Donald Trump: Is He as Unpredictable as He Seems?

Ideology can’t adequately explain Trump’s actions—but his ego probably can.

Posted Feb 02, 2017

Source: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Many writers have struggled to figure out what’s been guiding our new President’s decisions. But even before Donald Trump took office, he’d modified, even reversed, himself on so many issues that where he really stood, what he truly believed in, had been most challenging to decipher.

Populist and anti-establishment as he’s claimed, is he for the rights of the worker?—or, given the people he’s chosen to surround himself with, does he favor the wealthy titans of big business, who traditionally have taken advantage of laborers and attempted to destroy their unions? As he’s repeatedly argued, is his ultimate concern for the safety of all Americans?—or do the strangely xenophobic, anti-immigration policies he’s tried to put in place betray a profound bias against non-Christians?

Further, are his words professing his commitment to universal health care reflective of genuine empathy and compassion (or a “very big heart,” as he’s characterized himself)? Or does his outspoken opposition to Obamacare, without delineating any particular plan to replace it with, signify a willingness, if expedient, to leave in the lurch millions of the newly insured? And is his insistence that “nobody respects women more than I do” to be taken literally?—or might his past deeds (reported by others as well as, in private, self-proclaimed) indicate precisely the opposite? And so on, and so on.

All the same, through his initial executive orders Trump has faithfully followed through on the promises he so forcefully enunciated during his campaign rallies. To provide just a single instance, consider one of his first executive orders: beginning the process of building a 2,000-mile wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. His immediately acting to make good on such a pledge would suggest a consistency belying so much inconsistency in what he’s said on a multitude of other subjects. It might even appear to hint that certain overarching principles do in fact determine his seemingly impulsive, or erratic, behaviors: that, indeed, he’s “keeping faith” not only to his followers but to firmly-held convictions of his own.

But does such dogged adherence demonstrate that Trump (regardless of whether or not we agree with his views) is a man of unwavering integrity? Or rather, might it reveal a person who considers preserving the loyalty of his backers more crucial than any other concern? Is it possible that being so adamant about constructing this national barrier, despite its controversiality and likely futility, is simply a way of assuring that his base will continue to support him—even if Congress doesn't finally approve of financing this wall? that his persistence in the matter isn’t politically, economically, or ethically motivated, but predominantly controlled by an ego driven to keep his fans cheering him on, regardless of his ability to deliver on what he publicly declared he could.

What this post will attempt to demonstrate is that searching for some fundamental ideology to make better sense of Trump’s actions leads only to a dead end. Such an investigation can’t possibly resolve the various discrepancies betrayed by his many contradictory words and behaviors. And it’s an exercise in futility even to try, since he sounds similarly earnest regardless of the viewpoints he articulates. The only way to resolve the incoherence of much of his messaging is to analyze it psychologically. For what doesn’t—or can’t—make much logical sense can make a great deal of psycho-logical sense.

So, because the rest of this piece will focus on the popular psychoanalytic concept of ego, let me briefly define how I’m employing this term:

Originally from the Latin word “I,” ego literally relates to an individual’s sense of identity. As it’s typically employed, however, it refers to a person’s self-esteem. Or, perhaps more to the point, self-importance. To the extent that any of us needs to feel good about ourselves—and are unable to do so simply from within—we’ll regularly require external validation to feel assured that we’re at least as good as others. For, in such instances, when we can’t get this external corroboration of our worth, we’re highly prone to all three of the most common emotions—that is, depression, anxiety, and (especially in Trump’s case) anger.

As Eugene Robinson (a Washington Post columnist, political analyst for MSNBC, and Pulitzer Prize winner) succinctly encapsulates it: Donald Trump “is addicted to adulation”—a perspective substantiated most convincingly by the fact that Trump expressed so much desire to continue his rallies even after he'd won the election. And although this journalist can claim no formal mental health credentials, his pointed remark nonetheless echoes that of innumerable psychologists who have written about what they see as Trump’s extreme narcissism. It’s an unhealthy self-love that demands constant admiration and is also characterized by repeated boasting—all in the service of propping up an ego that, despite all of his successes, remains surprisingly unstable and in need of constant bolstering.

Plus, in a tweet Robinson has opined that “we can’t ignore Trump’s egomania,” another characterization that might seem facile but which experts in the mental health field have frequently utilized to help lay people better grasp Trump’s sometimes blatantly self-aggrandizing assertions (such as, “I know more than the generals do, believe me”).

Many other commentators have depicted Trump in these terms, and readers are invited to check for themselves how regularly these descriptors turn up to help clarify where, psychologically, our newly elected President’s behaviors are coming  from. The key point here is that virtually all of Trump’s words, whether tweeted or spoken before a live audience, can best be understood as deriving from someone whose actions—first and foremost—are designed to strengthen his ego, or positive self-regard, as well as protecting it from anything perceived as threatening it.

What is almost beyond ironic here is that it could well be argued that Trump has already become the most powerful (and feared) person on the planet. But when—deep, deep down—ancient insecurities going all the way back to childhood get re-stimulated, it hardly matters what his official, supreme rank is (e.g., see The Truth About Trump by Michael D’Antonio, 2016).

Consider also Trump’s compelling need to reward those who like him so that they’ll continue liking him and aligning themselves with him—and regardless of (1) whether these supposedly admiring individuals may be liked by the rest of us (e.g., David Duke, the former “Imperial Wizard” of the KKK, or Steve Bannon, a leader of the radical "alt-right," and now his chief strategist and senior counsel); or (2) are viewed as representing a mortal menace to democracies worldwide. Witness his reaction to Putin’s clearly favoring his candidacy: “If Putin says nice things about me, I’ll say nice things about him.” Yes, that’s the “deal.” Case closed.

As Trump’s entire history suggests, the prerequisite to his feeling superior to others is winning. So in almost every area we might imagine, Trump’s position is dictated not by any steadfast framework of values but by what he conceives will most help him emerge triumphant over his opponent(s). Is he really a diehard White Supremacist, or did acting like one “lock in” a major part of his base—and so afford his ego a pivotal advantage? Is he a serious Christian, or does claiming to be (or at least that the Bible is his favorite book!) a convenient “belief” assisting him in winning the evangelical vote, netting him the substantial block of voters so instrumental to his winning the election? And the same question might be asked about his full-throated commitment to getting workers good-paying jobs?—just witness his surprising upset victories in the Rust Belt states.

Trump’s cobbling together supporters representing so many segments of the population can’t realistically be understood as based on personal ideology but on the paramount consideration of what his ego needed to confirm its status as winner. So at some point questions like: “Is Trump really pro-life?—or he is pro-choice?" (which he'd in fact claimed in the past); or, “Is Trump really anti-establishment? (vs. actually being part of the capitalistic establishment he’d earlier so sharply rebuked) simply become mute. Given all the expedient causes for his choosing (and maybe later abandoning) various positions, it should be clear that what he stands for is principally that which best protects not the country but his success-striving ego.

If winning appears to be virtually everything to Trump (and biographies on him clearly support this view), it’s because any single loss is enough to bring to the surface old self-doubts never genuinely confronted and resolved. Consider his resolute claim, repeated absent any verifiable evidence, that only massive voter fraud (by no less than 3-5 million votes) precluded his getting not just the majority of the Electoral College but of the popular vote, too. Such insistence strongly demonstrates that his ego—out-sized yet extremely fragile—has enormous difficulty tolerating the very “notion” of loss. Which explains why some in the media have labeled him “a sore winner”.

To conclude, if readers want to make the most coherent sense of a leader whose policies, positions, and proposals seem incoherent, the best thing to ask is: “At any given moment, what best serves the needs of Trump’s (insatiable) ego?” And these compelling ego requirements can be summarized in terms of his related needs for

  • admiration and respect (i.e., be looked up to—or, correlatively, bowed down to!),
  • praise and flattery (which makes him all-too-vulnerable to be manipulated through [insincere] compliments and adulation),
  • power and control (to feed a sense of entitlement and righteousness, and justify an arrogant, condescending, bullying  attitude generally),
  • loyalty (to secure a steady supply of validation that, internally, he’s not able to get enough of), and
  • wealth (he measures his status and success monetarily—as in, personal worth = financial wealth).

Note here that we’re not talking about criteria relating to patriotism, justice, religious beliefs, or any other cherished ideal. No, when the fundamental need is to prop up an ego that can’t, below the surface, stop questioning whether it’s good enough, such lofty values become extraneous, or an un-affordable " luxury." And this also explains what, routinely, Trump’s many critics refer to as his unusually "thin skin." For whenever he’s attacked (especially by the media), before his profound insecurities can creep anywhere close to the surface, he must immediately—and stridently—attack back (or “double-down”) to invalidate what his ego dimly perceives as invalidating him.

When provoked, Trump’s tendency to be overtaken by anger and rage has frequently been noted. And the most helpful way to understand this exceptional reactivity is to grasp that his ego doesn’t have the strength to receive criticism and simply reflect on its merits. Rather, any negative evaluation must immediately be “cast out.” And in the moment what could be a more effective way of accomplishing this eradication than at once seeking to obliterate the opposition? Remember that this is someone who years ago argued that the Electoral College should be abolished because it made a mockery of democracy. But when Trump, while winning the Presidency because of this Electoral College majority, nonetheless lost the popular vote he strenuously argued that it was much harder to win this majority anyway.

For an ego that constantly needs to be fed, being right and winning are inseparable. So, again, when Trump was confronted that he had no “mandate” to govern, for fewer people had cast votes for him than for his adversary, he began to remonstrate about massive voting fraud. To humbly admit that his victory could hardly be considered a landslide wasn’t anything his ego could tolerate. Consequently, his next course of action was to initiate a "major investigation" of the election results, desperately seeking out evidence that, victorious or not, he’d been robbed of millions of votes. In line with my thesis, such an act of—let’s call it, “retaliation”—was as predictable as so many of his other actions, and reactions.

Call it, if you will, ego over reality. But that’s the way Trump’s two-dimensional, ego-dominated mind operates...and will continue to operate. Three-dimensional individuals (characteristic of just about all the rest of us) have this third dimension because even though our behaviors are generally consistent, or foreseeable, in our psychological complexity, we yet maintain an element of unpredictability.

I’d suggest that because our current President is so totally “regulated” by an ego as unruly as it is demanding, this third dimension of our humanness is sadly—and dangerously—lacking.

Earlier, complementary PT articles that I’ve written on Trump include:

“Outrage and Outrageousness: The Secret to Trump’s Popularity,” Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4  (another version of which appeared in The Journal of Psychohistory, Summer 2016), “Trump: How Dark Is His Dark Side?” and "Is Truth in the Eyes of the Beholder?".

Additionally, I’ve published many articles on the subject of unhealthy narcissism. Here, with titles and links, are some that will shed additional light on Donald Trump’s “over-the-top” personality:

“This Is What Really Makes Narcissists Tick"

“9 Enlightening Quotes on Narcissists—and Why”

“6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About” [which has received over 1.6 million hits!]

“The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . ”

“Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics”

“Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking?”

If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.

To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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