In a previous psychological analysis of Donald Trump, I discussed the main components of his personality. Two years into his presidency, it is of value to revisit this topic and add important elements to further explain what is often misunderstood: his motivation for behaving as he does.
This is particularly true today, in light of our president’s increased legal threat and his diminished power in Congress.
Do keep in mind as you read this article that this analysis is neither a diagnosis of him (psychologists cannot diagnose without, at least, an actual face-to-face interview) nor politically motivated.
The sole purpose is to help you better understand who Donald Trump is.
One of the common misperceptions about understanding personality relates to the discussion of nature versus nurture. Specifically, scholars debate the relative contribution of genes and environment to understanding human behavior and thinking.
But when it comes to personality there is a clear winner: we are almost entirely the product of our experiences.
Who we are is based on the myriad of exposures over the years, the benefits and perceived emotional cost of such experiences, and the lessons we drew from them to shape our future actions.
The only inborn behavior that has any significant impact on personality is a genetic predisposition to be highly reactive (anxious, highly sensitive to cues) or low in reactivity (laid-back, generally calm and even-keel). While it is true that such traits may be the initial building block of self, it is not made of cement.
“When it comes to personality there is a clear winner: we are almost entirely the product of our experiences.”
Personality is malleable, particularly at a young age, and it is not uncommon for a calm child to develop into a highly reactive and aggressive teenager, thus becoming the opposite of what she may have been predisposed with.
So what is personality exactly and how can we understand that of our president?
In its most fundamental sense, personality is the enduring aspects of a person’s thinking, feeling, and behavior. This is based on experience, and which motivates us to respond in certain ways under certain circumstances. In other words, we chose what we chose to do based on the feedback we receive from others.
“Personality is malleable, particularly at a young age.”
Over time, when we repeat our reactions and engage in specific behaviors consistently enough it becomes part of ourselves. It becomes who we are. It becomes our personality.
Imagine that you grow up in a house that rewards and teaches justly. Your parents provide predictable and consistent feedback. You have people in your life who give you the loving care when you need it most. Who are you? Chances are that you may have developed into a confident, caring and positive person.
Now imagine that while growing up, you felt very little of what you did was valued. Your attempts at gaining love or attention were unsuccessful. You live in a world where people you care for gave you no tools to develop healthy emotions. Who are you?
Often times this is when people develop depression, feel hopeless or helpless, and lose faith in their ability to overcome hardship.
They may also become anxious or obsessive and overcompensate for feeling emotionally weak by controlling their physical world and structuring it in an orderly and predictable manner.
In some cases, however, negative experiences of incompetence are so threatening that they are banished from consciousness and must be ignored. In these circumstances, we defend ourselves with a mechanism that denies reality: we convince ourselves that we are the opposite of who we truly are: the fragile, confidence-lacking, fearful-from-judgment person becomes the overly-confident, self-centered, egocentric person.
“We defend ourselves with a mechanism that denies reality: we convince ourselves that we are the opposite of who we truly are.”
Over time, this identity develops. The more such experiences provide some reward (i.e., either because their fears remain hidden by the use of such mechanism and/or because such traits are admired by others) the more they are likely to further develop onto one’s core personality. I am pretty sure you know what I am getting at. Yes, Donald Trump falls in that category.
We don’t know the details regarding how Donald Trump has developed into such a person, but it is clear that being right, being special, behind the best at anything he touches is the driver of everything he does.
Donald Trump defends his actions with vehemence and aggressive force.
He will not acknowledge fault and will continue on a path of relentless self-righteousness. Such a thought process and thinking mechanisms has become ingrained in his personality.
But it is also a perfectly reasonable way for our president to behave. Throughout the years, there is no evidence that it has harmed him in any significant way.
Put differently, he has ‘gotten away’ with being who he is and, perhaps, precisely because he is who he is.
There are many examples throughout his career that show how he has suffered no significant damage due to his personality. Possibly the most telling is his brush with financial ruin at some point in his business career.
Problem solved at the last minute: banks wired him $20 million just hours before a payment deadline that, had he missed, would have forced him into personal bankruptcy (an outcome much more damaging than his four corporate bankruptcies he was not personally liable for). End result?
No lesson learned regarding recognition he needs to be more careful with his dealing, but lesson learned about successfully getting away–again–and further entrenchment in a belief his ‘greatness’ is unstoppable.
As the years rolled on, Trump only received further evidence his personality structure is a winner as he has slowly but consistently climbed the business ladder and gained ground as a celebrity.
And what further evidence of his ‘greatness’ and how all-knowing he is than being president of the United States?
Hardly anyone would argue against the point that one of the biggest ego boasts regarding competence and success is becoming the country’s highest elected official.
So when people are shocked at some of president Trump’s tweets, his lies about this or that, his blatant insults of highly respected officials, or that he slept with women and paid money to keep them quiet, remember this: it is remarkably consistent with what he has done throughout his life.
He has consistently behaved in ways that are self-aggrandizing with minimal to no consequences. So why should he change now?
But then January 3rd 2019 happened. With diminished power and a House of Representatives in the other party’s hands, he is facing some serious opposition for the first time. It is possibly the first time in his adult life he may not successfully move forward his own agenda.
This is when it becomes particularly interesting to analyze what he may be feeling and what is likely to happen next.
In order to understand his increased anger and anticipate what may happen we need to look at one fundamental principle of human behavior for individuals who (unconsciously) feel incompetent. It is the frustration-aggression principle.
This principle dictates that some individuals may react to a goal being blocked by lasting feelings of frustration. Most people that may be initially bummed, feel temporarily upset, can typically move on by accepting the outcome and finding alternative goals.
Others, however, may not have the psychological ability to do so.
As a result of added frustration because of an unmet goal, they become increasingly irritated to the point where anger becomes so intense that it leads to aggressive reactions, typically directed towards those we perceive as having blocked our goals.
What is particularly important to know (with respect to the level of the aggressive response) is whether or not the following three factors are met:
- The frustration is part of the cumulative effect of other minor ones;
- Intensity of the goal wanted;
- The completeness of the frustration
When it comes to the topic of the current crisis–Donald Trump’s relentless insistence on building The Wall and the consequence of a government shutdown for not getting it approved by Congress—it becomes quite clear how Trump’s reaction checks all three factors of the frustration-aggression principle. Here is how:
1. CUMULATIVE EFFECT OF MINOR ONES.
The topic of The Wall has been on his mind from the day he took office as it was his major selling point on the campaign trail. He gathered tremendous support from loyal backers for his plan and made it a priority when he took office. But this topic has waned and waxed in his first two years of office (read: minor frustrations) until the last few weeks.
As he began to feel power was slipping away from him, the more he felt the need to prove he can meet this goal.
His focus on The Wall now is not haphazard: it is the result of an accumulation of frustration over this unmet goal and feeling threatened that he is less powerful than he was when the House of Representatives was in his party’s hands.
2. INTENSITY OF GOAL.
Many have argued that Trump’s entire presidency is based on this campaign goal. Although he would never admit it (remember the tendency for secretly incompetent persons to hide their weakness) he believes it is essential to show that he does not back away from a ‘win.’ Think of it as a person who wants to continuously prove he has made the right choice (e.g., in terms of folks who always want to ‘win’ an argument with a particular person) when all evidence shows otherwise.
For those with a fragile personality based on denying what one truly feels, the desire to have something increases the less likely it is to be accomplished.
3. COMPLETENESS OF FRUSTRATION.
The more days the government is shut down and his goal not met, the more will the frustration feel complete. As he runs out of ways to meet his goal and unwilling to compromise the more complete his frustration will become.
With all three factors of the frustration-aggression principle being met, it is no surprise that our president’s aggressive response has only increased in intensity and scope.
His relentless verbal attacks through twitter, his shaping the truth as it suits him, and his unwillingness to compromise are classic examples of a person with a personality organization that lacks emotional maturity.
His behaviors, as many have correctly pointed out, are quite similar to a temper tantrum.
His actions may continue to surprise many but in fact are quite predictable. With life experiences that have continued to reward his behavior, he has never developed a mechanism to alter his reaction to increasing frustration. And just like a child who continues to be frustrated when they did not get what they want so Trump does the same.
The difference with most children is that they have learned over time that the strategy of relentless pursuit of a goal and not accepting alternatives doesn’t work as their parents, teachers, and friends must have taught them over the years. That does not seem to be the case with President Trump.
He is isolated in his thoughts with an obsessive need to get his needs met.
For him, it is a matter of survival. He has always lived this way and knows no other coping mechanism. To change with no alternative psychological system to modulate that change is an incredibly frightening prospect.
And although he may not consciously know it, there is a hidden part of our president that is dreadfully afraid of any type of admittance of error. The layers of his personality were built early on and piled up over the years, so there is no reason to expect any of that will change.
However, there are unknowns.
If the frustration continues to increase his verbal aggression may shift into a physical one. And who knows what that looks like when you are the person with access to the world’s most powerful aggressive tools.