A Manic Foreign Policy

The psychology of operating on impulse.

Posted Jan 26, 2020

Donald Trump is predictably unpredictable.

He operates on impulse, not policy, as CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently noted.  This impulsivity is not sui generis. It comes from a psychological state of mind that can be stated in one word: mania

Being manic does not mean “being crazy” or out of control or delusional. It means that you are sped up in your thinking, movement, and feeling. It’s the opposite of depression, which is a slowing down of the same triad of human behavior.  When manic, one can feel happy or irritable; when depressed, sad. But these moods are not central to the concepts; rather the key issue is being sped up or slowed down.  Being manic all the time as part of one’s personality, called “hyperthymia” clinically, just means thinking fast, moving fast, and talking fast, along with high physical (and usually sexual) energy.  Such persons are not unusual: many people are like this. In fact, research indicates that many successful leaders, especially entrepreneurs, have hyperthymia, are mildly manic as part of their personalities. This rapid thinking and high energy is associated with creativity and productivity; that’s good. The same traits also lead to impulsivity. Rapid decision-making can be bold and courageous, or it can be rash, depending on the circumstances.

Donald Trump has high physical and sexual energy, low need for sleep, rapid speech and thinking, is highly distractible, and has high self-esteem. This whole picture only happens with mania.  As I've written, Franklin Roosevelt was similar; so was, in many ways, Winston Churchill. Having a manic personality is not a criticism in itself.  It can lead to creative resilient leadership in times of crisis, as was the case with Roosevelt and Churchill. But it also leads to impulsive rashness in non-crisis periods. We are not in a world war or great depression; contrary to the daily slings and arrows of political fortune, this is not a major time of American crisis. So our president’s high-energy rapid-fire approach to leadership is not needed, and in fact harmful.

It’s no accident that he left Syria precipitously, killed an Iranian general suddenly without imminent risk,  and pressured a foreign government for electoral gain, leading to impeachment proceedings. He breaks standard precedents of presidential behavior: firing the FBI chief; refusing to accept any congressional subpoena; tweeting his personal feelings on a daily basis; retweeting material from questionably racist sources; breaking campaign laws in relation to paying a porn star and hiding behind immunity from suit as president; fighting with multiple lawsuits the basic standard of making tax returns public;  refusing to hold regular press conferences; refusing to speak to any media source except one; calling journalistic sources “enemies of the people.”  Almost all prior presidents recognized customs that this president, being manic and creative and impulsive, breaks, one after another.  Before his presidency, it is estimated that he filed around a thousand lawsuits.  No normal human being engages in so many lawsuits.  But a manic person will.  

To diagnose manic personality is a factual statement, not a political one. As I have written many times, there are benefits and harms, not only harms.  But there are harms.  This is not to pathologize political discourse, which is harmful and should be avoided. The president should not be name-called clinically as narcissistic or antisocial.  One can claim more neutrally that he lies or that he is selfish; those criticisms of his character are better made in plain English. The political debate also is outside psychology:  Roosevelt used a manic personality for left-wing political interests; Trump uses his personality for right-wing interests. A reader will support the politics of one or the other.  But the manic personality is relevant in a different way. 

Where psychology becomes relevant is in understanding how the president will behave, and why. This president is predictably unpredictable, because he has a manic personality. America needs to understand this fact, as the Senate considers his impeachment trial, and as the public decides whether he should be re-elected.