Why does President Trump behave in the dangerous and seemingly self-destructive ways he does?
Three decades ago I spent nearly a year hanging around Trump to write his first book, The Art of the Deal, and got to know him very well. I spent hundreds of hours listening to him, watching him in action, and interviewing him about his life. To me, none of what he has said or done over the past four months as president comes as a surprise. The way he has behaved over the past two weeks - firing FBI director James B. Comey, undercutting his own aides as they tried to explain the decision, disclosing sensitive information to Russian officials, and railing about it all on Twitter - is also entirely predictable.
Early on, I recognized that Trump's sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.
The Trump I first met in 1985 had lived nearly all his life in survival mode. By his own description, his father, Fred, was relentlessly
demanding, difficult, and driven. Here's how I phrased it in The Art of the Deal: "My father is a wonderful man, but he is also very much a business guy and strong and tough as hell." As Trump saw it, his older brother, Fred Jr., who became an alcoholic and died at age 42, was overwhelmed by his father. Or as I euphemized it in the book: "There were inevitably confrontations between the two of them. In most cases, “Freddy came out on the short end."
Trump's worldview was profoundly and self-protectively shaped by his father. "l was drawn to business very early, and I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were," is the way I wrote it in the book. "I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike."
To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it - as he thought his older brother had. This narrow defensive outlook took hold at a very early age and it never evolved. "When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now," he told a recent biographer, "I'm basically the same." His development essentially ended in early childhood.
Instead, Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration. Many of the deals in The Art of the Deal were massive failures - among them the casinos he owned and the launch of a league to rival the National Football League - but Trump had me describe each of them as a huge success.
With evident pride, Trump explained to me that he was "an assertive, aggressive" kid from an early age, and that he had once punched a music teacher in the eye and was nearly expelled from elementary school for his behavior.
Like so much about Trump, who knows whether that story is
true? What's clear is that he has spent his life seeking to dominate others, whatever that requires and whatever collateral damage it creates along the way. In The Art of the Deal, he speaks with street-fighting relish about competing in the world of New York real estate: they are "some of the sharpest toughest and most vicious people in the world. I happen to love to go up against these guys, and I love to beat them." I never sensed from Trump any guilt or contrition about anything he'd done, and he certainly never shared any misgivings publicly. From his perspective, he operated in a jungle full of predators who were forever out to get him, and he did what he must to survive.
Trump was equally clear with me that he didn't value - nor even necessarily recognize - the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification, or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong. Trump simply didn't traffic in emotions or interest in others. The life he lived was all transactional, all the time. Having never expanded his emotional, intellectual, or moral universe, he has his story down, and he's sticking to it.
A key part of that story is that facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day. When he is challenged, he instinctively doubles down - even when what he has just said is demonstrably false. I saw that countless times, whether it was as trivial as exaggerating the number of floors at Trump Tower or as consequential as telling me that his casinos were performing well when they were actually going bankrupt. In the same way, Trump would see no contradiction at all in changing his story about why he fired Comey and thereby undermining the statements of his aides, or in any other lie he tells. His aim is never accuracy; it's domination.
The Trump I got to know had no deep ideological beliefs, nor any passionate feeling about anything but his immediate self-interest. He derives his sense of significance from conquests and accomplishments. "Can you believe it, Tony?" he would often say at the
start of late-night conversations with me, going on to describe some new example of his brilliance. But the reassurance he got from even his biggest achievements was always ephemeral and unreliable - and that appears to include being elected president. Any addiction has a predictable pattern: the addict keeps chasing the high by upping the ante in an increasingly futile attempt to re-create the desired state. On the face of it, Trump has more opportunities now to feel significant and accomplished than almost any other human being on the planet. But that's like saying a heroin addict has his problem licked once he has free and continuous access to the drug. Trump also now has a far bigger and more public stage on which to fail and to feel unworthy.
From the very first time I interviewed him in his office in Trump Tower in 1985, the image I had of Trump was that of a black hole. Whatever goes in quickly disappears without a trace. Nothing sustains. It's forever uncertain when someone or something will throw Trump off his precarious perch - when his sense of equilibrium will be threatened and he'll feel an overwhelming compulsion to restore it. Beneath his bluff exterior, I always sensed a hurt, incredibly vulnerable little boy who just wanted to be loved.
What Trump craves most deeply is the adulation he has found so fleeting. This goes a long way toward explaining his need for control and why he simply couldn't abide Comey, who reportedly refused to accede to Trump's demand for loyalty and whose continuing investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign last year threatens to bring down his presidency. Trump's need for unquestioning praise and flattery also helps to explain his hostility to democracy and to a free press - both of which thrive on open dissent.
As we have seen countless times during the campaign and since the election, Trump can devolve into survival mode on a moment's notice. Look no further than the thousands of tweets he has written
attacking his perceived enemies over the past year. In neurochemical terms, when he feels threatened or thwarted, Trump moves into a fight-or-flight state. His amygdala is triggered, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activates, and his prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that makes us capable of rationality and reflection - shuts down. He reacts rather than reflects, and damn the consequences. This is what makes his access to the nuclear codes so dangerous and frightening.
Over the past week, in the face of criticism from nearly every quarter, Trump's distrust has almost palpably mushroomed. No importuning by his advisers stands a chance of constraining him when he is this deeply triggered. The more he feels at the mercy of forces he cannot control - and he is surely feeling that now - the more resentful, desperate, and impulsive he becomes.
Even 30 years later, I vividly remember the ominous feeling when Trump got angry about some perceived slight. Everyone around him knew that you were best off keeping your distance at those times, or, if that wasn't possible, that you should resist disagreeing with him in any way.
In the hundreds of Trump's phone calls I listened in on with his consent, and the dozens of meetings I attended with him, I can never remember anyone disagreeing with him about anything. The same climate of fear and paranoia appears to have taken root in his White House.
The most recent time I spoke to Trump - and the first such occasion in nearly three decades-was July 14, 2016, shortly before The New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer about my experience writing The Art of the Deal. Trump was just about to win the Republican nomination for president. I was driving in my car when my cell phone rang. It was Trump. He had just gotten off a call with a fact-checker for The New Yorker, and he didn't mince words.
"I just want to tell you that I think you're very disloyal," he
started in, then he berated and threatened me for a few minutes I, pushed back, gently but firmly. And then, suddenly, as abruptly as he began the call, he ended it. "Have a nice life," he said, and hung up.
UNBRIDLED AND EXTREME PRESENT HEDONISM
How the Leader of the Free World Has Proven Time and Again He ls Unfit for Duty
PHILIP ZIMBARDO AND ROSEMARY SWORD
In the summer of 2015, we commenced what would become an ongoing discussion about Donald Trump. He had just thrown his hat in the ring as a Republican presidential candidate, and our initial conversation was brief: he was in it for the publicity. For us, as for many Americans, Donald Trump had been in the periphery of our consciousness for years, first as a well-publicized New York City businessman and later as a mediocre television personality. And like most we didn't take him seriously. Why would we have? He had no political experience, and he failed to show any real interest in philanthropy, much less in helping the American people or non-Trump businesses. His products were made outside the United States, and multiple lawsuits indicated he didn't pay those small businesses that supplied him with goods and services. He had also created Trump University, for people who wanted to get certified in business administration, at a fee of $43,000 for one year. It was a scam - the same lessons were available online for free for anyone, and the mentors who were supposed to give students personal guidance were
rarely available. Students who took Trump University to court won their lawsuits, and Trump U got dumped. Simply put Donald Trump was a businessman interested primarily in personal gain, sometimes using unscrupulous methods.
We also knew that, for decades, Trump had flip-flopped, switching political parties - first a Democrat, then a member of the Reform Party, then a Republican, then a Democrat, and finally a Republican again. Surely, it seemed, "The Donald" was in the running merely to gain media coverage, to place himself in a better position to make even more big deals and to up-level his product line: Donald J. Trump.
Then, as the months progressed, we became increasingly concerned that, given his "straightforward" or “outsider" presentation and his charisma, he would appeal to people who were unaware of the dangers of narcissism in extremis, or of the offensive behaviors that can accompany it. While we are not trying to diagnose here (which would be close to impossible in any case), we would like to call the reader's attention to associated behaviors that include but are not limited to condescension, gross exaggeration (lying), bullying, jealousy, fragile self-esteem, lack of compassion and viewing the world through an "us-vs.-them" lens. Having observed the schoolyard bully tactics Trump employed during the Republican debates, and his absurdly boastful presentation during interviews, we felt it was important to raise awareness about this set of behaviors. So, in January 2016, we published an online Psychology Today column about bullies and the hostile social environments they create in schools and businesses.
As Trump's campaign, and his narcissism, gained momentum, so did our efforts to make people aware of the potential dangers he posed for our democracy. In March 2016 we published a column about the narcissistic personality. In it, we shared clinically documented narcissistic behaviors, hoping it would be easy for readers to come to their own conclusions that Trump fit every example. We did not mention his numerous romantic
dalliances, or the growing number of sexual harassment lawsuits he faced, or his three marriages, in which he traded up for younger, more beautiful women. Each of these, on its own is not exceptional, but it doesn't take a mental health professional to determine that these behaviors, coupled with his ever-shifting political party affiliations (changes that could be viewed as having been made to bolster his image and ego), indicated that this person's main focus was self-interest, and were incongruent with one important character trait the American people have come to appreciate in their president - at least up until November 2016: stability.
Furthermore, through our observations, it was glaringly apparent, based on Zimbardo's time perspective theory later developed into time perspective therapy by Sword that Trump embodied a specific personality type: an unbridled, or extreme, present hedonist. As the words suggest present hedonists live in the present moment, without much thought of any consequences of their actions or of the future. An extreme present hedonist will say whatever it takes to pump up his ego and to assuage his inherent low self-esteem, without any thought for past reality or for the potentially devastating future outcomes from off-the-cuff remarks or even major decisions. Trump's behavior indicates that his time perspectives are totally unbalanced. It's not necessary for him to take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (either the long or short forms) in order for us to come to this conclusion. Our assertion that Trump qualifies as among the most extreme present hedonists we have ever witnessed comes from the plethora of written and recorded material on him, including all his interviews, hundreds of hours of video, and his own tweets on his every personal feeling.
What follows is meant to help readers understand how we've come to the conclusion that Donald Trump displays the most threatening time perspective profile, that of an extreme present hedonist, and is therefore "unfit for duty."
Time Perspective Theory and Time Perspective Therapy (TPT)
We are all familiar with the three main time zones: the past, the present, and the future. In TPT, these time zones are divided into subsets: past positive and past negative, present hedonism and present fatalism, and future positive and future negative. When one of these time perspectives is weighed too heavily, we can lose out on what's really happening now and/or lose sight of what could happen in our future. This can cause us to be unsteady, unbalanced, or temporally biased. Being out of balance in this way also shades the way we think, and negatively impacts our daily decision making. For instance, if you are stuck in a past negative experience, you might think that from now on everything that happens to you will be negative. Why even bother planning for your future? you might think. It's just going to continue to be same old bad stuff. Or, if you are an extreme present hedonist adrenaline junky intent on spiking your adrenal glands, then you might engage in risky behaviors that unintentionally endanger you or others because you are living in the moment and not thinking about the future consequences of today's actions. If you are out of balance in your future time perspective, constantly thinking and worrying about all the things you have on your endIess to-do list you might forget about or miss out on the everyday, wonderful things happening in your life and the lives of your loved ones in the here and now.
SIX MAIN TIME PERSPECTIVES IN TPT
1. Past positive people focus on the good things that have happened.
2. Past negative people focus on all the things that went wrong in the past.
3. Present hedonistic people live in the moment, seeking pleasure, novelty, and sensation, and avoiding pain.
4. Present fatalistic people feel that planning for future decisions is not necessary because predetermined fate plays the guiding role in one's life.
5. Future positive people plan for the future and trust that things will work out.
6. Future negative people feel the future is predetermined and apocalyptic, or they have no future orientation.
THREE MAIN TPT BIASES
- Past bias: Good and bad things happen to everyone. Some of us view the world through rose-colored glasses (past positive), whereas others see the world through a darker lens (past negative). We have found that people who focus primarily on the past value the old more than the new; the familiar over the novel; and the cautious, conservative approach over the daring, more liberal or riskier one.
- Present bias: People who live in the present are far less, or not at all, influenced by either past experiences or future considerations. They focus only on the immediate present - what's happening now (present hedonism). Decisions are based on immediate stimulus: internal hormonal signals, feelings, smells, sounds, the attractive qualities of the object of desire, and what others are urging them to do. Present-biased people who are influenced by past negative experiences are likely to feel stuck in the mire of the past now (present fatalism).
- Future bias: No one is born thinking about how to plan for the future. A number of conditions, including living in a temperate zone (where it's necessary to anticipate seasonal change), living in a stable family or stable economic/political society (where a person learns to trust promises made to him), and becoming educated, can create future-positive-oriented people. In general, future-oriented people do very well in life. They are less aggressive, are less depressed, have more energy, take care of their health, have good impulse control, and have more self-esteem. Those stuck in the past, and locked into negative memories, feel fatalistic about the present and may have lost the ability even to conceive of a hopeful future (future negative).
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Time Perspectives
Through years of research, we have discovered that people who live healthy, productive, optimistic lives share the following traits - what we call an "ideal time perspective":
- High past positive/low past negative;
- Low present fatalism/moderate selected present hedonism; and
- Moderately high future-positive orientation.
Conversely, we have found that people with pessimistic time perspectives, usually due to trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, or posttraumatic stress, share the following time perspective profile:
- High past negative/low past positive;
- High present fatalism and/or high present hedonism; and
- Low future/no future orientation.
Having a dose of selected present hedonism in one's overall time perspective profile is important because enjoying oneself and having fun is a healthy part of life. Yet, too much of a good thing can cause numerous problems.
Present Hedonism and Arrested Emotional Development
As just mentioned, present hedonists live and act in the moment, frequently with little to no thought of the future, or the consequences
of their actions. Most children and teenagers are present hedonists. Each day, they build on past experiences, but their concept of the future is still under development. People suffering from arrested emotional development, usually caused by a childhood trauma, are also present hedonists. Without therapy, the ability to mature emotionally beyond the age of trauma is difficult to impossible. When they reach adulthood, they may be able to hide their lack of emotional maturity for periods, but then, when in a stressful situation, they revert to behaving the emotional age they were when they were first traumatized. Depending on the degree to which the childhood trauma affected the person suffering from arrested emotional development, they may find that, over time, their present-hedonistic time perspective has morphed into extreme present hedonism.
Without proper individual assessment, we can only make a best guess as to whether Donald Trump suffers from arrested emotional development, which may or may not be a factor in his extreme present hedonism. Yet, with access to the extensive amount of print and video media exposing his bullying behavior, his immature remarks about sex, and his childlike need for constant attention, we can speculate that the traumatizing event was when he was sent away to military school at the age of thirteen. According to one of his biographers, Michael D’Antonio, Trump "was essentially banished from the family home. He hadn't known anything but living with his family in a luxurious setting, and all of a sudden he's sent away." This would help explain his pubescent default setting when confronted by others.
Extreme Present Hedonism
An extreme present hedonist will say or do anything at any time for purposes of self-aggrandizement and to shield himself from previous (usually negatively perceived) activities, with no thought of the future or the effect of his actions. Coupled with a measure of paranoia, which is the norm, extreme present hedonism is the most unpredictable and perilous time perspective due to its "action" component. Here's how it works:
The extreme present hedonist's impulsive thought leads to an impulsive action that can cause him to dig in his heels when confronted with the consequences of that action. If the person is in a position of power, then others scramble either to deny or to find ways to back up the original impulsive action. In normal, day-to-day life, this impulsiveness leads to misunderstandings, lying, and toxic relationships. In the case of Donald Trump, an impulsive thought may unleash a stream of tweets or verbal remarks (the action), which then spur others to try to fulfill, or deny, his thoughtless action.
Case in point: Trump's impulsive tweet "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!" caused members of his staff to scramble to find evidence to make the false and slanderous claim "real." That one extreme present hedonistic tweet has led, ironically, to multiple investigations into the Trump campaign's possible Russian connections at the expense of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.
Another concerning characteristic of extreme present hedonists is the often unwitting - we like to give some extreme present hedonists the benefit of the doubt - propensity to dehumanize others in order to feel superior. This lack of foresight and compassion is also a trait of narcissism and bullying, which we address later in this chapter.
Our Current President and Neurorealities - Chapter 24, continued...