Transformation: Opinion

The dangerous psychology of Donald Trump

The last four years provide a roadmap that shows how the personal and the political can combine to disastrous effect.

Ian Hughes
1 November 2020
Max Pixel/Free Great Picture. CC0.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump’s presidency shows how individual psychopathology and a politics of fear are deeply intertwined. Ian Hughes was one of the first writers to explore this relationship in a series of articles published on Transformation between 2017 and 2020. In the week of the US Presidential election, I asked him to revisit these pieces and provide a commentary.

Politicians who live in an angry narcissistic fog pose a clear threat to democracy and peace, and Donald Trump is a classic illustration of what this means in practice. But it isn’t a simple issue of psychology. As I argued in 2017 in Demons and angels: strongman leaders and social violence, changing circumstances, rather than changes in human nature, are responsible for the varying levels of violence in human societies that can be observed across history - an insight that echoes the writings of Steven Pinker.

For most of us, ‘inner demons’ such as our impulses towards predation, dominance and vengeance coexist with ‘better angels’ like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason. When social, material and cultural conditions favour our better qualities, violence remains low, but if conditions reward our inner demons, violence increases. In 2017 I warned that the election of Trump and the rise of other strongman leaders around the world was an indication that the conditions favouring those inner demons - like economic inequality, political polarization, and rapid technological and demographic change - were once again becoming dominant.

One of the key resources in understanding the potentially explosive relationship between individual psychology and wider social conditions is the work of the ground-breaking Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski. In The real clash of civilizations, also published in 2017, I used some of Lobaczewski’s ideas to explore the dark nature of Trump's disordered mind, arguing that the real ‘clash’ is not between nations, races or religions but between the majority in every society who are capable of empathy and reason, and a highly influential minority who suffer from dangerous disorders of character and personality.

This minority - made up of psychopaths, sociopaths and those with narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder - are essentially devoid of conscience. In his book “Political Ponerology,” Lobaczewski wrote that “Such individuals dream of imposing their power and their different experiential manner upon their environment and their society. Unfortunately, in a psychologically ignorant society, their dreams have a good chance of becoming reality for them and a nightmare for others.”

Trump's term as President, I warned, would be marked by a clash between those forces that upheld the norms and values of democracy and Trump's pathological actions that arise from his absence of conscience, bolstered by those who support him.

One especially frightening arena for pathological behavior of this kind is foreign and security policy, and specifically the threat of nuclear war. Danger: there's a centrifuge in the White House focused on the disturbing fact that someone with Trump's disordered psychology is in control of America's nuclear arsenal. This piece was written when Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Like the nuclear centrifuges that separate heavier Uranium 238 atoms from their lighter and more explosive Uranium 235 counterparts, I argued that Trump was himself behaving like a human centrifuge by acting as a great divider - stoking fears, increasing tensions, and undermining international agreements and alliances. Given the nature and scale of the crises facing America and the rest of world like nuclear proliferation and climate change, it’s essential that Trump’s angry centrifuges are spun down and that rationality is restored to domestic and foreign affairs.

In a later article published in 2018 - Does Donald Trump's foreign policy actually make sense? - I extended this analysis by examining the alarming summit in Helsinki in which he sided with Vladimir Putin, and against his own intelligence agencies, on the issue of Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election. In the context of a well-established pattern of attacks on democratic allies and praise for authoritarian leaders, this piece focused on Trump's paranoia in an effort to explain why it is entirely logical for him to seek alliances with authoritarian leaders.

Individuals with acute paranoia, which is a feature of pathological narcissism, are characterized by a worldview that sees other people as inherently untrustworthy and out to harm them at every turn. Paranoid leaders therefore recoil from alliances with democratic allies because they believe that such alliances are treacherous, and that only strong nations standing alone can survive. This is a conviction that’s shared by other strongman leaders like Putin.

By this time, Trump was regularly being portrayed in the media as a narcissist, including in books like “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff which heightened concerns about Trump’s mental fitness for office. In response I published Fire and fury: the psychodrama of a very stable genius, which sought to clarify what this word actually means by exploring the psychoanalytic understanding of narcissistic personality disorder.

During the course of normal human development, a child acquires a measure of humility, the recognition of external reality, and the acceptance that others are not here simply to serve their own needs and interests. Failures of love and care in early childhood, however, can disrupt this process of psychological development, leaving a person internally conflicted between a compulsion for grandeur and a punishing sense of worthlessness.

People like Trump with narcissistic personality disorder are driven to live out their lives by damaging others and pursuing their grandiose destructive dreams because they are psychologically incapable of coming to terms with the ‘fire and fury’ that lie within.

Entrepreneurs of hate was written in October 2018 to coincide with the publication of my book “Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy,” which examines some of the 20th century’s most appalling atrocities including the Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulag, Mao’s Great Famine, and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in Cambodia. The common theme in these cases is the critical role played by hate-mongers in fomenting such horrors.

According to psychologist Robert Sternberg, hatred is not a single emotion but a toxic mix of anger towards others, fear of others, and revulsion towards them, all cemented together by the stories we tell about them that make them alien, threatening and deserving of the injustices we wish to visit on them. In all of these respects, Trump is a master hatemonger.

He has skillfully tuned into feelings of resentment on the part of substantial numbers of white Americans by openly denigrating immigrants as ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ and labeling the press as ‘the enemy of the people.’ Anyone who has dared to question his inflated narcissistic self-image has been vilified. But when hate-mongers are threatening the very foundations of democracy, the most powerful act of love is to vote against hate at every opportunity.

This conclusion is explored in my most recent piece, John Hume and John Lewis: Hewn from the same rock, which doesn’t actually mention Trump by name. However, by highlighting the qualities of these two moral giants who passed away in 2020 it provides a stark reminder of the vacuum of leadership that the US has suffered over the last four years.

These two peacemakers, one from my birthplace of Northern Ireland and the other from the American South, grew up in divided and violent societies. But within these unpromising environments they both developed strong ethical codes that stressed our common humanity, the need to respect difference and diversity, the requirement to protect and deepen democracy, and the imperative of placing non-violence at the absolute center of human relationships and social change.

Both figures also derived their core base of support from the many people within these violent, hate-filled societies who rejected such negative values and instead shared their visions of equality, inclusion and love. In this age of strongmen leaders who are taking us ever closer to destruction, Hume and Lewis provide the template for the leadership we urgently require.

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