search for evidence of a conscience in Trump, needle-in-a-haystack analogies accurately apply. This makes sense from a developmental perspective. According to Freud, it is between the ages of 3 and 5 that the superego is shaped and refined. In order for optimal psychological development to occur during this time, there needs to be a proper resolution of the tension between dependence and autonomy, underscoring the importance of parent relationships.

What do we know about Trump’s childhood? According to biographical reports, his father overindulged his sense of autonomy and agency; little Donald was taught at a young age that he could have and do whatever he desired. He also maintained feelings of competition with his father well into adulthood, and whether or not an Oedipus complex may have been present (should they be possible in the first place), Trump’s adult personality is in line with a fixation at this period of development. Vanity, impulsivity, and self-assuredness consequently characterize Trump today, as Freud would have predicted. This conclusion is corroborated by the work of Erik Erikson (a student of Freud), whose own ideas on psychosocial development highlighted the potential for antisocial and narcissistic tendencies to result from parenting styles that afford children too much initiative—at roughly the same age proposed by Freud (around 4 or 5 years, according to Erikson).

Let’s connect a few dots here. Around the age of 4 or 5, Donald was receiving excessive praise for what were likely superficial accomplishments. He was being told he could do anything, and have anything, so long as he wanted it. He was spoiled. Reports describe him as a brat of a child who threw cake at birthday parties and assaulted teachers with erasers. Inadequate moral development was evident early on, accompanied by a highly competitive relationship with his wealthy father. In combination, these factors led to an insufficient moral foundation that persisted into adulthood (expressed in lying, cheating, and bullying behaviour). This was complemented by an unbounded sense of initiative that evolved into qualities of vanity, self-indulgence, and ultimately narcissism. An inappropriate understanding of social norms provides the ideal backdrop for impulsive, antisocial, and narcissistic behaviour; indeed morals must either be transparent or twisted to seed such undesirable behaviours that now define our image of Trump.

In class, we also discussed defense mechanisms as they were employed by Trump. They are numerous and frequent, and I need not review them all here. They’re the things that have frightened and frustrated us throughout his speeches, during the debates, and on his Twitter feed. The outright denial of things said only moments earlier; the constant deflection and distraction from issues at hand; the repeated projection of his own shortcomings onto Hillary (calling her nasty, or a liar, for example); the blaming and name-calling; and the rationalization, the ongoing barrage of excuses and poorly researched explanations for his wrongdoings. Freud would have had a field day. We all employ defense mechanisms on a semi-regular basis, but Trump’s frequency and style suggest a less mature approach to managing tension and anxiety. His response style also suggests that underneath the grandiosity and self-indulgence, there remains a spoiled little boy who never had the chance to develop an authentic sense of self-worth.

“All of the women on ‘The Apprentice’ flirted with me — consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.” (Donald J. Trump)

This of course brings us to the topic of Trump’s narcissism. I’m not the first to come to this conclusion, but Trump is a textbook narcissist: an extreme preoccupation with himself, constant attention-seeking behaviour, self-admiration and an excessively positive view of himself (“I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far”), bragging (“I’m rich, I’m really rich, I’m really really rich”), a strong sense of entitlement, and perhaps most disconcerting, derogating others in order to make himself feel better. Among other things, research has shown that narcissists are more likely to look at themselves in the mirror, use first-person pronouns during speech, and interrupt others in conversation. In a recent study presented at this year’s annual convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, Dr. Del Paulhus and one of his students from the University of British Columbia performed a content analysis of Trump’s speeches during his presidential campaign, comparing them to other Republicans who were competing for the nomination. Not surprisingly, Trump displayed significantly higher first-person pronoun usage in his speeches—nearly double that of his Republican opponents on average. His tendency to interrupt has also been well documented, most notably during the debates (for example, he interrupted 51 times during the first debate, compared to 17 interruptions from Hillary).

Whether he is high in narcissism is not a question. What is, however, is whether he meets the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder as proposed by the American Psychiatric Association’s current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). When narcissism manifests in its more extreme form, it not only results in dysfunction (for instance, multiple failed businesses, multiple failed marriages, intense public criticism), it also results in a lack of empathy and remorse for others. It is my opinion (and that of my students) that Trump would indeed meet such a diagnosis. It is not simply a lack of empathy that has been evident in Trump’s behaviour; there has been a blatant disregard for the consideration of others and his role in their discontent. While a clinical assessment would technically be required, this is by no means a longshot.

Let’s return to Trump’s early development. As I noted previously, his childhood would have led him to experience a very low self-worth. When parents overindulge their children and adorn them with unsubstantiated praise, their self-esteem tends to be compromised, having no solid basis on which to develop independently. A popular view of narcissism suggests that the self-indulging behaviour is actually a complex defense mechanism, protecting the individual from a very weak sense of self-worth and low self-esteem. This is known as the narcissistic paradox. It is not difficult to imagine that beneath the tough, grandiose exterior there is a fragile sense of self. Donald Trump is a man who is very easily riled; he has been criticized for his unpredictability and his overly sensitive and reactive temperament. Whether he’s aware of the low self-worth that resides within him is unknown, but in spirit, this is a small man who puts on a big show. As another of Freud’s colleagues, Alfred Adler, would have suggested, his constant striving for superiority is nothing but overcompensation for an implicit inferiority complex.

I should note that attributing Trump’s objectionable behaviour to his childhood development in no way excuses it. But it does offer a great deal of insight. The consequences of his childhood are not only in line with early psychoanalytic theory, but they also reflect a contemporary understanding in psychology that specific parenting styles and childhood experiences (in the presence of the right genetic potential, of course) can foster a high degree of narcissism and an outright disregard for the well-being of others. Trump is a bully. He is a racist and a misogynist. He is an instigator of violence and aggression. Do his psychological characteristics exceed narcissism alone? Do we also see evidence of antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy, or psychopathy? These are more difficult questions to answer, but the behaviours remain. This is a man who feeds off of attention and admiration, and he’ll do anything to get it—even run for President.

2. His Supporter

There is another interesting observation that has been made about narcissists: they tend to make good first impressions. Yes, many people fall for their grandiose and exaggerated displays of superiority, often mistaken as real charisma and power. During the primary, the frequency of Trump’s brief but provocative tweets was actually correlated with the number of states he won (Ahmadian & Paulhus, 2016). In other words, he made a good first impression to many. This attention is one of the reasons that Trump spends so much time on Twitter. It’s one of the reasons that narcissists in general tend to spend significantly more time on social media compared to the rest of us.

So the Trump supporter may be easily fooled, but this is not the whole picture. I’d like to consider an additional personality trait, openness to experience. This trait, often referred to simply as openness, involves dimensions of imagination, intellectual curiosity, preference for variety, and attentiveness to inner feelings. A person high in openness is an out-of-the-box kind of thinker, welcoming new ways of thinking, doing, and feeling. By contrast, a person low in openness is more rigid and conventional. They like things the way they are. Research has shown that people low in openness have a heightened fear response, reacting more intensely to threatening and disturbing images. This has been shown experimentally as well as with brain imaging technology. Research has also shown that low openness to experience is accompanied by more conservative political ideologies. This has been demonstrated in numerous samples across political settings (for a review, see Carney et al., 2008). The Trump supporter is, therefore, very likely low in openness and more conventional in their thinking. This is important within the context of Trump’s campaign for one important reason: Trump employed fear-mongering. And it worked with conservatives because of their greater (on average) aversion to such threats—the threat of rapists from Mexico, the threat of NAFTA and lost labour to foreign markets, the threat of Muslim Americans, the threat of illegal immigrants, the threat of China, the threat of Planned Parenthood, the threat of the establishment, the threat of Obamacare, and even the threat of Hillary and her emails. His campaign was littered with fears and threats. According to Trump, the United States was suffering more under Obama’s leadership than any other. He repeatedly induced fear in his conservative followers, and they followed more closely, excited and mobilized by their heightened response to such messages. This further explains why Trump’s rhetoric did not work for all Americans, many of whom score higher on this key trait.

The effectiveness of Trump’s fear-mongering doesn’t end there. When people are reminded of their own mortality via the perception of increased threat, they’re also more likely to experience feelings of nationalism and express more conservative political views. So Trump’s fear-mongering became self-reinforcing to his followers, appealing specifically to the Republican American and strengthening not only their commitment to the man but also their commitment to more rigid, narrow-minded ideas—should they be sexist, xenophobic, racist, or simply conservative in value. Unfortunately, we all tend to hold strong to our preconceived notions and beliefs, particularly in the face of contradicting information. So there is little reasoning with the average Trump supporter, and this is especially the case when trying to communicate facts that contradict what they already believe to be true—even if it’s all a complete lie. This is known as belief perseverance, and it originates from our tendency to seek out information that confirms our expectations.

To summarize the Trump supporter is complicated, as many of these psychological mechanisms are mutually dependent and interactive. Suffice it to say, however, that the (average) Trump supporter is a fairly black-and-white thinker whose fears are being amplified by the man with all the power and glam—the man with his name on everything and who appears confident about the threat of Muslims and Mexicans. A critical component of the delivery is Trump’s narcissism, without which the threats would have fallen flat and the fear level necessary for a win would have not been maintained.

But I digress, for these explanations are limited in their reach. Although I do not believe that ALL Trump supporters are deplorable, at least some are—deplorable not in mind or potential, but in word and action. Whether we like it or not, there is a higher level of sexism, racism, and xenophobia present among Trump supporters. Blatant sexism and racism are more often expressed by Republican Americans in general. Policies and bills that serve to oppress minorities are exclusively proposed and supported by Republican Americans. These things are what they are. Their psychological explanation, on the individual level, is complex; these attitudes are the result of both nature and nurture and they are reinforced by both social and historical context. Trump appealed to them directly, exploiting what is perhaps the country’s greatest weakness, and he did so with success.

3. His Critic

Naturally, the psychology of the Trump critic is implied in our discussion of the Trump supporter.

So let me put it this way. The Trump critic is me. The Trump critic is every person who recognizes the value of diversity and does not shy away from progress; indeed we revel in it. The Trump critic is kind and empathetic, and does not find meaning in the judgment of others, nor in their oppression and pain. The Trump critic is motivated by neither fear nor aggression. We remember the lessons of our childhood, ideas about fairness and compassion, and we try our best to live them. We know the real meaning of democracy, and it has nothing to do with guns, religion, or hate. The Trump critic is a real human being who isn’t fooled by a fake tan and a big name.

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