What makes Trump tick?

Understanding Donald Trump

Politicians, pundits, and even some members of Donald Trump’s inner circle profess to be mystified by his recent behavior.

An apparently incurable condition. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Why, they ask, has Trump continued to conduct himself as a candidate rather than a president? Why, after promising on election night to “bind the wounds of division,” has he persisted in lashing out at his perceived enemies with juvenile tweets like, “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do”? Why, 11 days before his inauguration, did he compare himself to the victims of Nazi persecution while in effect characterizing U.S. intelligence agencies as Nazis?

Why, instead of graciously turning the other cheek to critics like Meryl Streep or civil rights icon John Lewis, does Trump seem so fixated on tearing them down? Why, on the day after his inauguration, did he seem so consumed by a relatively minor issue like estimates of the crowd size at his swearing-in ceremony? Why, two days later, did he repeat his totally discredited claim that he had lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants had cast illegal votes against him?

Why, in short, is America’s new president acting like such a sore winner?

Sense of entitlement

At this moment in history, I find myself perhaps uniquely situated to address that question. As a financial journalist, I have followed Trump for more than 30 years— long before he aspired to the White House. On that basis, I can suggest an explanation for his seemingly inexplicable behavior, which is neither political nor pragmatic but psychological: Trump very likely suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). To such a person, everything is subordinate to the need for attention and approval— a hunger that can never be fulfilled.

If you have NPD, according to the Mayo Clinic, “You may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement -- and when you don't receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having ‘the best’ of everything -- for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.

“At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.” 

Response to Hamilton

Consider, for example, how Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence, reacted to criticism from the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton. Shortly after Election Day, Pence and his daughter attended the hit production and were booed by the audience. At the curtain call, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon, who was playing Aaron Burr, appealed to Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us.” Trump, in a tweet, denounced Dixon as “very rude and insulting” and claimed he “couldn’t even memorize his lines.” Pence, by contrast, shrugged and told his daughter, “That’s the sound of democracy.”

In Trump's own mind, it’s all about him; the NPD sufferer will say whatever feels good to him at any given time. He will never admit failure or error, nor will he apologize. He can be influenced by flattering him (as Stephen Bannon and Vladimir Putin, among others, have discovered).

Because the narcissist’s first priority is attention, everything he says is calculated to stir the pot and create excitement, not to achieve any long-range goal. When the stock market crashed in 1987, Trump announced he had sold all his stocks the week before. Since Trump wasn’t a money manager or a financial advisor, why should anyone have cared? He was simply seizing the moment to shine a spotlight on himself.

The late comedian Garry Shandling thought he was joking when, at the Emmy Awards, he quipped that Trump had built a real-estate empire in order to become a TV star. 

About those tax returns….

In practical terms, what does NPD mean for Trump’s presidency? A few predictions:

  • Trump will never release his tax returns. To do so would destroy his self-image as a successful businessman and generous philanthropist.
  • Trump will never divest his businesses. They mean more to him than the presidency, because they’re central to his image and easier for him to control. (For that matter, Trump never really wanted to be president: As his first campaign manager acknowledged, Trump got into the race to raise his profile and enhance the value of his brand.)
  • He will never give up his children as advisors, because he views them as extensions of himself; consequently, they’re the only people he trusts. (As Garry Wills astutely noted before the election, Trump literally has no friends.)
  • He will resist holding press conferences, which involve confronting hostile questions. He will hold rallies instead, where he can bask in his supporters’ adulation.
  • He won’t give up his Twitter account. For Trump, tweeting to his followers is not the means to some strategic end; it is the end. His need to vent transcends all else.

Bob Hope, audience junkie

Narcissism isn't especially new. Caravaggio's
Narcissism isn't especially new. Caravaggio's "Narcissus," 1594-1596. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

If my diagnosis is correct, here’s the good news: Trump is neither evil, an ideologue, nor a bigot. Nor is he greedy or power-hungry, except insofar as money and power bring him attention. But he is a sick man. Were he not occupying the world’s most powerful position, he would deserve our sympathy.

To be sure, when it comes to narcissists, Trump is hardly alone. After cutting short a fishing vacation, the comedian Bob Hope explained, “Fish don’t applaud.” Nor is NPD especially new: As Voltaire remarked to Madame du Deffand in the 18th century, “You measure friendship, probity, wit -- everything, in fact -- according to the homage paid to you.” But Hope and Deffand never held the keys to our nuclear codes.

Back to the future

In July 1991, I wrote a column in the Philadelphia tabloid Welcomat in which I facetiously proposed nine prominent candidates for the death penalty. Would you be surprised to learn who made my list, even way back then? Trump, I wrote, “never exercised public authority, but he insists on monopolizing our attention anyway. For more than 10 years Trump has manipulated the media to create the illusion that he’s rich, thus convincing gullible bankers and bondholders to pay for his yachts, mansions, and mistresses. Chase Manhattan and Citibank, for example, lent Trump $290 million and $990 million respectively without ever conducting an audit of his finances. To be sure, the media and the bankers are to blame for swallowing Trump’s act, but what communal catharsis is there in executing some faceless banker or reporter? In the new spirit of the times, I say: They who live by the high profile must die by it.”

That was more than a quarter-century ago. Isn’t it comforting to know some things don’t change?

You are free to reject my analysis. I merely suggest that you keep it in mind during the coming years as a key to understanding what makes Trump tick. Set aside your generous instinct to normalize him and to give him a chance to grow in the office. We are talking here about a personality disorder that, from what I have read, is incurable and barely treatable. Most political journalists, on whom our system relies to hold presidents accountable, are ill-equipped and disinclined to deal with psychosis. This presidency will not end well -- for Trump or most of us.  To borrow one of Trump’s favorite phrases, "Mark my words."   

Our readers respond

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on January 24, 2017

Well said. About the only silver lining I/we can hope for is that because of his need for attention and his need to keep his fortune intact (and that of his cabinet members), he won't be in a hurry to really go to war. He'll bluster, he'll send off the rust-belt workers without jobs to fight smaller battles — but, again I just hope, he won't lead us to World War III.

His NPD is also reason for liberals to go around him and the Republicans instead of through them or waiting for a few Republicans to show some courage. The ability to communicate across states and nations, as the Women's March showed, indicate that the counter to excessive patriotism is a World's Fair, international art fairs, global TED talks. Everything to take attention away from Trump, play to our strength (diversity and conversation) and toward a better world.

Maria T. Corley

of Lancaster, PA on January 25, 2017

I know two psychologists who have given the same diagnosis, along with other people without a Ph.D (like me!). One of the psychologists went so far as to call him a sociopath, and this was well before the election.

You might also be interested in Keith Olbermann's sobering video, in which he noted that there's something very wrong with the president. Olbermann acknowledged that Trump supporters won't say anything publicly, calling on them to help to remove him when he inevitably does something that will require that action. We'll see how prescient those comments turn out to be.

Here's the latest of Olbermann's pleas

Rich Rubin

of Philadelphia, PA on January 25, 2017

As much as I dislike Trump, I equally dislike diagnoses from people who are not qualified to make them, and who have never examined him. A "financial journalist" who has simply "read about" this disorder is not a psychologist, and it's shaky territory to start tossing out diagnoses like this.

Melissa Dunphy

of Philadelphia, PA on January 27, 2017

Rich Rubin, I wonder whose opinion you would consider valid on this matter. A psychology professor?  A narcissism expert and clinical social worker? Three more psychology professors? Some other psychologists?  Yet another psychology professor? An evolutionary psychologist?

From what I understand talking to psychologists I know, there is some debate raging in the community. While generally it is not considered ethical to diagnose someone from a distance, many psychologists now argue that there is a moral duty for professionals to speak out when someone literally in a position to launch nuclear weapons shows such textbook symptoms and behaviors as someone with a dangerous personality disorder.

Stew Bolno

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on January 28, 2017

As a conservative Republican for decades, Donald Trump was not even close to my first choice in the primary. At this point, I am convinced he is an effective executive. I am unconvinced of his personal self-mastery, but I'm willing to give him a chance. I think he wants to do good. I found your article balanced and compelling. I hope you're thinking about doing a comparable analysis of Hillary Clinton. After all, that was her choice.

Author's Response

When it comes to comparisons of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a Republican strategist, formerly on George W. Bush's staff, pretty much said it all: "Hillary's flaws are human. Trump's flaws fall more in the Martian category."

Jason Brando

of Mount Hamilton, CA on January 31, 2017

Can we agree that Trump is and will be considered a media giant and a pioneer in the new world of shared information and public policy?

Maria T. Corley

of Lancaster, PA on February 01, 2017

Loved your human/Martian response! Loved the comment from the woman who cited various psychologists, too. I don't think you need much knowledge to see that Trump's ego is both fragile and outsized, in a way that is far beyond anything "normal."

The thing is, Bannon is the puppetmaster. Not that I think Trump is completely controllable, but the two together running things?

Tran Dieu

of South Philadelphia, PA on February 01, 2017

I originally read the title of this article as "What makes Trump such a dick?"

Editor's Response

Thanks for my first lol of the day.

Jason Brando

of Mount Hamilton, CA on February 19, 2017

Now that Trump has labeled the very dishonest media, it does indicate that Trump clearly identified you and your mindset to be that serious threat.

Karl Philip

of Center City/ Philadelphia, Pa on April 10, 2017

The secret to Donald Trump is to understand that he never wanted to win, just to show and create a bigger brand. At his victory speech, he looked like he could not believe he had won. Quite frankly, his expression was a mixture of surprise and disbelief.

I predict he will either resign or be impeached within two years, definitely after the Congressional elections, if the Democrats sweep the House and the Senate.

Gary Day

of Philadelphia, PA on June 07, 2017

I agree with your diagnosis, but I vehemently disagree with you on another point: Trump is an evil ideologue and a bigot. Oh, and stupid.

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