Friday, April 1, 2016

Human Irrationality 102: The Trump Phenomenon

As a psychologist, it is difficult to resist exploring the Trump phenomenon. There are two aspects to what is happening in probably the most bizarre presidential race that I have seen in my lifetime. The first is the man himself and the second, probably more important factor is the support that has gathered around him.

Most psychological profiling is undertaken using a mixture of interviews and sophisticated personality testing tools. For me, the well constructed interview is the most effective means to understanding people, if you know what you are looking for and have the right interviewing technique. To construct a profile of someone from just watching them from afar is fraught with risk. You probably wouldn’t do this with most politicians, who show very little of themselves. In the case of Donald Trump, we have a gift that keeps on giving in terms of the showing of himself. Furthermore, there is a consistency to what you see, as well as a fairly well documented history of the man himself. So, I’ll have a go.

Trump is extremely narcissistic. As well as an inflated sense of his own importance, that is at odds with reality, he is quick to anger when criticised. We have seen his angry retorts towards his critics, as well as his tendency towards litigation in his many business failures in which he quickly blames others.

It is pretty clear he lacks empathy and is extremely impulsive. This combination is unfortunate because he fails to understand the behaviour of others, is not concerned about their feelings and does not think before he acts or speaks. Added to this is an obvious, ‘Do what it takes’ attitude to getting what he wants. Ordinary people lost lots of money investing in his ventures that he, without a second thought, abandoned. He sees these people as ‘losers’. Trump just doesn’t care much about people and, gives the impression that he is a bully both at work and elsewhere.

What does Trump believe in? I suspect that he doesn’t much believe in anything, given his about-face on so many issues and his business antics. He has probably never had any long term goals-in fact he may not be able to set any. Trump has never run for any kind of political office before, has never trained himself. He was trained in the family real estate business but his ventures since then have been impulsive and, mostly ill-conceived. Apart from 4 bankruptcies, that he has been able to personally avoid, he has a string of huge business failures.

On the face of it, Trump is very confident and seems to lack anxiety. While there may be many insecurities in his deep unconscious driving this behaviour (I’ll leave it to Jung to sort this out), we see someone who believes in himself and believes that he is right. This lack of fear along with his impulsivity and inability to plan makes for an interesting combination.

I saw somewhere in the media the question of what is happening in Trump’s mind. I suspect that it is chaotic in there. He is an extreme extrovert, he thinks out loud and has a low attention to detail. There is a lot spinning around in his head and it just has to come out, verbally. Many people in public life are extraverts but Trump is completely off the scale. He just has to process information by speaking. Again this is linked to an inability to plan and to foresee consequences. I think he is probably cognitively intelligent (although I’m not totally convinced of this) but very low on social/emotional intelligence.

The support Trump has gathered is significant. Many commentators have pointed to the fear that the republican machine has gradually built up since the inauguration of Obama. He inherited an economy in a mess, two wars, social systems in chaos, high unemployment and so on, but this was sheeted home to him and his party by a cleverly orchestrated fear campaign. It is also clear that there are a lot of people suffering in the USA from a variety of causes but which can be attributed to long term middle class policy failure and the darker side of capitalism. In short, capitalism has not delivered on its promises. Trump inherited an environment of fear and has used it to his advantage.

When people, and more so groups of people, become fearful they look around for someone to blame. In Germany in the 1930s it was the Jews and many governments around the world, including the Vatican, turned a blind eye to the systematic abuse of a whole ‘nation’. In the US of A at the moment it is vilification Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, the ‘soft’ government, drug abusers, women, Bernie Sanders and all other democrats, and so on-you’ve heard it all. But this time nations, thanks to social media, are taking notice.

So, we should not be surprised, given it has happened before, that someone like Trump is able to gather people around him.  He has been able to appeal to the darker side of human nature-stereotyping, bigotry, racism, misogyny, narrow mindfulness, hatred, and the need to express discontent through violence. If it were France in the late 18th century we would hear the tumbrils clattering along the cobbled streets heading for Madame Guillotine.

Human irrationality is a fascinating phenomenon and we are seeing it in spades in the US of A right now. But, irrationality is around us all the time in everyday life and often has very unfortunate consequences. Perhaps the civilisation of the human species is a fantasy given the current state of our evolution.