He's Abnormal, She's Normal: That's (A Reason) Why Trump Won

How the temperament criticism of Trump backfired

Posted Nov 11, 2016

About two weeks before the election, I posted my analysis of Donald Trump’s personality, which I wrote was consistent with hyperthymic temperament. I criticized the frequent pejorative criticism of Trump as “narcissistic”, with the attempt to clothe that Freudian metaphor with scientific garb.  The term is unscientific and uninformative; it merely is another way of criticizing another person. (See the prior post for the scientific research to support this statement).

There was something about Mr. Trump that led to the use of that epithet, though, and it had to do with his high self-confidence and self-esteem. Instead of engaging in Freudian speculation to explain it, though, I turned to our best scientific research on that concept.  The most established scientifically proven psychological state associated with high self-esteem is mania.  Manic symptoms occur, when severe and episodic, as part of what is termed bipolar illness. But they can occur, when mild and constant, as part of one’s personality – in that setting, they are called “hyperthymic temperament.”  This concept of hyperthymia has existed as long or longer than Freud’s narcissism. The former has been proven valid with scientific studies in clinical research in psychiatry; the latter has been proven invalid with the same kind of research.

The concept of hyperthymia also would explain many other aspects of Mr. Trump’s personality that are not explained by Freud’s narcissism:  decreased need for sleep, high talkativeness, sexual impulsivity, creativity, distractibility, perhaps excessive spending.  Narcissism would have to be stretched and tortured to explain those other clinical features.  They fit hyperthymia exactly.

Which brings us to the election. 

Trump’s critics saw him as narcissistic and unfit in “temperament,” which most laypersons were using, I assume, in a non-clinical manner.  Temperament means, scientifically speaking, the biological component of personality.  It’s half genetic and half environmental.  His critics were using the word temperament as a synonym for some kind of psychiatric problem; they couldn’t use the word mental illness; so temperament would do.   

His liberal critics, in effect, engaged in that same discrimination against persons with psychiatric conditions which those liberals decry in other settings (sexual orientation, race, gender).  The irony of this unconscious bigotry is worth noting, something I experienced as well in reactions to my book,  A First-Rate Madness.

In fact, temperament was relevant, but  in a way most of Trump’s critics never appreciated. It wasn’t about so-called narcissism that made him  unfit to be president; it came down to hyperthymia which made him more fit than his normal opponent to win a presidential campaign.

Hyperthymia – and manic symptoms in general – are associated with creativity.  Hillary Clinton was certainly a normal and sane person.  And she led a normal and traditional campaign.  That’s why she lost.  It took a hyperthymic leader to take some risks, to try something different, and to look where others had not looked.  And he turned out to be right.  He won Rust Belt states that Clinton had taken for granted. 

I’ve written about how the same hyperthymic temperament can be seen in Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and how the related cyclothymic temperament could be seen in Winston Churchill (in fact, he was diagnosed with cyclothymia by his physicians).  They could have been criticized as narcissistic, if we wanted to use pseudoscientific terms for political purposes.  But such critiques clearly don’t touch who they really were psychologically, and certainly not as political leaders.

None of this is to say that Trump will be a great or even good president. This analysis doesn’t at all imply my agreement with his policies or opinions, most of which I do not share. (It may be sufficient to note that I’m a Muslim. NB: Churchill hated Gandhi and was racist towards Indians and Middle Easterners.) 

Trump wasn’t unfit to be president because he's narcissistic.  He was fit to be elected president because he’s hyperthymic.  For those of us who oppose his politics, it didn’t help that pseudoscientific psychological terms were used pejoratively and in a stigmatizing fashion.  Such an approach neither helps us understand, nor effectively combat, such leaders.