You don’t need to be a psychologist, or an avid politico for that matter, to recognize that, whatever else he might be, Donald Trump makes for a fascinating psychological case study. His persona—outlandish, brash, and belligerent—compels attention and analysis, especially now that he is in possession of tremendous real world power.
Now, public life, particularly in our connected, celebrity age, is never wanting for outsized personalities. But most political candidates are content to play the game. They recognize their demons and seek to hide, manage, or spin them in a positive light. They are self aware: they try to avoid lapses of self-control so as to keep their positive public image intact, their speeches on message, and their narrative polished.
When their mask slips—when they are caught in a moment of pettiness or inattention, a display of ignorance, an episode of personal cruelty or greed, the telling of a lie—they rush to apologize, deny, or distract the public from the gaffe. Most public figures, in other words, appear before us properly dressed, psychologically speaking. They try to avoid psychological wardrobe malfunctions.
Trump on the other hand appears before us psychologically naked, unconstrained by self-insight or control. The gaffes are the script. The chaos is the order. Displays of vindictiveness, impatience, haughtiness or avarice don’t detract from his appeal; they are his appeal. He plays his own game.
As a candidate, Trump’s ascent has served to upend some long standing, taken for granted assumptions about the political system. Trump has proven us wrong about the things we thought a candidate had to do, say, or be in order to become president. Likewise he has disproved our assumptions about what a candidate could not do, say, or be and still become president. The effect is jarring. Yet, having what we take for granted questioned or even upended is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, this kind of upheaval may be necessary for progress to occur.
In one sense, therefore, Trump may be likened to the innocent boy in the crowd of nervous conformists who yells out that the emperor has no clothes. His candidacy showed much consensus political wisdom to be illusory and false. On another level, paradoxically, he may be the vain and prideful emperor, so self-absorbed that he can’t see his own nakedness; so confident in his con as to appear honest, so bold in his lies as to make truth appear immaterial.
Either way, in the long term, Trump’s ascent may provide an important—albeit risky and inadvertent—corrective opportunity for mending the body politic. If he proves to be a successful president, then we must correct our basic assumptions about the personal qualities required for the job. If his presidency is disastrous, then we must correct the way we elect presidents.
For psychologists, Trump’s uniquely vivid, transparent, and ubiquitous persona invites analysis and interpretation, in part because it maps so well onto many well-known psychological constructs. One historical example is found in the classic work of Alfred Adler (1870-1937).
Adler, a contemporary, early disciple, and later rival of Freud, argued that the ‘fundamental fact of life’ confronting all of us is our initial weakness and inadequacy—the child’s inferiority. In line with evolutionary ideas, Adler therefore regarded all human striving as “a struggle for perfection.” The challenge for each individual is to find a way toward empowerment, to move “from a minus to a plus,” to overcome. If the child is properly nurtured and supported, their innate “communal feeling”—the desire to belong—guides this effort. Children find empowerment in becoming socially useful, cooperating with others to overcome obstacles, master skills, complete tasks, and achieve socially beneficial goals.
Sometimes however—if the child is spoiled, neglected, or otherwise thwarted persistently—the stress of the struggle may cause the stifled desire to overcome to morph into an “inferiority complex,” whereby the child feels paralyzed, stuck, desperate and worthless. This early sense of self can lead to faulty coping strategies, or “mistaken styles of life,” all of which involve an abandonment of the communal feeling; they are, in essence, forms of narcissism.
Adler outlined three such mistaken lifestyles: The person may deal with their inferiority complex by avoiding others and distancing themselves from living. They may deal by deploying a getting/leaning strategy—becoming needy and dependent, using others to meet their own needs; or they may choose to seek domination over others.
In this latter case, which is more common in those who are by temperament ‘active’ (excitable, impulsive, volatile), the desire to compensate for a deep feeling of inferiority may manifest as a “superiority complex” which, “ignoring social feeling, always aims at the glitter of personal conquest.”
According to Adler, the superiority complex shows itself in the person’s character-traits, their bearing, and their conviction that they are special or supremely gifted. For Adler, behaviors that manifest a superiority complex include the following:
"Disdain, vanities in connection with personal appearance… arrogance, exuberant emotion, snobbism, boastfulness, a tyrannical nature, … as well as an inclination to fawn upon prominent persons or to domineer over people who are weak or ill or of diminutive stature, emphasizing one's own idiosyncrasies, misuse of valuable ideas and tendencies to depreciate other persons, etc.”
Adler adds, “heightened affects like anger, desire of revenge … directing the conversation to one's own self, habitual excitement over trivial happenings, point extremely often to a feeling of inferiority ending in a superiority complex.”
According to Adler, people with a superiority complex often deploy “safeguarding tendencies”—maneuvers for protecting their underlying fragile sense of self. These safeguarding tendencies commonly include aggression, which, according to Adler, tends to manifest through “depreciation,” undervaluing others’ achievements and overvaluing one’s own, and “accusation”—the tendency to blame others for one’s failures and to seek retribution.
Adler was doing all this theorizing about the superiority complex in the early 1930s. In the years since then, psychological science has come to widely recognize the need for power and domination as one of the basic motivations directing people’s personal and social lives. In particular, more recent empirical evidence has highlighted a link between the need for power and dominance, particularly in its heightened form (akin to Adler’s superiority complex) and various forms of destructive psychopathology.
Much of the empirical and theoretical work on power motivation has been pooling under the notion of ‘Dominance Behavioral System’ (DBS). According to an extensive review of this literature by Sheri Johnson of the University of California Berkeley and colleagues (2012), Dominance Behavioral System, “encompasses a series of biological, psychological, and behavioral components. These components serve the organism's goal of control over social and material resources that are critical for survival and reproduction. The DBS motivates behavior, directs sensory processing, and ensures efficient, rapid learning of behaviors that increase the likelihood of attaining this goal.”
Of interest in the context of this discussion is that Johnson’s review finds that high DBS is strongly correlated with three types of psychopathology: Externalizing disorders, Narcissistic disorder, and Mania.
Externalizing disorders are a group of disorders characterized by disruptive behavior; chief among them are antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. Antisocial personality disorder is defined by, “persistent and pervasive disregard for, or violation of, the rights of others.” Psychopathy closely overlaps with antisocial personality, but tends to relate more to internal states; it typically includes “emotional traits (e.g., a lack of shame, guilt, or remorse), interpersonal traits (an absence of empathy, an egocentric perspective), and behaviors reflecting poor self-control (e.g., impulsive behavior, difficulty maintaining employment, and financial debt).”
Narcissism is characterized by “a set of stable traits that interfere with functioning, including an exaggerated sense of self-importance, fantasies of unlimited success and power, beliefs that one is special, excessive need for admiration, proneness to envy, contemptuous attitudes and behavior toward others, entitlement, exploitive behavior, lack of empathy, beliefs that others are envious of oneself, and arrogance.”
Mania is characterized by periods of “distinctly euphoric or irritable mood, accompanied by other symptoms, such as being overly confident, requiring less sleep, increased talking, racing thoughts, and engagement in rewarding activities without regard for the negative consequences (e.g., risky sexual activity, excessive spending, and other disinhibited behaviors).”
In sum, accumulating data from contemporary investigations suggest that an exceptionally high need for dominance and power (Adler’s superiority complex) is closely linked to certain formally diagnosable psychological disorders. These disorders have in common that they are often not experienced as such by those afflicted, who therefore often fail to seek, agree to receive, or truly commit to, professional help. Without competent help, Psychopathic, Narcissistic and Manic individuals are unlikely to develop and maintain adequate levels of self-awareness and self-control; thus, they often end up inflicting much damage on those around them.
So, while it is neither wise nor ethical for psychologists to formally diagnose a person from afar, it is also impossible for those knowledgeable in the areas of personality psychology and psychopathology to ignore the extraordinary degree to which Trump’s visible and consistent patterns of behavior and emotional expression map onto well-documented types of psychopathology.
Political, philosophical, and sociological considerations aside, by the psychologically-informed eyeball test alone, the president-elect is a deeply wounded man likely to inflict much damage on his environment (that would be us, and the planet). A failure to acknowledge that will not prevent it from happening.