In 2017, Yale University psychiatrist Bandy Lee and her colleagues published the controversial book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. In this collection of essays, she and her colleagues offer their diagnoses-from-afar regarding the mental health of our current president. In so doing, they violated the Goldwater Rule, which forbids psychiatrists from making public statements about the mental health of public figures whom they have not interviewed privately. Bandy and her colleagues maintained that the need to inform the public about Trump’s dangerous mental state took precedence over the Goldwater Rule.
Since then, the Goldwater Rule has come under the criticism of Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld and his colleagues. In particular, they challenge the notion that in-person clinical interviews are more reliable than personality assessments based on real-life observations. In fact, research has shown that a far more accurate picture of an individual’s personality can be obtained by aggregating the assessments of that person’s close friends and relations than from a clinical interview by a licensed professional.
Few of us know President Donald Trump personally, but all of us know a lot about him. As arguably the most public person in the United States, Trump is familiar to us all, and we each have a good sense of how we perceive his personality. This observation led University of Colorado psychologist Jacob Fiala and colleagues to the idea that they should ask American voters directly how they view the personality of the current American president.
For this purpose, Fiala and his colleagues recruited 219 participants through an online platform known as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Called MTurk for short, this site has become the go-to location to recruit people across the demographic spectrum for psychological studies. In this case, the participants ranged in age from 18-79, about one-third men and two-thirds women, and they were distributed across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status in a manner similar to the American population at large. About 60 percent of the participants had voted for Hillary Clinton, and the other 40 percent had voted for Donald Trump, again reflecting that the current president won the elector college despite losing the popular election.
The participants were asked to assess the personality of the president using a personality test that is often used in research on interpersonal relationships. The questionnaire gets at potential psychological disorders of the target person. Each item is worded in simple language such that respondents don’t have to understand the nature of mental illnesses or even be aware that they are evaluating clearly defined psychological disorders.
The key question that Fiala and colleagues tested was straightforward. Namely, do liberals and conservatives view the personality of President Donald Trump in an essentially different manner? In a nutshell, the answer to this question is both yes and no.
In particular, both liberals and conservatives ranked Trump high on six personality traits generally considered by professionals to be disordered:
- Sadistic. Respondents regardless of political affiliation generally agreed that Trump is a bully who acts aggressively toward anyone he perceives as a threat to his ego.
- Narcissistic. They also agreed that he is self-centered and engages in self-aggrandizing behaviors.
- Histrionic. Both camps viewed Trump as excessively melodramatic, one who knows how to stir up controversy for personal advantage.
- Passive-aggressive. Both sides agree that Trump has overtly negative attitudes about specific persons and groups and that he takes out his aggression through passive means such as obstruction and name-calling rather than direct confrontation.
- Paranoid. Respondents on both sides agreed that Trump perceives threats from many quarters; by his words and actions, he shows himself to be on high alert.
- Antisocial. Liberals and conservatives alike concurred that Trump has a general disregard for social norms and that he views himself as entitled and above the law.
When liberals consider that the President of the United States ranks extremely high in all six of these personality traits, they are simply dumbstruck at the thought that a sizable portion of the American populace actually supports Trump and sees him as a good president. If liberals and conservatives agree on the personality of the President, then why do they disagree on whether Trump is fit for the highest office in the land?
The current research project doesn’t provide an answer to this question. However, when we look at other research, we get a hint at what’s going on. Specifically, President Trump’s personality reflects what has become known as the Dark Triad, a conglomeration of three extreme personality traits:
- Narcissism. Overly high sense of self-worth and entitlement.
- Machiavellianism. Extreme ruthlessness in obtaining one’s goals, regardless of the personal cost to others.
- Psychopathy. The antisocial tendency to disregard the rules of society, especially when they conflict with personal goals.
One the one hand, liberals see Trump as the poster child for the Dark Triad and consider him a poor choice for the leader of a democracy. On the other hand, conservatives view Trump, because of his strong Dark-Triad qualities, as an effective leader.
From evolutionary and historical perspectives, the conservative position makes sense. When we look at other highly social species such as chimpanzees, we see that males who are high in the Dark Triad personality traits rise to leadership positions. Likewise, throughout recorded human history, the big names who rose to greatness all exhibited the Dark Triad traits as well. The likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon didn’t make it into the history books by being kind and compassionate to their fellow humans. Rather, they all felt themselves entitled, were utterly ruthless, and believed the rules simply didn’t apply to them.
Liberals look forward to a time that will be better than today, one in which leaders are wise, under whose rule all people will prosper. Conservatives look back to a time that was better than today, one in which leaders were strong, under whose rule all people knew their place in society. In the end, the real issue isn’t the mental health of the current President but rather what kind of society we want our nation to become and what kind of leader is best for that society.
Fiala, J. A., Mansour, S. A., Matlock, S. E., & Coolidge, F. L. (2020). Voter perceptions of President Donald Trump’s personality disorder traits: Implications of political affiliation. Clinical Psychological Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/2167702619885399
Lee, B. X. (Ed.). (2017). The dangerous case of Donald Trump. Thomas Dunne.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Miller, J. D., & Lynam, D. R. (2018). The Goldwater Rule: Perspectives from, and implication for, psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 3–27.