Understanding "The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump"

A psychological reckoning.

Posted Dec 08, 2019

Oxford University Press
Dan McAdams, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump
Source: Oxford University Press

Today, as we face a multitude of challenges – demographic shift in the majority-minority population, global challenges abroad, the rise of China in the Pacific, the return of Putin’s Russia as a global power-broker in North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan, and threats to democracy posed by new forms of social media – the almost 250-year-old American constitutional democracy hangs in the balance. 

In my books on President Obama and Hillary Clinton, I have wrestled with the question of personality theory at the interface political culture.[1] However, in the case of Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the U.S., the role of personality-related factors may be even more pronounced than any other political leader we have seen in recent times.

In his new book and a recent article in the Atlantic, Dan McAdams suggests Trump represents "a strange case of narcissism,"[2] in which his supporters are in a "parasocial relationship" with him, almost like a fandom following a celebrity, or groupies tailgating a rock star. He represents an "imaginary" persona or a cult-like figure whose "real" shadow never penetrates the haze of cognitive dissonance in the hearts and minds of his followers. The 37% of his base supporters are symbiotically attached to him, not unlike a virus colonizing the body-politic; he provides the very oxygen to their protean rage in turbulent times, driven by technology, trade and travel, and fear of “the other.”

I took the opportunity to visit and talk with my professor and colleague, who taught me personality theory when I was an undergraduate and graduate student, about his new book on President Trump’s underlying personality.

DS: What percentage of political dysfunction today is driven by the "personality-related factors" of leaders? Trait theory would suggest it is a significant factor.

McAdams: With the possible exception of Mr. Trump, who is not like any other political leader we have on the scene in America today, I don’t think that the personality traits of leaders are any different than they have ever been. The political dysfunction is more about the breakdown of norms regarding civility, fair play, and representative democratic governance in the United States (I can’t speak authoritatively for other countries.) Of course, traits are involved in this behavior, as they always are. But if you compare the ways in which politicians interacted with each other in Congress in, say, the late 1960s compared to today, I don’t think you can say that today’s politicians have more dysfunctional personalities than those who were in charge back in the 1960s. Instead, the political system has evolved to a more tribalistic structure, such that conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats now believe they have virtually nothing in common with respect to values and constituencies, and nothing to gain by working together. Both sides are surely to blame, but I have to think that the Republican party has moved in rather more dramatic ways, simply ignoring norms that have heretofore nearly always been honored. As one of many examples, consider Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision in early 2016 to refuse to abide by the Constitutional mandate to hold confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee (Merrick Garland). This has simply never happened before. The current impeachment process promises to reveal a similar dynamic. One branch of government (the executive branch) has simply decided to ignore and to stonewall the constitutionally rooted demands of another branch (the House of Representatives in Congress).

DS: Without putting the president on the couch, are you willing to say he has a "personality disorder" as in the DSM classifications?

McAdams: I do not find the clinical categories of the DSM all that useful in explaining how a person has come to be and in making sense of a person’s life, including President Trump. He is much stranger than any diagnostic category can convey, in my opinion. This is the thesis of my new book, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump:  A Psychological Reckoning.[3]  There is no diagnostic label that captures his unique blend of attributes and orientations. Among the most interesting features of Trump’s inimitable personality are (1) his peculiar form of extraversion-based charisma, (2) his startling lack of an animating life narrative in his own mind to make sense of who he is and how he came to be, and (3) his belief, shared unconsciously by a percentage of his supporters, that he is not “a person” – he is more than a person, like a superhero, like a primal or mythic force, but less than a person, too, in that he is not held morally accountable in the same way that other persons are. I am not speaking metaphorically.    

DS: Do you think it is all media-driven? He likes to play the media because it drives them nuts. It breaks normative codes of conduct for a president, with him playing the Disrupter-in-Chief.

McAdams: Donald Trump is the media’s greatest obsession of the past two decades. This was even true long before he was president. Trump has played the media masterfully since the mid-1970s. He is certainly the “Disrupter in Chief.” He wakes up every morning ready to do battle with his enemies, and he wins by developing tactics that are unprecedented and completely audacious. He did this in the real estate industry in the 1980s, and he does it today. Because he has no story for his life in his own head, Mr. Trump approaches each day as a new episode, with a new battle to win. All that matters is winning the episode. The episodes do not build from one to the next. There is no narrative flow to Donald Trump’s life, at least not in his own head.  This is why he is able to lie with such shameless abandon, and why he is unpredictable from one moment to the next. All tactics, no strategy. His approach to everyday life in this regard is captured perfectly in a statement he made to People magazine back in the early 80s, when asked about his “philosophy of life”: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” Each day is a different battle, ending in victory or defeat. The days do not add up. This is not a long-term war with a cumulative plot. It is, instead, a series of one-off skirmishes, one after the other, day after day after day. This is how he has always lived. And now we are living it with him.

DS: Do you think the president reflects the times we are in globally, in which dictatorial strongmen are able to get people's votes in a populist wave? We see this in the EU, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. So might he be a reflection of the times where globalization has failed people significantly?

McAdams: Yes, I believe this is probably true. But President Trump is still a one-off. He is not fully like other dictators, either. And I am not sure he can be replicated. The 2016 election was a bizarre and perfect storm wherein the candidate who won nearly 3 million more votes ended up losing in the Electoral College. It is hard to argue that the election was the culmination of global trends when so many weird things had to go just right to get Mr. Trump into office. Nonetheless, the rise of autocracies in countries like Poland and Hungary is a major threat to Western visions of democracy.

DS: With the impeachment looming, do you think the stress on the president will make him more erratic and disruptive? Will he display some of his classic symptoms or "deeper personality traits" or behavioral patterns under duress even more in the next year? On the OCEAN scheme, he may be very extroverted, low on conscientiousness, low on agreeableness, and not open to changing his mind much — and maybe you have an idea about his neuroticism score. What is your opinion on the trait scores?

McAdams: In my 2016 piece in The Atlantic (“The Mind of Donald Trump”)[4], I wrote that Trump’s standing on the Big Five involves sky-high extraversion and rock-bottom agreeableness. I still think that these two features of his dispositional profile capture that basic level of personality pretty well. Modestly low on C, low on O, and medium on N, too, but those are not especially interesting or notable in his life. As far as impeachment goes, I do not see it having any effect on how he behaves. Since adolescence, he has viewed every day of his life to be akin to an impeachment hearing. Don’t forget: "Man [especially Democrats] is the most vicious of all creatures, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” He lives for this.