A psych assessment of Donald Trump and what it says about our civic culture


Huffington Post science and health writer Carolyn Gregoire has interviewed mental health experts to gauge the psychological make-up of presidential candidate Donald Trump. The assessments aren’t exactly surprising for a man who constantly berates, belittles, and diminishes others. Here’s a sampling:

“In watching Donald Trump in the Republican debates, he comes across as someone who is self-centered and lacking in humility….” (Taya Cohen, Carnegie-Mellon University)

“Narcissists like Donald Trump…are constantly driven to prove themselves among the ‘winners’ of the world, often by triumphing over or denigrating other people as comparative ‘losers….” (Joseph Burgo, psychotherapist and author)

“In general, people like that make a good first impression, but become difficult to work with over time because they feel entitled to special treatment, ignore criticism, and intimidate others…” (Ryne Sherman, personality psychologist, Florida Atlantic University)

The good news? He’s apparently not a Machiavellian who tells people what they want to hear for the sake of manipulating them.

Hate crime expert’s opinion

Hate crime expert Randy Blazak (Portland State University) has devoted his career to studying messaging and communications from groups like the KKK and Nazi sympathizers. He offers a disturbing analysis of Trump’s views on immigrants and racial minorities:

So when I say that presidential candidate Donald Trump is a racist hate-monger it’s not just a political pejorative. He has a constitutional right to hold and express racist views, but using those views to manipulate the intellectually vulnerable and mobilize active bigots requires a coherent response. As an expert on hate, I am more than comfortable stating that either Trump is a virulent racist or that he is willing to perform racism and use racism of others to advance his political position.

Bullying culture

At this juncture, Donald Trump is leading in many polls of Republican primary contenders. While I comprehend the potential appeal of a seemingly no-nonsense leader who promises to get things done in Washington D.C., let’s not confuse this brand of toxic, empathy-free “plain talk” with the qualities we need in our next President.

He has tapped into an ugly vein of American society that thrives on incivility and intolerance. His rhetoric is alarmingly free of evidence of kindness or human understanding. I wrote about America’s bullying culture some four years ago, and I think these characterizations apply to Trump:

In the U.S., we put bullying bosses on a pedestal. In fact, here’s a celebrated Harvard Business Review article by organizational behavior professor Roderick Kramer…, praising the “great intimidators” of the management world:

They are not averse to causing a ruckus, nor are they above using a few public whippings and ceremonial hangings to get attention.

Kramer insists that the great intimidators aren’t your “typical bullies” driven by ego and the desire to humiliate others. No, he claims, these are people of vision.

…or do we get the leaders we deserve?

A recent Yahoo News commentary by Jerry Adler caused me to ask myself, once again, if we simply get the leaders we deserve.

Adler was writing about the potential presidential candidacy of Vice President Joseph Biden, who lost his son Beau, 46, to brain cancer a little over three months ago. Understandably, that terrible loss has been a major factor, if not the major factor, weighing on Biden’s mind as he wrestles with the decision of whether or not to run.

Some of the Vice President’s grief has played out on the public stage. As a presidential candidate, however, Adler suggests that any signs of emotional weakness would not be tolerated:

As a grieving father, Biden is permitted to show his emotions in public, but as a candidate, he can only show strength.

In the piece, Adler speculates how Biden might react if Donald Trump, as the Republican nominee, questioned his capacity to serve in light of his son’s death.

There are few more grueling marathons than a full-on presidential campaign. Joe Biden knows this as well as anyone else. However, the truism that candidates “can only show strength” is disturbing evidence of how American political discourse is stuck in a retrograde emotional zone where stereotypical “toughness” is valued highly and other displays of feelings must be tempered or hidden.

Anybody here, seen my old friend Abraham…

Okay, so you’ve probably figured out that I could never vote for Donald Trump. But I’m not making an unqualified case for Joe Biden, either. For now, I’d simply like a better array of announced choices.

In considering those choices, let’s reject any embrace of narcissistic, intolerant, bullying so-called leaders. Instead, let’s look for the kind of rich humanity evident in someone like Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest President. Lincoln was no pushover; when he had to, he played the game rough. But he was driven by deeper core values and goals. Three years ago, in a piece asking about our heroes in public life, I wrote:

During the Civil War, Lincoln was burdened by a difficult marriage and the death of a beloved young son, and he struggled with what now would be diagnosed as clinical depression.

…I get why figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean so much to so many people. And I understand why Ronald Reagan is so beloved by conservatives.

However, in searching for the qualities of wisdom, compassion, resilience, and courage that we need today, I keep returning to Abraham Lincoln as a singular figure worthy of study and emulation.

Yes, I know that invoking Lincoln is aiming awfully high. But it sure beats the typical political fare served up on cable news these days.

5 responses

  1. Shared to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Everyone loves a circus and Trump has provided one. I see no likely candidates and I believe Europeans’ worse fears of the America are displayed by Trump’s character. Not to get terribly political but I think the Bush/Clinton dynasties have gone on way too long to make an impact on political progressive change.

  2. Wow this all sounds like liberal fascism ! Some of us in California are tired of not being able to get a job because we are not bilingual . What’s wrong with everyone following the imagination laws? So those of us that work with people that are here illegally and been here 20 years and refuse to learn English are not allowed to have an opinion? We must not say a word least we are political correct? Trump proves that money does not by class and bullies come from the top, however , you need to examine the fall of the Roman Empire. Boarders,language,and culture ! You can keep your Heritage but you must adhere to our culture in this United States . Illegal is illegal

  3. I’ve had the good fortune of studying psychology — both in having a college degree with psychology as a major and ongoingly throughout my adult life. I hope this isn’t arrogant, however, I am often distressed about how little informed about psychology the general population seems to be — even among many who are otherwise well-educated. Psychology is so relevant to so many aspects of life, including politics — and certainly at the core of relevance when considering the issues of the healthy workplace and workplace abuse. I look forward to the day when our education systems teaches in a deeper and more widespread way — and our culture is more informed about — psychological principles so that we can more truly enter into the psychology-informed era, that in modern times was initiated principally by Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung (which is not to say that their particular theories are not subject, as all theories, to well-founded scrutiny) — over a hundred years ago!
    I personally think that getting the leaders and the workplaces “we deserve” would be
    greatly enhanced by a more general knowledge of psychology. As an example, my former boss
    expressed indifference when a trustworthy source told him at the beginning of his Presidential appointment that the manager of his staff treated the staff badly “because she got the cases out.” I don’t believe that his response would have been the same if he had had any meaningful level of understanding of psychology.
    Did he legitimately think that a non-abusive manager could not have also “gotten the cases out” and did he not realize the negative effects of having a manager who mistreated the staff (I personally experienced aggravated depression and PTSD, as verified by my doctor, whose report was treated with indifference by the above managers). It is readily discernible from this example of the connection between the lack of psychological understanding (in particular by managers — in this case, including top management) and workplace abuse.
    As a culture, we — all of us — need to stop forcing our heads into the sand and see the writing on
    the wall — in particular the criticality of psychological knowledge about the persons we choose for leaders and about the persons who are chosen for us, often by these same leaders, to be our managers. I personally can testify that the cost of ignorance — whether willing or not — is workplace abuse.

  4. Trump includes VERY little substance – most often none – in his comments about pretty much all things related to being a president. The media contributes much to his current status. Too many people want to be entertained – by the news, by science, by education, by eating, by church, by …. No wonder Trump gets attention.

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