The Personality of the President

March 17, 2017

In the first of these commentaries, I quoted New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’s assessment of Trump’s qualifications to be president. He wrote that Mr. Trump was:

…professionally unprepared, intellectually ill-informed, morally compromised, and temperamentally unfit.

Now forty days into the Trump presidency, I want to revisit the subject of the personality of the president, with Brooks’ “temperamentally unfit” as the template.

A flurry of recent approaches to the question, in letters to the New York Times, suggest urgent concern, and there is where I will end up, but I want to go back to the beginning of my awareness of Donald Trump. I was doing research in the NY Public Library in preparation for a planned trip to Eastern Europe in fall-winter of 1980-81, a trip that I hoped would result in a book about the two World Wars and/or about the Nazi’s. The book that resulted was about the Holocaust, not so much as a Nazi phenomenon, but as a universal human potentiality. I concluded that the worst is latent in some individuals and in almost all societies.

During this period, I stumbled on this story in the New York Times:

It caught my eye because I knew the building, having gone, as a twelve-year-old, on a shopping expedition with my mother to Bonwit’s, as she called it. I was not interested in the shopping then, but I was now interested in the architecture and the art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had wanted the two limestone sculptures on the top of the building, considering them good examples of the Deco period in American design. The developer had promised that he would give them to the museum, but, with no explanation, he reneged and had his demolition crew jackhammered them into rubble. The developer then spun some inflated cost figures and said the pieces were “without artistic merit.”

The New York Times criticized the developer in an editorial and the Director of the Museum expressed his dismay, saying the museum would not have wanted the works if they had not had artistic merit.

The Trump Tower now occupies the site of the old Bonwit Teller store. I remember what I thought of Donald Trump then: an ignorant philistine, a vandal, dishonest, arrogant, and selfish. He was thirty-three. I was forty.

We now jump to the late spring of 2016, when Trump had emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. The cover story of the June 2016 issue of The Atlantic offered a personality profile, by Dan McAdams, a psychologist well-versed in the latest research and ways of characterizing human personality types. He sums up Trump as extroverted, narcissistic, grandiose, and disagreeable. Driven to win and with a lot of anger. McAdams noted that Trump manifests an atavistic fear of contagion, of disease and germs, a fear which appears to spread, by analogy, to out-groups like Muslims and Mexicans. McAdams is cautious as to how far to take such observations, making no note of the similarity with Nazi ideology that equated Jews with bacteria, parasites, or vermin. And perhaps he is smart to avoid making the comparison; it has become too easy to reach into that dark baggage to explain the present American moment.

The article was written before the real viciousness of the campaign—the lies, the insults, the shouts of “lock her up,” the semi-veiled threats of violence—began. Mr. McAdams would have explained those aspects of Trump’s personality by pointing out that he scores very low on the “agreeable” scale, one of the criteria by which, apparently, we all can be assessed.

He concludes the essay, which is worth reading in entirety, with this paragraph:

Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why. The Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue does not strike me as meaningful. It is just big and had cost a lot.

After the election, when Trump no longer needed the bullying demagoguery of the campaign, the old personality did not recede; if anything, it became more pronounced. Paranoid flights and attacks, the tweet “tantrums”—millions of illegal aliens voting, for instance, that deprived him of his popular majority—until the most recent, that Obama had tapped the Trump Tower phones. Concerns about Trump’s personality and about his mental and emotional stability are still emerging. I began to collect scraps of news data, almost scientifically, as if collecting clues.

Scrap 1: On February 13th a letter to theNew York Times signed by 35 mental health professionals had this language describing the president:

…grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality…

They described his condition as a malignant narcissism which permitted various forms of antisocial behavior. I had already noted Trump’s capacity for cruelty in my commentary on the signing of the gag order regarding women’s health services.

Scrap 2: The next day, Feb 14, a letter from the psychologist who wrote the official diagnostic description of narcissistic personality disorder, Allen Francis, a professional with the best possible credentials, disagreed with the diagnosis advanced by the previous writers:

He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder. Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.… Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely. Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced…

Causes severe distress” and doesn’t care, which goes to David Brooks’ “morally compromised,” though morally deficient or undeveloped is probably more to the point. The author’s comment about “bad behavior” seems important, though where on the scale between outright evil and merely detestable will Trump’s bad behavior fall is impossible to know at this point.

Scrap 3: On March 8, two distinguished psychologists, one from Harvard, the other from Columbia, wrote in the Times, a letter again,

In particular, we are struck by his repeated failure to distinguish between reality and fantasy, and his outbursts of rage when his fantasies are contradicted. Without any demonstrable evidence, he repeatedly resorts to paranoid claims of conspiracy… We are in no way offering a psychiatric diagnosis, which would be unwise to attempt from a distance. Nevertheless, as psychiatrists we feel obliged to express our alarm. We fear that when faced with a crisis, President Trump will lack the judgment to respond rationally. The military powers entrusted to him endanger us all.

Scrap 4: Adam Schiff, (D, California) the ranking member on the House Intelligence committee had these observations:

We must accept the possibility that the president does not know fact from fiction, right from wrong… How much credibility will the president have left to persuade the country of what has happened, what needs to be done (if some real crisis comes up).? How much credibility will he have with our allies to get them to back us up?

I’ve repeated these comments for several reasons. First, even though I’m sure most have had these concerns, I’ve thought that assembling them would make the themes that run through them more apparent. All the writers, except for Representative Schiff, are mental health professionals with distinguished credentials. The difficulty, and the ethical problem, of diagnosing mental illness without examining the individual is mentioned by all. This ethical restraint comes from the case of Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, who was accused of being unstable –– crazy–– because he wanted to win the war in Vietnam at any cost, even the use of nuclear weapons. His famous statement “extremism is defense of liberty is no vice,” struck many as, well, extreme, given the ambiguities of the real world.

The real world is no less ambiguous and difficult to “master” now than it was in 1964. All the psychologists quoted above noted Trump’s apparent disconnection from the real world. He apparently believes that what he believes is necessarily true. All noted his anger and lack of impulse control. Together, these characteristics present the danger that Trump could lead, or stumble, the United States into a major war, which might be tempting for someone whose slogan is “Making America great again” and who would be the one to reap the glory that would (or might) result. There could be civilizational clashes of the sort his advisor, Steven Bannon, advocates; or miscalculation. as in dealing with someone as erratic and apparently delusional as the boy ruler of North Korea; or a war caused just by Trump being himself.

Himself is the issue. The role of personalities in historical events. Those who initiate the events are always sure they will turn out to be great events—think Bonaparte—those upon whom the events fall, who carry the packs, usually know otherwise.

I was reading about World War I in 1980 when I first heard of Donald Trump. I was trying to understand how the civilized nations bungled, “sleepwalked” as one historian put it, into one of the most terrible events of human history (1914-1918). Carnage, indeed. In this area of study one repeatedly encounters the personality of the leader of the German nation, Kaiser Wilhelm II. There were complex treaty obligations and misreadings of intelligence that contributed to the disaster, but there was also the temperament of the German Kaiser. This one man—his inconsistencies, his bellicose bluster, his military pretensions, his intemperate outbursts—did much to bring the nations of Europe to the brink of the abyss and then over it. Personalities matter, Just as the personal issues and inner demons of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had so much to do with the American tragedy of Vietnam.

As I began, in 2017, to think about the implications of Trump’s personality on his presidency and on the future, I cast back to what I had learned of Wilhelm II. Thomas Nipperdey, (1927-1992) a prominent German historian, described Wilhelm II as follows:

…gifted, with a quick understanding, sometimes brilliant…but at the same time superficial, hasty, restless, unable to relax, without any deeper level of seriousness, without any desire for hard work or drive to see things through to the end, without any sense of sobriety, for balance and boundaries, or even for reality and real problems, uncontrollable and scarcely capable of learning from experience, desperate for applause and success…unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off, a juvenile cadet, who never took the tone of the officers’ mess out of his voice, and brashly wanted to play the part of the supreme warlord, full of panicky fear of a monotonous life without any diversions, and yet aimless…

William L. Langer, chairman of the history department at Harvard and much-honored historian, wrote of the Kaiser:

He believed in force, and the ‘survival of the fittest’ in domestic as well as foreign politics… William was not lacking in intelligence, but he did lack stability, disguising his deep insecurities by swagger and tough talk. He frequently fell into depressions and hysterics… William’s personal instability was reflected in vacillations of policy. His actions, at home as well as abroad, lacked guidance, and therefore often bewildered or infuriated public opinion. He was not so much concerned with gaining specific objectives, as had been the case with Bismarck, as with asserting his will. This trait in the ruler of the leading Continental power was one of the main causes of the uneasiness prevailing in Europe at the turn-of-the-century.

To say that an uneasiness prevails in Europe today would understate the issue. In America as well. Below is the sculpture that was jackhammered off the Bonwit teller building in 1980.

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