Personality

Donald Trump's Personality: "The Great Disrupter"?

A psychoanalyst, a sociologist, and a psychologist explore Trump's personality.

Posted Oct 01, 2020

The presidential debate of September 29, 2020, many observers agree, represented a new low in American politics.

"That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck," said CNN's Jake Tapper, who termed it "the worst debate I have ever seen." Donald Trump, one account said, "flouted the debate's rules to incessantly heckle" his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden.

Asked if he would condemn white supremacists, specifically the right-wing group Proud Boys, Trump instead asked the group's members to "stand back and stand by." The response drew rapid criticism from many in his own party, including Senators Tim Scott (R-SC), the Senate's only African-American Republican, and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R-UT). Even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), usually a firm Trump ally, said it was "unacceptable" not to condemn white supremacy.    

Psychoanalyst and psychobiographer Paul Elovitz and sociologist Charles Heckscher have been calling out Trump as disruptive for some time now. Their views on his personality, which appear in a new collection, are worth reviewing in light of the debate—and are worth keeping in mind as we move even closer to to the election.

Elovitz calls Trump "the great disrupter." According to him, Trump's modus operandi as president has been to disrupt "Washington, the country, the western world's alliance system, international economics, and his own administration."

The psychoanalyst's article, which was published in a somewhat different version in 2017, sees the disruptive pattern as beginning in Trump's childhood. Specifically, he notes that he was a self-described "pretty tough kid" even at a young age. In his own words, Trump "had a habit of mouthing off to everyone, while backing off to no one." The Trump yard, Elovitz reports, was surrounded by a wall. When a neighbor's ball came over the wall and landed in his yard, young Donald kept the ball and threatened to call "his Dad or the police." 

Ultimately Trump's parents, according to this account and many others, found young Donald to be unmanageable. They sent him to the New York Military Academy. Much later, as president, Elovitz notes, Trump proudly appointed those whom he called "my generals"—Jim Mattis, John Kelly, Michael Flynn, and H.R. McMaster—to "keep us safe." But working for a "disruptive narcissist" is not easy, says Elovitz, and the president ended up firing many of them. "The generals could not control Trump any more than his family could." 

Elovitz believes that another quality of Trump's, his "insatiable need for adoration," exists in tension with his combativeness and tendency to pick fights. Trump's vulnerabilities, he thinks, are becoming more and more apparent over time. At times, the president can even strike Elovitz as "a sad and vulnerable boy who is terrified of being called a loser." For him, Trump is finally more of a bombastic clown rather than a Fascist in the making: a Silvio Berlusconi rather than a Mussolini.

Sociologist Heckscher also sees the American president as disruptive. But he sees the "Trump phenomenon" in world terms, as "one of a set of movements throughout the advanced industrial world aiming to disrupt politics as usual." Not limited to specific economic resentments or political beliefs, for him these movements grow from widespread "disruptions of identities, relations, and ways of life" over time. 

The important point about Trump, according to this analysis, is not his inconsistent conservativism. It is his populism, which parallels that in Europe and elsewhere. Trump's populism is, Heckscher asserts, mainly a reaction against elites, a "disruptive passion" that undermines necessary trust in social arrangements, culture, and institutions.

The sociologist holds onto his own form of hope. Counterpointed with populism ("a minority movement, rarely reaching as much as a third of the population") is the progressive impulse. He believes that progressivism, typically a phenomena of the young and the well-educated, has been more successful than many realize.

Hecksher sees multiculturalism, the core value within progressivism, as potentially able to overcome the polarization that currently bedevils Western industrial society. Civic organizations that include members from different points on the political spectrum, he believes, can promote understanding, develop an effective vision for the future, and build collaboration

It is hard to imagine that happening after this week's debate. But the swift reaction to Trump from prominent Republicans on the issue of white supremacy hints that the "disruptive passion" of political populism may have its limits.

Meanwhile, a psychologist who has been doing empirical ratings of candidates' personalities for decades sees Trump's personality—and his debate performance—as similarly disruptive.  

Aubrey Immelman, a psychologist at the College of St. Benedict, concluded in 2016 that Trump is overbearing and aggressive as well as impulsive and histrionic. The profile has been updated since then with similar results.

In technical terms, Immelman's group found that Trump's main personality pattern was "ambitious/self-serving." In the system used by the researchers, this trait is a measure of narcissism and is common in politicians. In Trump's case, however, Immelman says it borders on the exploitative. Other leading features include dominant/controlling ("bordering on aggressive") and dauntless/dissenting.

Of the debate, Immelman posted, it was "simply awful."

Trump got under the skin of the experienced professor and rater of political personalities. "It frustrated me to no end," he told me in a recent e-mail, "that my students and I put so much thought, effort, and care into our studies of presidential candidates, only to have them—especially Trump—defile the process" in such "juvenile fashion."

It was, says Immelman, "a national embarrassment."

Time after time in recent years, one has been tempted to conclude that our politics could simply not get worse. But as Edgar reminds us in Shakespeare's King Lear:

       " ...worse I may be yet: the worst is not /

       So long as we can say "This is the worst."

Next time: Kamala Harris's personality: outgoing and dominant? 

References

Bobic, Igor (2020). Republicans Aren't Happy with Trump's Debate Performance. Huffington Post. Posted September 30, 2020. Accessed on October 1, 2020 at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/trump-debate-biden-proud-boys_n_5f74a95ac5b66377b27c16d6.

Elovitz, Paul H. (2020). Probing Trump's Disruptive Narcissistic Personality. In Michael Maccoby and Ken Fuchsman, eds., Psychoanalytic and Historical Perspectives on the Leadership of Donald Trump. (London and New York: Routledge). pp. 43-57. 

Heckscher, Charles (2020). A Sociologist's View of the Trump Phenomenon. In Michael Maccoby and Ken Fuchsman, eds., Psychoanalytic and Historical Perspectives on the Leadership of Donald Trump. (London and New York: Routledge). pp. 125-143. 

Immelman, Aubrey (2016). The Political Personality of 2016 Republican Nominee Donald J. Trump. Accessed on October 1, 2020 at https://digitalcommons.csbsju.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1105&context=psychology_pubs. 

Immelman, Aubrey (2020). E-mails to the author. September 29 and 30 and October 1, 2020. Quoted with permission.

Levitz, Eric (2020). Even Trump's Base Found His Debate Performance Off-Putting. Intelligencer. Posted September 30, 2020. Accessed on October 1, 2020 at https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/even-trumps-base-found-his-debate-performance-off-putting.html.

Walsh, Deirdre (2020). Trump on Defensive Over White Supremacist Comments in Debate. NPR.org. Posted September 30, 2020. Accessed on October 1, 2020 at https://www.wpr.org/trump-defensive-over-white-supremacist-comments-debate.