Trump: A Risk Assessment Perspective

From the vantage point of risk assessment, Trump is a disaster.

Posted Mar 18, 2016

As an expert in handling suicidal emergencies, I teach my students about engaging in risk assessment. One of the most basic principles I teach is that one cannot predict human behavior with any certainty and that it is not your job to do so as a risk assessor. Indeed, in the case of suicidal behavior, because it has a low base rate, if you were to make a simple prediction, you would almost always predict that the person will not kill themselves. And if one’s goal were accuracy, you would be accurate most of the time. Of course, a clinician that behaved this way would be professionally negligent and deserve to lose their license.

What one does in a risk assessment is identify variables and indicators that are known to be associated with risk, put them together to create a clear picture of the current situation and take appropriate action to minimize the likelihood of catastrophic outcomes, all while considering patient rights, one's professional role (i.e., best practice guidelines), and valued outcomes in the future. In the case of suicide, we look for things such as ideas of suicide, a plan, recent losses, access to means, past history of suicidal behavior and so forth to generate a risk formulation.

This is the lens through which I look at the Trump phenomena. Although no one knows exactly what a Trump Presidency would be with any certainty, the fact of the matter is that currently we are looking at many indicators of catastrophic risk.

The basic set up is this. The political system in the country is broken. The two parties are attempting to govern in a way that is very similar to a dysfunctional marriage; there is no trust, lousy communication (e.g., blaming, stonewalling, contempt), little cooperation and even less empathy, and cyclical destructive behavior between them that damages the family system (i.e., the people). The Trump phenomenon is, IMO, good evidence that it has been the Republican Party that is the more insane and dysfunctional of the two, but both parties share significant blame. Regardless, it is currently a fact that the state of affairs within the US is that the parties are dysfunctional and polarized—and this, of course, has sparked much anger from the people and hence we are seeing understandable calls for political revolutions.

Now let’s look out at the global situation. Here we see uncertainty everywhere we look. Climate change, a chaotic Middle East sparking radical Islamic jihadism, many indicators of economic weakness and flux, radical transformation in information technologies, changing labor and trade markets, a restless Russia, a weakened European Union, an uncertain economic future for China, and on and on. We are also seeing hugely problematic trends in the West regarding mental health, with skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression. In short, the situation is chaotic, unpredictable and certainly vulnerable to many, many problems.     

Now consider a Trump Presidency in this context. Trump is completely chaotic at the level of ideology. He is a pathological liar and has no intellectual integrity. He offers virtually no policies and the ones he does offer are impossible and mean-spirited. He is a narcissist who easily manipulated by feeding his ego (see, e.g., Putin’s comments on Trump) and highly hostile to those who challenge him. In his speeches, he encourages violence, racism, riots, and demagoguery. He is best known as a Twitter bully. When we look at his relations with his own family, we see more evidence of pathology. His brother Freddy drank himself to death. He has sued his relatives. He has repeatedly cheated on his wives. In short, there are an endless number of character indictments and no indication that he has the temperament, knowledge and ability to guide a polarized government through complicated times, nor reassure a public that is restless and feeling increasingly psychologically uncertain, vulnerable and ill. As such, the likelihood that a Trump Presidency would be a disaster with potentially catastrophic consequences is essentially undeniable.

Appeals to Trumps’ cleverness and his ability to change all the rules of politics, his business success, that he “tells it like it is”, that he will break the problematic hold political correctness has on our country, and that there is a great need to shake up Washington ring completely hollow when referenced against the obvious catastrophic risk that a Trump Presidency represents.

Given that ethical individuals who become aware of catastrophic risk have a moral responsibility to work to prevent it, I don’t think it is possible to be an informed and ethical citizen and simultaneously support Trump for the Presidency of the United States.

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