The Psychology of Donald Trump & How He Speaks

Donald J. Trump will go down in American history as one of the most unusual politicians of all time. He is an enigma to everyone in the political establishment (and to much of America) as he continues his 2016 run for the American presidency.

What makes this Republican nominee tick? Why does Donald Trump speak the way he does, saying clearly outlandish things, then taking them back a day or two later? Let’s find out.

I’m not the first person who has had serious concerns about the mental health and stability of Donald Trump. Many others have commented on their concerns before me, especially about Trump’s apparent narcissism.

But I felt that these issues were best summarized in a short article to explain why these concerns exist in the first place. After all, when there’s a presidential election, a candidate’s mental health is usually not even a concern — much less the focus of the amount of media attention given to Trump during this presidential election season.

Does Trump Suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Therapists, researchers, psychologists, and experts in mental health appear pretty consistent in their belief that Trump suffers from narcissistic traits consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

“Textbook narcissistic personality disorder,” echoed clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics,” said clinical psychologist George Simon, who conducts lectures and seminars on manipulative behavior. […] “Remarkably narcissistic,” said developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Maria Konnivoka, writing over at the Big Think over a year ago nicely summarized the evidence for Trump’s personality symptoms. But for a reminder, let’s look at the symptoms for this disorder one by one.

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
    Trump does this regularly, exaggerating every achievement of his. Remember when he proudly proclaimed he “knew” and was “friends” with Russia’s President Putin, then later acknowledged he had never even met him?
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    Trump constantly proclaims how great everything he suggests he will do as president will be “fantastic” or “the greatest.” His entire business career appears focused on creating the impression that this is one successful, brilliant, power guy. But he’s actually been a pretty mediocre businessman according to most yardsticks.
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
    Trump bought and refurbished the 118-room, 20 acre, multi-million dollar estate called Mar-a-Lago in Florida, allowing him to associate with only those others who can afford the $100,000 membership fee and $14,000 in annual fees.
  • Requires excessive admiration
    All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected,” said Trump at one point.
  • Has a very strong sense of entitlement (e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)
    I’m running against the crooked media,” said Trump. Trump apparently wants to eviscerate the First Amendment, arguing that Congress should “open up our libel laws” (making it easier for people to sue for libel). If someone prints or says something negative about Trump, he immediately attacks back (usually with a name-calling tweet).
  • Is exploitative of others (e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
    After 9/11, apparently Donald Trump — not a “small business” — took advantage of $150,000 in government funds to help small businesses. He’s also been accused of taking advantage of the tragic Orlando shooting and U.S. bankruptcy laws — exactly as you’d expect a billionaire to do.
  • Lacks empathy (e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others)
    When a grieving U.S. Muslim mom and dad who lost their son during the Iraq war in 2004 appeared at the Democratic national convention to berate Trump for his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country, this was Trump’s tangential, non-empathetic response to their grief: “His wife … if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” (Or, look at the way he mocked a person with a disability.)
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
    While I’m certain Trump believes others likely envy him, there’s not as much support for this one: “One of the problems when you become successful is that jealousy and envy inevitably follow. There are people—I categorize them as life’s losers—who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others” (p.59, Trump: The Art of the Deal).
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
    Trump: “You know, it really doesn’t matter what (the media) write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” (Or, again, look at the way he mocked a person with a disability.)

How Trump Uses Indirect Speech

Trump is a master of speaking indirectly to whoever his audience is. This is when he doesn’t come out and explicitly say something, but rather simply implies it. Psychologists call this indirect speech and Trump excels in it.

Here are a few examples of it:

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

The implication is that Trump was asking a foreign power to intervene in a national election through illegal activity. He later walked it back — as he does nearly all of his indirect speech comments — by claiming he was “only joking.”

“Only joking” or “don’t you get sarcasm when you hear it?” are rationalizations used by others when they want to say something, but don’t want to stand up for what they said. It is the type of speech that psychologists see regularly used by cowards and bullies, not usually politicians or distinguished statesmen.

“If [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks… Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Most people took this to mean that Trump was calling for the “Second Amendment people” to “do something” about it. Later, Trump claimed he was only encouraging those folks to use their voting power, but many people took this comment to mean something more nefarious. “[…] Literally using the Second Amendment as cover to encourage people to kill someone with whom they disagree,” commented Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, after he heard Trump’s comments.

Indirect speech has many benefits. By not saying what you mean, you encourage every listener to form their own opinion about what you intended. That means his supporters will hear one thing, while his detractors hear something completely different. If anything he says is taken the “wrong way” by too many people, he can simply negate it: “You misunderstood,” “Only joking,” “That was sarcasm.” It’s a perfect linguistic and psychological trick that Trump exquisitely deploys to his benefit. It allows plausible deniability for anything he says. This makes it very hard to pin him down on anything he says, much like trying to nail jello to a wall.

He’s had to walk back so many of his comments, people have lost track of the count. Just last week he claimed that President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the presidential race, were literally the “founders of ISIS,” the Islamic terrorist group that has its roots during the time of the Bush presidency:

“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS… I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton. … He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?”

The next day, typical of Trump’s behavior, he took the comments back, after it became clear everyone knows he was lying about Obama’s “founding” status in ISIS. (President Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the founding of this terrorist organization based in the Middle East.)

Trump: Crafty Liar or Just Plain Bullshitter?

The other week, the Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria had an insightful article about whether Trump’s constant lies are purposeful behavior in service of some ultimate goal, or are they simply symptoms of a “bullshit artist:”

[Princeton professor Harry] Frankfurt distinguishes crucially between lies and B.S.: “Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point. . . . In order to invent a lie at all, [the teller of a lie] must think he knows what is true.”

But someone engaging in B.S., Frankfurt says, “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all . . . except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.” Frankfurt writes that the B.S.-er’s “focus is panoramic rather than particular” and that he has “more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘bullshit artist.’ ”

Trump — with his indirect speech patterns and ability to step back from any lie he tells — appears to be the consummate American bullshit artist.

And if he wins this presidential election, he will have shown that the American people will buy any line of B.S. it hears, as long as the person shelling it out is confident enough in the telling.

 

Reference

Lee, J. J., & Pinker, S. (2010). Rationales for indirect speech: the theory of the strategic speaker. Psychological Review, 117(3), 785.