President Donald Trump

Since the successful campaign that led to his 2016 election, Donald J. Trump has defiantly flipped the presidential script, with chaos and deliberate combativeness a new norm of sorts in White House briefings, staffing turnover, and in the cultural exchanges that define an ever-more-divided nation. The nation is even divided about the degree to which Trump is directly or indirectly accountable for changes in civil discourse, with some citing his rhetoric and policies as a spur for hate crimes and others claiming he is being unfairly demonized by the press. Millions of people around the globe (not to mention many Americans) claim to be baffled by the actual personality at the center of it all, and those alarmed by his tactics and policies seek to shore up their own emotional reactivity and to navigate the civic, legal and ideological battles playing out daily, from Twitter to the federal courts.   

A President's Personality

Trump’s grandiosity and failure to concede widely reported facts, beginning with the size of the crowd on his Inauguration Day, put mental health professionals in the spotlight from Day One of Trump’s presidency. Mental health professionals and commentators from all ideological camps early converged on a label of narcissistic personality disorder as the condition that clearly “explains” Trump’s behavior. Indeed, so many mental health professionals came forward to make this assertion, including by circulating a petition that accrued more than 70,000 signatures, that in 2017 a countermovement sprung up to challenge the public “diagnosis” of a man whom professionals had not personally examined. The concern stemmed in part from longstanding ethical guidelines for mental health professionals. Americans remain divided as to how authoritarian or grandiose Trump may or may not be, and who has the authority to make clinical pronouncements or draw historical parallels.

What Psychological Terms Characterize This Presidency?

Trump’s presidency has given rise to heated discussion about a range of psychological phenomena, well beyond the debate about his own personality. The term “gaslighting” refers to the manipulative attempt to make people question their own perceptions or memory, and it is now often invoked to describe Trump’s behavior, especially his statements about “fake news.” The question of whether or not Trump’s style should be characterized as authoritarian has also led to an analysis of world leaders past and present. Whatever one’s position on Trump and his policies, a narrow area of agreement for most Americans is that the political climate has never been more corrosive. While both parties share responsibility for this to some degree, it is also a function of Trump’s contrarian leadership.

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