The Political Personality of Donald Trump

By Winston Nagan and Samantha Manausa

What kind of a personality is Donald Trump? In this article, the authors share their insights on what type of leader Trump is by looking at various perspectives, and whether his traits are compatible with what the democracy requires as well as what his recent conducts as president indicate about the political history of America.

 

Donald Trump, in poetic terms, resembles the Green Knight in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight storms into the aristocratic and sophisticated castle of King Arthur. He represents the unruliness and unkemptness of crude, untethered nature. Donald Trump’s personality is a complex combination of natural forces, many of which have a psychopathological edge to them. From the point of political psychology, he is the quintessential illustration of the power-oriented and directed personality. There is nothing necessarily bad about a leader seeking power. However, the methods he uses to get power may reveal complex personality traits, some of which are infused with latent psychopathologies. Since he has achieved power, these pathologies have even begun to express themselves in the form of a lethal leadership behaviour. The idea of a political personality that is oriented to power is expressed in scholarly terms as the “private motives of the actor displaced on public objects and rationalised in the public interest.” Clearly, Trump displaces something on public objects and provides garrulous justifications such as “Make America Great Again”, “Beware of Outsiders”, and “We are Under Threat and I have a Solution”. Trump was able to wedge himself into the political process by appealing to a minority of white voters who were still wallowing in shock and awe over the election of a black president.

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Trump used birtherism with relentless tenacity to tarnish or obscure the truth. He did this intentionally, which indicates that his intention of exploiting lower class racism may be grounded in a deep pathology in which he gets personal gratification from it.

We have probably underestimated the psychological effect of this change in American politics. Not only was President Obama black, but he was also intellectually skilled and politically competent, matters which severely affected the collective eco-structure of the lower class, the economically deprived white electorate. Regardless of its depressed socio-economic status, this minority had always comforted itself by assuming superiority over blacks in the social status hierarchy. That last refuge of security and whiteness is now threatened by a change in national leadership to a black president. Trump, who, notwithstanding his economic status, has a perspective that is largely lower class and laced with crude vulgarity, probably felt his own whiteness threatened. Thus was born the idea that the president, elected by the American people, did not carry a real mantle of authority. This idea went mainstream in the form of birtherism and the assumption that President Obama could be humiliated by being forced to produce his birth certificate. That this lie endured for so long is a matter of concern which certainly requires further investigation. The explanation probably lies with the administration of President George W. Bush, whose advisors suggested that political truths are largely contingent and can actually be minimised if not obliterated by the repetition of a lie, provided one has the resources to flood the media with the lie. The lie will come to be regarded alongside the truth, compromising truth itself and undermining the veracity of the principle of public life. Trump used birtherism with relentless tenacity to tarnish or obscure the truth. He did this intentionally, which indicates that his intention of exploiting lower class racism may be grounded in a deep pathology in which he gets personal gratification from it.

Trump has appropriated these ideas – namely, the purposeful repetition of a lie and the management of the airwaves – as central features of his administration. Lie after lie so overwhelms the media that there is virtually no discussion of the central issues in his policies. It would be tedious to attempt to recount all the lies relevant to the body politic; the very tediousness of it implies that Trump has utilised lies with great success. The lies he proclaims are shameless, and often come into conflict with previous lies that he has espoused. It is clear that the lies he spews about his opponents are motivated only by a desire for political advantage. There exists no fundamental model of ethics or morality in his utterances.

What is clear is that Trump’s personality has a number of traits that are pathological in some degree and would appear to be incompatible with what a real democracy requires.

So, what kind of a personality is Donald Trump? The technical literature offers us a multitude of perspectives through which his personality can be understood. First, although a person’s principle traits may be indicative of personality development, that person may have elements of narcissism in his personality. In a more exåtreme form, narcissism may be a psychopathic disorder. In general, however, it straddles the line between egregious behaviour and tempered behaviour. Trump’s administration is saturated with narcissism; both his campaign and presidential platforms all tend to focus more on Trump than on his ideas or plans. Another framework of personality is more concerned with symptoms of obsession and compulsion. This could be reflected in Trump’s obsession with denigrating others who are deemed “outsiders”, such as Muslims and Latin American immigrants. This can also indicate a psychopathic disorder. Other pathological perspectives would consider the Machiavellian outlook, and would find Trump to be a radically manipulative personality. It is true that leaders need some measures of this to be successful. However, in extreme forms, manipulation is done only for the sake of manipulation, representing yet another form of psychopathological behaviour. Similarly, the normal personality may also have a streak of paranoia. In a sense, Trump’s impatience with criticisms or challenging questions from the media are indications that there is a small level of paranoia in his political style. Finally, two compelling perspectives are those of the authoritarian personality and totalitarian personality. Trump has shown a tendency toward authoritarianism, though they were somewhat subdued during his campaign. It is difficult to see him in totalitarian mode, but this is possibly a latent feature of his outlook. What is clear is that Trump’s personality has a number of traits that are pathological in some degree and would appear to be incompatible with what a real democracy requires. His recent conduct as president, which includes threats to withdraw security clearances of intelligence officials, banning a White House reporter from a correspondence reception, indicating that the new Russian assault on American democracy will target Democrats and not Republicans, dismissal of national security advisors and the Secretary of State, and more, indicate that we may be in for a rough time in the political history of our nation.  

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About The Authors

Winston P. Nagan is Professor of Law at University of Florida, and the Founding Director, at the Institute for Human Rights, Peace and Development and Fellow, Royal Society of the Arts. He is an alumnus of the University of South Africa, where he did his B.A (Law); Brasenose college, Oxford, where he got an M.A (Juris); Duke School of Law where he did LL.M. and later Yale School of Law, where he obtained his Doctorate degree in law.

Samantha R. Manausa is an undergraduate with honors at the University of Florida, studying religion, political science, and Spanish language. She is currently researching contemporary global issues as a junior fellow of the Institute of Human Rights, Peace and Development at the Levin College of Law, University of Florida.