The best way to anticipate what a person will do in the future is to review what he or she has done in the past. Prior behavior can reveal much about a person’s goals, beliefs, and priorities, and it can tell us how they tend to approach challenging situations. Mr. Trump remains something of an enigma, though, at least when it comes to public policy. His real estate dealings and other business attempts don’t tell us much about his visions for domestic or foreign affairs. When he does talk about his plans for the nation, his pronouncements are most often vague. Sometimes, as in the case of a border wall and expanding our nuclear arsenal, they are so outrageous or nonsensical that one can only assume he can’t be serious but is instead attempting to shock, confuse, or draw attention. Some people have speculated that his impulsive statements and erratic behavior are intentional to keep his adversaries off guard. I don’t think so. I’m unconvinced that a well-conceived manipulative strategy underlies such things. His statements are too unscripted and contradictory for that. However, they can tell us much about his psychology.
Despite his lack of political experience, Trump has quite a past, and it might help us predict his behavior as president. I recently came across a fascinating (and very long) article, The Mind of Donald Trump, published in the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic. It was written by Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology and the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University. His insights about the personality and psychology of the man who will soon occupy the Oval Office are both enlightening and disturbing.
According to McAdams, the self-promoting bluster Trump exhibited during his campaign wasn’t just showmanship for the sake of gaining political support. Self-promotion is not only what Trump does; it’s what Trump is. Professor McAdams concludes his article with this paragraph:
Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.
Donald Trump’s boisterous bragging may have been a show, but the show is all there is. His statements about having ‘a good brain,’ of being ‘like, smart,’ and his claims about the accuracy of his instincts aren’t just bluster. He believes them, or at least he believes they are useful things to say. Ultimately, Trump believes in the greatness of Donald Trump. If he has any values beyond that, they are not clear. Everything he does, everything he says, is to enhance his self-image and to get others to agree with it.
Trump is quick to take credit for successes, but he is very poor at accepting responsibility for his mistakes. When challenged about his questionable actions, Trump’s first reaction is often to deny they happened. When this fails, he frequently disparages the character of his accuser. We have seen this kind of behavior several times during the presidential debates, but it is also how he responded to multiple accusations of sexual abuse and fraud. When confronted with a failure, he denies accountability. When this is not possible, he reinterprets the situation, rationalizing such things as not delivering promised results, bankruptcies, and defaulting on loans as part of a legitimate business strategy. This is not just an attempt at public deception. It is self-deception as well. He is extremely reluctant to consider, let alone accept, that he may have made a mistake. As president, I expect this personality flaw will remain unchanged.
Presidents must be thick-skinned. They need the maturity and strength of character necessary to tolerate criticism without taking personal offense and without threatening reprisal. Trump does not have it. He is quick to seek retribution for real and imagined challenges. Publically, this has taken the form of threatened lawsuits. He threated Ted Cruz with a lawsuit because Cruz ran a campaign ad against him. He threatened to bring suit against the Washington Post for an article it published on the bankruptcy of the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. He actually brought suit against the comedian Bill Maher for a joke about Trump’s ancestry (i.e. about being part orangutan. Apparently, Trump did not know enough biology to recognize a joke about his orange hair). Trump seldom follows through with these threats, but that is not the point. His behavior is like that of a spoiled child threatening to tell his mommy about a sibling calling him a name.
As a private citizen, this kind of behavior reflects poorly only on himself. As president, it makes the entire nation appear out of control. In the past, his often-idle threats carried few consequences beyond those immediately involved. This is no longer true. Other nations will take notice and adjust their diplomatic, military, and economic ties accordingly. Within his first year in office, I expect he’ll say something inappropriate that will increase international tensions and possibly lead to a rise in global defense spending. He has already unwisely annoyed China due his ignorance of how deeply they regard the ‘One China’ policy. If I were a bit more cynical, or if I had a higher regard for his strategic talents, I’d wonder if this too was intentional in order to increase defense industry stock values for either himself, his family, or his supporters.
Trump shuns input from objective experts. They make him uncomfortable, defensive. Their knowledge reveals his ignorance. They know something he does not, which undermines his grandiose self-perception. His rejection of the need for daily intelligence briefings is an early sign of this. When he seeks advice as president, it will be so that he can claim to be open-minded. He understands that most people consider this a virtue, although he may consider it a desirable trait only in lesser men. I would not expect him to follow much advice, especially any that contradicts his ‘instincts.’ To do so would suggest he was mistaken about something, which great men like himself (if there were any) seldom are. This may partly be behind his seemingly irrational refusal to accept the clear link between human activity and climate change. To do so would almost require that he, as president, not only know something about it but also to do something about it. Given his starting point, this would be difficult. He has gone so far as to claim that the changing climate is a Chinese perpetrated hoax. Could this be because he doesn’t know much about science but is intimately familiar with hoaxes?
His decisions about major issues will rely less on facts than they will on his limited experience as a real estate investor. He will undervalue input from subject matter experts and overvalue the opinions of those who he believes support him. Given the backgrounds of the people chosen for his cabinet, I expect his administration will make little or no progress on climate change, progressive taxation, health care, income and wealth disparity, international trade issues, employment, wages, the federal debt, or world peace. These are all externalities to his core interests. I expect that within his first two years in office, his disregard of expert advice will result in dire consequences. The most likely possibility I can see will be ignoring input from the intelligence community about a terrorist threat, one from a source that isn’t on his personal radar. Another possibility is that he will ignore expert advice and react inappropriately to a false threat.
Perhaps the best way to get him to act responsibly is to approach him in in the guise of a sycophant. If you are an expert in a particular field, and are in the unfortunate position of meeting with him to provide input, I suggest behaving as if you think he is not only sane but also wise. Begin with flattery and then gently attempt to get him to see that his personal status will benefit from supporting policies that effectively address the facts of the matter at hand. I wish you good luck.
It is a mistake to attempt to anticipate the actions of Mr. Trump on any objective reality. His past implies that he is not overly susceptible to facts. He seems to regard them as flexible and not qualitatively different from opinions. And whereas Trump is capable of plotting a course of action to achieve a particular goal, he isn’t a deep thinker or a strategic planner. He reacts impulsively, emotionally. I expect he will base his future actions on gut feelings of how they will enhance his popularity and his personal status. This would not be as disturbing in a president capable of other considerations first, such as the wellbeing of the nation and its citizens. Neither of these will be primary concerns for Mr. Trump. As long as we bear in mind that his ultimate goal is the expansion of his own ego, and that he sees everything and everyone else in the world as tools and resources that he can use to that end, we can gain insight into how he will react to situations in the future.
We can’t predict what those future situations will be, but if nothing totally outside the norm happens (such as a large meteor impact, super-volcano eruption, or alien visitation), I expect that Donald Trump will continue acting as Donald Trump, a man convinced of his own superiority but continually craving the adulation of others to confirm it. He will continue to speak without thinking, insult those who criticize him, and deny responsibility for the consequences. Trump may not the kind of leader we would willingly follow, but he is one we would be wise to watch closely.
The Mind of Donald Trump (Atlantic Magazine) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771
Is Donald Trump Actually a Narcissist? (Vanity Fair) http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/donald-trump-narcissism-therapists