Psychological Science Says Trump Is a Four-Year-Old
Looking for the source of Trump’s appeal.
Posted May 12, 2017 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
It’s quite impossible to watch president Trump for any length of time and remain unperturbed. He possesses what psychoanalysts call "high transference valence." The ability to provoke strong reactions in others. In fact, this appears to be a big part of his appeal. Love him or hate him, you have to look.
You may argue that Trump elicits such strong reactions because he embodies a great threat in the mind of some and an attractive promise in the minds of others. We respond strongly to both threatening and attractive objects. Yet, given the basic ideological divide in contemporary American politics, this duality holds true for practically every president. Nothing there to explain the unique reaction Trump generates.
A better guess is that it’s the high degree of Donald Trump’s novelty that attracts attention across the board. Novelty is innately arousing to us regardless of its valence. People who slow down on the highway to rubberneck at the scene of an accident do not enjoy seeing mutilated bodies. They are compelled to look at something not ordinary.
But what is it that’s truly novel about Trump? Some argue that his uniqueness resides in his ‘outsider’ status as a novice politician, a businessman who has beaten the professional politicos at their own game. But this argument is weak. After all, we’ve seen political novices win elections before, and we’ve seen businesspeople succeed in politics, both in the US and abroad.
Moreover, the concepts of "business leader" and "political leader" are not that far apart in the cultural imagination. The fact that a rich, white Chief Executive Officer becomes Commander in Chief does not violate cultural expectations. There’s no genuine surprise in this narrative twist, other than, perhaps, that it took so long to materialize.
Some may argue that Trump’s novelty resides in his celebrity. But we’ve seen entertainers turn politicians (Arnold) even presidents (Ronald) before. There’s no novelty in that. At least not to the jarring extent that would justify the commotion engendered by the Trump phenomenon. In addition, Trump is neither a photogenic physical specimen of the type that would, on that score alone, arouse passions (JFK) nor a gifted orator capable of casting electoral spells with his inspired speechifying (MLK). On the contrary, more often than not, to the public, Trump presents as a rather generic, haggard, rambling salesman meandering on the edge of coherence.
Some have argued that what separates Trump from history, what makes him a true novelty, is his frank psychopathology: the raging narcissism and gleeful antipathy; the compulsive clawing at trivial matters; the unchecked, thin-skinned reactivity. This argument appears to have more merit. To be sure, we’ve had presidents who’ve battled mental and brain health challenges (Lincoln was by all accounts prone to depression; Nixon was at times drunk on the job; Reagan suffered from dementia). However, no president in the modern era has exhibited so consistently and so brazenly so many signs of such a disruptive diagnosable personality disorder.
Yet this argument also fails to hold water. Mental illness, however novel in a president, is not a very compelling novelty for the layperson. Most people are not trained to see and evaluate others’ behavior for its diagnostic mental health implications. In fact, many behaviors that psychologists will recognize as potential signs of mental health trouble will be glossed over entirely or deemed benign (or even desirable) by casual lay observers. For those uneducated about or unconcerned with alcoholism, the drunk at the party is just a "fun-loving guy." Those not hip to the signs of an eating disorder may admire the exercise fiend for her commitment to health.
The answer, it seems, must lie elsewhere. To solve the mystery, we may start by noticing a tension at the core of Trump’s public presence. On one hand, it’s quite clear that he is completely himself, in the sense that whatever it is he’s doing, it’s the thing he can’t help but do and the thing he has always done. That’s why Trump is always at his worst when he tries anything: To speak from a teleprompter, to feign compassion, to organize a sentence, to remain on message, to take the high road. Even his supporters would rather he not try for stuff, even if the stuff he tries for is otherwise lofty or worthwhile. I don’t think Trump voters are people who can’t show compassion. I think they don’t want him to show it, since such a show takes all the fun and excitement away from the experience of seeing him.
At the same time, paradoxically, Trump appears to be trying all the time, laboring restlessly, compulsively to be noticed, to win, to dominate the room, to avenge slights, to force reality into the shape of his fantasies, or just to read the world around him properly.
As a result, the gut sense one gets watching Trump is that something does not jell; something chafes; something is happening, to quote Dylan, but you don’t know what it is. The experience of observing Trump is akin to that of noticing the strangeness of a painting from the Middle Ages before realizing that the oddity is due to the fact that the children are depicted with adult body proportions.
And therein lies the key: The core Trump dissonance is that he’s an elderly man who possesses the outward appearance and trappings of adulthood—and who occupies the public role we most strongly associate with adulthood—but who is on the inside predominantly infantile. It is that specific dissonance that is wholly novel on the political scene.
Over and above the contested considerations of ideology, temperament, character, or intelligence, we all expect (and are used to) a modicum of maturity in our presidents. In our collective imagination the president is a grownup, not a child; not immature in his fundamental bearing and cast of mind. Trump is, and as such he dramatically violates both our experience and our cultural expectations. He calls up the incongruent fascination and dread of a child-king or the baby-faced assassin.
To say Trump is ‘infantile,’ in this context is to say two related yet distinct things:
- That he fails to demonstrate some behavioral and attitudinal quality we call ‘maturity'
- That his cast of mind, the way he processes information, appears qualitatively different from an adult mind.
But what in fact is "psychological maturity?" And how is the child’s mind different from the mature adult mind? The writings of two prominent psychological theorists shed some light.
When it comes to defining psychological maturity, a useful place to begin is with the writings of Gordon Allport, an influential American psychologist who pioneered the scientific study of personality traits. Allport described a list of traits characterizing a healthy mature personality. They are as follows:
- Extension of Sense of Self: the ability to go beyond self-preoccupation and have concern for others.
- Warm Relatedness to Others: the capacity for love, intimacy, and compassion.
- Self-Acceptance: emotional security and control, high tolerance for frustration.
- Realistic Perception: accurate perception of reality without defensiveness, distortion, or denial.
- Problem Centeredness: a focus on solving problems in the world, rather than on promoting or defending one’s own interests and ego.
- Self-Objectification: the capacity for self-insight and self- reflection. The ability to see yourself from the outside, to assess yourself objectively, to see the gaps between what you think you are and what you actually are, and to laugh at yourself.
- Unifying Philosophy of Life: a clear value orientation, a set of moral and ethical standards that guide behavior, and a genuine spiritual dimension.
Clearly, this is not the only way to define maturity. Yet one need not accept Allport’s scheme fully or exclusively to see that his definition makes heuristic sense. Moreover, the empirical work on this concept has tended to affirm Allport’s proposed parameters. You’d be hard-pressed to find any definition or measure of maturity that does not consider self-knowledge, problem-solving skills, a capacity to manage emotion and relate empathically to others, and the ability to see beyond self-interest as important aspects of the "maturity" construct.
One also need not be an obsessive observer of the president to ascertain that he falls short of "mature" status by Allport’s definition. The president, if anything, exhibits a characteristic inability to see much beyond his own ego preoccupations. He appears to have no real friendships, habitually belittles those he sees as weak while denying any weakness of his own, and is perennially insecure, desperate to bolster his ratings, numbers, and stats by bending the facts to assuage his fears; he has little demonstrated capacity to joyfully laugh at himself (or laugh at all), and has professed to being uninterested in self-reflection and insight; the only problem he seems genuinely interested in (and truly capable of) solving is the chronic threat of his own waning relevance, and his guiding moral principle is that whatever works to make him ‘win’ is the right thing to do.
Now, Allport mostly studied and theorized about adults. Maturity, after all, is a quality we associate with, expect, and usually see in adults. Immaturity, on the other hand, is developmentally a child quality. For a description of childhood immaturity as it presents itself developmentally, "in the wild," the classic work of Jean Piaget may serve as a useful guide.
Piaget, whose work set the basic framework for our current understanding of children’s cognitive development, was among the first to demonstrate that children are not merely ignorant "little adults." Rather, children inhabit a qualitatively different cognitive universe than adults. As they develop, children move through a series of orderly stages, progressively incorporating the use of symbolic representation, logical reasoning, and abstract concepts into their cognitive machinery, thus eventually gaining adult problem-solving capabilities.
Of particular relevance for this discussion is Piaget’s description of the "preoperational stage," which he believed roughly spanned ages 2-6. The preoperational stage of cognitive development manifests in several distinct ways.
First and foremost, the preoperational child is egocentric, unable to see a situation from another person's point of view. The preoperational child is certain that the only way to see the world is the way it looks to them. This is one reason children appear cruel to adults without comprehending the concept of cruelty themselves. As they can’t see the world through someone else’s eyes, their empathic capacity is limited. In every situation, the preoperational child will pick his or her own view and disregard that of others, convinced that what another person sees can only be what they see and that what they know is what there is to know.
By definition, the child’s thinking is magical and unbound by logic. The child does not see a problem with self-contradicting or absurd propositions.
The function of speech in this stage, according to Piaget, is not so much to dialogue with others as to externalize the child’s thinking. The social function of speech is not yet fully grasped. This is one reason much effort must be expanded in preschool on teaching kids to listen.
Centration shows itself in the child’s inability to switch frames of reference. They latch on to one aspect of the situation and are unable to see that the same situation can be sorted out in a different way as well.
As the child begins to comprehend the notion of symbolic representation, pretend play becomes particularly important. Preoperational children often pretend to be people they are not (e.g. superheroes, policeman, presidents), and may play these roles with props that symbolize real-life objects. Children may also invent imaginary playmates (as well as imaginary crowds, and facts).
Another feature of this stage is the child’s difficulty separating appearance from reality. Things are what they look like. Perception dominates the child’s understanding of the world. How things appear now is the only meaningful calculation.
In addition, the preoperational child lacks conservation, which is the ability to comprehend that a change in appearance may not mean a change in essence. Therefore, the child’s ability to understand the meaning of changes in the situation is severely limited. The preoperational child, having counted two parallel rows of candy to have the same number of pieces, will nevertheless claim that the longer row (where the candy pieces have merely been spread out more) has more candy.
Children in this stage cannot comprehend abstract concepts (like ‘democracy’ or ‘justice’) because those do not relate to their immediate, concrete, and physical experience. Children at this stage are thus prisoners of the present. Whatever is in front of them is what they comprehend and respond to. They lack what psychologists call "source monitoring"—and are thus unable to maintain a clear sense of history, track reliably where something came from, or discern a sequence of cause and effect. In trying to solve a problem, the child will notice what’s in front of him or her and make some intuitive judgment of what it means based primarily on appearances, without regard for logic or history.
I could go on, but life is short and you get the picture.
Trump’s cognitive and psychological maturity deficits explain much about the jarring effect of his appearance and the strong reaction he provokes. Thus, beyond the dissonance and shock of witnessing someone so childlike in a position of truly terrifying and awesome power, the underlying fascination and dread of Trump’s presidency emerge not merely from our sense that we don’t know what he will do tomorrow, but also from the sense that he doesn’t know that, either.
Generally, the process of achieving psychological maturity—like most processes of psychological change—does not work by eliminating an early structure for a later one (like, say, the way technological innovation tends to work). Rather, new structures are added on top of the existing earlier ones. This is why we all retain infantile psychological tendencies to some degree (we throw temper tantrums; we lick ice-cream cones; we resort to magical thinking; we admire our parents; we act on impulse, failing to consider long-term consequences). Yet our newer, more mature tendencies usually run the show. The early structures do not disappear from consciousness or memory, but they lose their top billing, their leadership role.
The process of achieving psychological maturity, while informed in part by one’s temperament and genetic endowment, depends heavily on learning. One can only speculate as to the reasons for Trump’s apparent deficits in this area. Extreme privilege can itself become a form of deprivation that may sometimes impede certain aspects of development. At any rate, the culprit does not seem to be intelligence. Trump is not dumb. His critics in this regard often sloppily confuse stupid (which he is not) with ignorant (which he often is).
In truth, we don’t know what about Trump’s life experience has prevented him from achieving maturity. Yet that developmental failure appears—ironically or tragically, depending on your sensibilities—to be at the core of both his unique attraction and the singular danger he poses.