Category Archives: Politics

The Brain-Based Truth of Donald Trump’s Social Dominance

Snowy Sunset

Although everyone is arguing with everyone else about everything—especially everything involving presidential politics, no one argues about whether Donald Trump can work a room, work up an audience, and dominate a news cycle. Love or hate him, Trump has a special talent.

But what is that talent? How can it be that despite clear evidence of Trump lying at unprecedented rates, despite the small blue wave that swept the House of Representatives this past November, and despite substantial evidence that his policies are not benefiting rural Americans, Trump’s approval ratings continue to hover at around 40%. Given his flirtation with the Russians, his legal problems with the Department of Justice and in the Southern District of New York, and his incessant outrageous and vulgar tweeting, why don’t his approval ratings dip even lower?

Perhaps even more puzzling is the apparent inability or unwillingness of previously powerful republicans to push back on Trump’s wanton disregard for family values and morality. Many of Trumps tweets are, at best, rated PG-13. The fact that Googling “bullshit” and “circle jerk” takes us to commentaries about Trump’s tweets is a testimony to his ubiquitous disrespect for whatever moral codes republicans have retreated behind.

Never mind the well-documented porn star payments, “shithole” references, and stories about bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Unless they’re still commenting on Obama, the Clintons, or other targets designed to distract from rational argument, the collective chorus of outrage among republican politicians is no louder than you’d expect from a band of Buddhists practicing mindful acceptance at a silent retreat.

Sure, Mitt Romney and a few others have occasionally (and carefully) expressed their sickened feelings. And although Bill Kristol and other #neverTrumpers have held forth—even purchasing political advertisings to counter Trump rhetoric—to date, no current republican office-holder has publicly confronted Trump and provided an alternative leadership narrative. What’s up with the formerly assertive republican leaders? Whether we’re watching blank looks from Chris Christie, John Kelly, or Rod Rosenstein, republican power brokers appear frightened, intimidated, and only a meek shadow of their former selves.

What’s the best explanation for Trump’s stable approval ratings and the continued shriveling of republican leadership? You might be inclined to consider favorable economic indicators, or the Fox News phenomenon, or some other rational explanation. But I’m leaning a different direction—toward a theory to explain the irrational.

Like all dangerous populist politicians, Trump is a master manipulator. He can bend minds like psychics bend spoons. Although many—including my father—refer to him as a run-of-the-mill con man, Trump is much more than that. Trump is no expert on the art of the deal; but he’s a wizard at the art of mass hypnosis.

Among others, two Canadian academics, Drs. Erik Woody and Henry Szechtman, have written about how mass hypnosis works. They say it involves the activation of a particular evolutionarily-important part of the brain. They’ve labeled this neural network in the brain as the “security motivation system.” Essentially, the security motivation system is an ancient part of the brain that scans for “hints, inklings, whiffs, and foreshadowings” of danger. The problem, as Woody and Szechtman put it, is that contemporary human brains are now connected to the internet, and the internet is filled with perpetual news, Facebook forwards, Russian bot activity, and political messages. Much of this instant information has hints and whiffs of danger and those hints and whiffs activate the security motivation system. The louder the call of dark, scary, danger, the more activated our collective security motivation systems become. And what do our collectively activated security motivational systems want? Action! Specifically, action leading to safety. All this can direct us to embrace politicians who offer big actions that will hypothetically protect us from danger. Woody and Szectman wrote: “. . . support for politicians promoting bold action [like building a big, impenetrable border wall] is itself an action . . . which may help” de-activate our heightened security motivation.

In contrast to Reagan’s message of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Trump’s message has been consistently about doom, gloom, and danger. His speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention was a bleak frightening portrait of America. But, in contrast to Trump’s portrait of America as under attack from Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and international commerce, he simultaneously promised (and continues to promise) to make America great again with big, albeit unrealistic and unfounded, actions.

For a substantial minority of Americans, Trump is a charismatic speaker. He ramps up crowds to an emotional fever-pitch. He combines extremes. On the one hand, America is under attack from Mexicans, Muslims, and Democrats. On the other hand, he—and only he—can offer a future filled with beauty, safety, and financial success. As he speaks, he sometimes riffs like a hypnotist employing a specific hypnotic induction procedure called the “confusion technique.” When he employs this strategy, Trump’s words barely make sense. He offers a rhythmic narrative absent any real content. Take this example from the 2016 campaign trail:

You are going to be so proud of your country. Because we’re gonna turn it around, and we’re gonna start winning again! We’re gonna win so much! We’re going to win at every level. We’re going to win economically. We’re going to win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans. We’re gonna win every single facet.

We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t!”

We have to keep winning. We have to win more! We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much.

Ashley Feinberg of Gawker, described this verbal dispatch from Trump as: “His best Howard Dean impression if Howard Dean had been given a whole lot of cocaine and also a thesaurus with just the word “winning” followed by the word “winning” again in progressively larger fonts.” Not surprisingly, Woody and Szechtman described it differently, noting nuanced differences between the oral and written word:

Through repetition, this type of communication stays “on message,” almost to the point of caricature. More importantly, it presents no line of argument or supporting material whatever that would call for higher thought. Such communication, which can be effective in person, is similarly effective when replayed on media as video [or audio]. By contrast, it becomes ineffective in print, where its paucity of intellectual content is painfully obvious. (p. 14)

Most observers agree, Trump is best when on the stump. When it comes to governing or foreign policy or role-modeling moral behavior, Trump is less effective. On the stump Trump uses other hypnotic methods, beyond the previously mentioned confusion technique. He continually pounds away messages about current dissatisfaction, combined with an orientation to the future. Under him, future life will always be better, more beautiful, a Shangri-La for the masses. He uses the words “believe me” and “trust me” like a mantra. Even though nearly every rational person in the U.S. knows they should quickly run away whenever a salesperson (or con-man) says “trust me” Trump’s hypnotic reverie has weakened the rational mind to the point where the words believe me and trust me actually work. As Roger Cohen opined in the New York Times,

Tolstoy wrote of “epidemic suggestion” to describe those moments when humanity seems to be gripped by a mass hypnosis that no force can counter. . . . We find ourselves in such a moment.

But there is a countering force. There always has been. And there always will be.

Let’s go back to Woody and Szechtman, and their ideas about the brain’s security motivation system.

When activated, the security motivation system directs humans toward actions that enhance safety. When looking for safety, nearly always, humans follow their evolutionary noses. And where do their evolutionary noses point . . . toward the person with the most social dominance.

Think about it. Who can keep us safe? Then, think about Trump’s hulking figure looming in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks in one of the televised debates. Then, think of what he has (wealth and property) and think of what he offers in his hollow narratives (winning, beauty, and safety, so much winning).

Republican politicians are cowed like never before. They can’t match Trump’s verbal skills and hypnotic persona. They can’t match his wealth and connections. And republicans have historically been motivated by fear. Trump’s presence activates their security motivation systems. On their own, most White, male republicans fear immigration. On their own, most White, male republicans are drawn to wealth and power. For them, Trump stokes their fears and activates their security motivation system in a way that goes back to primitive human thinking: “Save yourself” . . . is the irresistible unconscious motive that weakens republicans. Open conflict with Trump is too dangerous. Alone, individual republicans don’t have the verbal or financial prowess to compete with Trump. So, they slink into the background and do what frightened people have done since the beginning of time—they follow a socially dominant and powerful leader.

The answer to the problem of Trump is simple, but not easy.

There are two roads to countering a socially dominant, hypnotically adept bully. Both roads necessarily include an alternative socially dominant discourse. How to get there? Republicans, if they can find their courage, might band together to push back against Trump. This would be risky. And the outcome is dicey.

The other road is to latch our trailer to an alternative socially dominant political figure. The hazard here is we could end up jumping from the socially dominant frying pan into the socially dominant fire. Consequently, we need to be very careful when selecting the socially forceful leader who can take on Trump and win. Perhaps of greatest importance, along with powerful messaging, to ensure safety of all Americans, our new leader needs to have two characteristics that Trump lacks and that make Trump dangerous. We need a leader who can be a team player (and not just deputize family members) and we need a leader who is able to experience and express compassion.

Methods for resisting and awakening from a hypnotic trance exist. They begin as all things begin, with awareness. Now is the time to wake up. Listen closely as I count backward from five to one. When I get to the number one, you’ll awaken, you’ll stretch, look around, and realize that finding an alternative socially dominant and yet compassionate leader is urgent.

5-4-3-2-1

You can wake up now. If you stay asleep, you face a greater danger. If you stay asleep, you may act in ways that are incompatible with your deep values. If you stay asleep, you may need forgiveness, because although you will act, you will know not what you do.

My Closing Argument: Take a Breath, Check Your Moral Compass, and Vote for Checks and Balances in Government

California Street FootbridgeTrust me.

As the election closes in, I’ve been obsessed with perusing the literature on mass hypnosis. Trust me happens to be a rather common phrase among stage hypnotists and used car salespeople.

Then, this morning an unusual word popped into my brain.

Demagogue

Believe me, really, I thought of demagogue first thing this morning. Funny coincidence, did you know that Donald Trump used the words, “Believe me” 40 times in the 2016 presidential debates?

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Demagogue:

A demagogue (from Greek δημαγωγός, a popular leader, a leader of a mob, from δῆμος, people, populace, the commons + ἀγωγός leading, leader) or rabble-rouser is a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation. Demagogues overturn established customs of political conduct, or promise or threaten to do so.

I can’t help but wonder, maybe every century or so, a natural-born demagogue comes along. It’s possible.

You already know I’m referring to Donald Trump. He is, unarguably, a talented, master manipulator. We can all agree on that. Go ahead and match up Mr. Trump with the preceding definition of demagogue. See what you think. You’ll see a match like you’ve never seen before.

Tomorrow, the democrats will mostly vote for democrats and the republicans will mostly vote for republicans. The question, for those in the middle, is whether you believe and trust that Mr. Trump is employing his vast skills of manipulation for the good of America. I doubt it, but maybe that’s just me.

My Montana connections tell me that the Trump played “Sympathy for the Devil” to crank up the crowd at his October 18 Missoula rally. The lyrics begin, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” You can find the rest of the words online. But just in case you don’t have time, I’ll share this: when Mick Jagger sings the lines, “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints. As heads is tails . . .” it gets hard to break free of the song’s powerful grip. But at the same time, somewhere, down deep, it’s also hard to imagine that Mr. Trump is looking out for the welfare of the average American citizen.

No question, Mr. Trump is fantastic at conjuring up fear, division, and hate. He’s also a master at giving his listeners permission to think and act on their least morally upright and most unhealthy thoughts and emotions. Believe me on this too. After all, this is the guy who, at one of his rallies, said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

Often I’ve heard Trump supporters say, “I like him because he says what everyone is thinking.” The problem is that although Mr. Trump’s extreme and judgmental statements may resonate with his audience, embracing a philosophy where acting on or sharing all of our thoughts is encouraged is nearly always a very bad idea. In fact, I think it might be the opposite—along with shooting refugees who throw rocks—of what Jesus might recommend.

The truth is (and you should trust me on this because I’m a psychologist), some thoughts (and some emotions) are simply not ready for prime time. Convincing listeners (as Mr. Trump does) to follow their coarse, uncensored thinking toward action is a common magic trick of someone who’s goal is to produce a mass trance or hypnotic state.

He might as well be telling people, “Trust your thoughts. and trust me. You know in your heart and mind there are many things to fear, but I will keep you safe. I know your thoughts, your thoughts and my words are as one, bring them together and all will be well. Trust me, I will keep you safe. And you will keep me safe. Because you feel anger and fear and because I’ve so helpfully pointed out the enemy, we know what we need to do. Maybe some of you 2nd amendment supporters will take care of it for me. We share common fears and anger and thoughts and actions and we can move forward together and you can let me take care of the rest of what’s important. Trust me. Trust me to do that for you. I can do it better and bigger than anyone else has ever even thought of doing it.”

The big question is, how to break the demagogue’s hypnotic spell?

Unfortunately, the big answer is . . . it’s very difficult.

Step 1: Hang on tight to reason and rational analysis. A hypnotic state requires suspending rational thought, therefore, it’s essential that messages from the demagogue not be accepted without critical analysis. Seek input from alternative viewpoints. Don’t just trust me. Don’t just watch MSNBC and Fox News. Find content from the middle . . . and then fact check that too.

Step 2: Get out of the heightened and focused state of arousal. Hypnotic trances are states involving hyper-focus. If you’re feeling activated all the time, take time to meditate, reflect, walk around the block, and talk to your neighbor about life and death and health (instead of politics). The truth is that you don’t “need” the demagogue on either end of the political continuum. What you need is balance.

Step 3: Listen for the “Trust me” card. Right now, in this state of questionable news and Russian bots, it’s tough to determine who to trust. If you’re feeling that, then get out your favorite moral guidelines—it doesn’t matter whether your favorite moral guidelines include the Dalai Lama or the Sermon on the Mount or the Eightfold Path or the Ten Commandments or the Koran. Take your moral guide and then place what Trump is saying right next to it. Is Trump saying something consistent with what’s in your guide? Does your moral guide say anything about holding children in cages? Or does it say something like “Let the little children come to me.”

This brings me to my closing argument.

Now is a good time to stop and take a breath. Break free from the aroused state of hyper-focus. Consult alternative views.

If you do, you may recognize that most democrats are not members of an angry mob. You may also recognize that most republicans are not White supremacists. Democrats, republicans, independents, (and yes, even libertarians) are your neighbors. Love them.

Now is a good time to shake yourself free from someone (anyone) who tells you what you should fear, how you should think, and for whom you should vote. After shaking yourself free, embrace your moral guide.

If you need a more obvious voting tip, consider voting for a balance of power. Right now, we need the checks and the balances to do what they do—to provide checks and balances so one person cannot wield too much power. This is especially true when that one person keeps repeating the words, “Trust me,” because . . . and you know this in your heart . . . that’s never a good sign.

 

Happy Birthday to Me

John Prof 2018

It’s political season.

Political season brings lots of things, including relentless television advertisings featuring creepy deep voices saying things that almost might be true, but are mostly unverifiable. One example, among many, accuses a candidate of “Voting against Montana.” Could that be true? It’s impossible to tell because it’s impossible to even know what voting against Montana even means? Obviously, the purpose of that sort of advertising is to mislead and influence.

Right now I’m on a bus from Missoula to Billings. It’s my birthday, which makes it a funny day for a bus ride. I could have stayed in Missoula, but today “he who shall not be named” is speaking there . . . and so I’m happily and anonymously riding this WiFi supplied Jefferson Lines Bus to Billings, where Rita will pick me up for a birthday dinner and poetry reading.

Political season always brings me fantasies of running for office. Today, while walking to the Missoula bus station, the fantasy was of me doing a political television advertisement. I might say something like this:

“Hey, I’m not featuring a creepy deep voice or attacking my opposition. All I want to do is look into this camera and talk directly to you. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about what you want in a Senator or Representative.

I grew up on the rural edge of Vancouver, Washington. My father owned a small business, installing window coverings. He was (and is at 92) the most honest person I’ve ever known. My mother was a traditional homemaker and worked along with my father in the family business. She was (and is) the kindest person I’ve ever known.

I’ve only got about 10 or 15 more years of a healthy active life left. And so, in honor of my parents and their values, I’d like to be a politician who will represent you with honesty and kindness. My parents also embraced the value of hard work. So let’s throw that in. I won’t be spending money on attack ads or misinformation. If you want to know where I stand on something, let’s talk. I’ll work hard to be an honest and kind representative of you and the whole state. In this advertising, all I’m asking is that you look at me, talk to me, compare me to my opponent, and then vote for the person who you think will be the most honest, kind, and hardworking person to represent you and this great state of Montana.”

Enough of the silly fantasies. My point is my birthday wish. I’m wishing today, for my birthday and for my birthday year, for a political takeover by politicians who are honest, kind, and hardworking. That’s all. They don’t have to be rich or powerful. They don’t have to have high IQs. Let’s just concentrate. Let’s just elect the honest and kind candidates and then see what happens.

Happy birthday to me.

The Long Version of the Trump Personality Slate Magazine Article

 

Publishing a piece in Slate Magazine was fun and interesting. The editor did a nice job reining me in and trimming the piece to an appropriate length. However, for anyone interested in the long-winded JSF version of the article, here it is. As you’ll notice, I included the examples of Trump’s behavior that fit the Millon personality descriptors.

My dad helped inspire the Slate article with his clear and concise comments about DJT’s “con man” skills. Here we are NOT talking about DJT.

John and Max Seattle

Preparing for and Containing a Trumpian Endgame

Pundits and professionals regularly express concerns about Donald Trump’s mental health. Most speculations focus on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It’s easy to see why. If you look at the DSM-5 criteria for NPD, Trump’s public behaviors are obviously consistent with all nine diagnostic criteria. Even further, because only five of nine criteria are needed for an NPD diagnosis, Trump getting nine of nine is huge; perhaps no one has ever seen a narcissism quite so beautiful. Nevertheless, we still can’t diagnose Trump with NPD. That’s because it’s unethical to diagnose anyone without first conducting a professional evaluation. Also, Trump doesn’t meet the distress or impairment criteria required for a mental disorder diagnosis.

As disturbing as observations of Trump’s narcissism may be, what’s frightening about his personality isn’t narcissism. Narcissistic traits among politicians and presidential candidates—who often have big personalities—are common. Far more worrisome and dangerous is that his statements and behaviors fit so well with a different personality style. This style is what the renowned psychologist, Theodore Millon, called “The Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality” (aka antisocial personality).

Millon summarized these personalities as “driven by a need to . . . achieve superiority.” They act “to counter expectation of derogation and disloyalty at the hands of others,” and do this by “actively engaging in clever, duplicitous, or illegal behaviors in which they seek to exploit others for self-gain.” Sound familiar?

What follows are summary descriptions of Millon’s antisocial personality style. Keep in mind that Millon’s statements are not diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder. The purpose here is not psychiatric diagnosis. Instead, my goal is to describe Trump’s personality, speculate on his future behaviors, and discuss strategies for how antisocial behaviors can be contained. To invoke a cliché, knowledge confers power; the more we understand Trump’s personality, the better prepared we can be for the directions his behaviors may take us.

Impulsive Imprudence. Millon described antisocial personalities as “. . . shortsighted, incautious, and imprudent. There is minimal planning, limited consideration of alternative actions, and consequences are rarely examined.”

Reading this, you may immediately think of Trump’s impetuous meetings with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, his sudden decision to impose international tariffs, or a different example. Whatever the case, it’s easy to spot incautious patterns in Trump’s behavioral repertoire. Now, and going forward, Trump needs continuous supervision and monitoring. This is especially the case when he meets with authoritarian leaders. Millon further described this impulsive style, “There is a tendency to jump from one exciting and momentarily gratifying escapade to another, with little or no care for potentially detrimental consequences.” Trump will probably need a clean-up team to finish his work or conduct damage control following his various escapades.

Blaming Others for Shirked Obligations. Antisocial personalities “frequently fail to meet or intentionally negate obligations of a marital, parental, employment, or financial nature.” When negative outcomes arise, Trump will be inclined to blame external forces or subordinates. This is the equivalent of a personal philosophy in direct opposition to President Harry Truman’s, “The buck stops here.” Holding Trump responsible for his behaviors has been, is, and will be extremely challenging.

Pathological Lying. Millon wrote, “Untroubled by guilt and loyalty, they develop a talent for pathological lying. Unconstrained by honesty and truth, they weave impressive talks of competency and reliability. Many . . . become skillful swindlers and imposters.”

Trump’s disregard for truth and fact is already legendary, with over 4,200 Trump lies since his inauguration. Millon also noted that antisocial personalities “play their games of deception with considerable skill” and “experience a degree of pleasure” from their deceptions, gaining “special joy in . . . taking from others.” These descriptions underline the need for the press and Congress to continually monitor and report the accuracy of Trump’s statements.

Declarations of Innocence. During times of trouble, antisocial personality types employ an innocence strategy. “When . . . caught in obvious and repeated lies and dishonesties, many will affect an air of total innocence, claiming without a trace of shame that they have been unfairly accused.”

Trump has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, calling the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and frequently tweeting, “No collusion!” As he feels increasingly threatened, Trump’s claims of innocence will likely escalate, along with spirited efforts to arouse support by pinning the blame on individuals who are well-hated by his populist base—like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Empathy Deficits. Antisocial personalities are devoid of empathy and compassion. Millon called this “A wide-ranging deficit in social charitability, in human compassion, and in personal remorse and sensitivity.” He added that “many have a seeming disdain for human compassion.” Going forward, Trump’s efforts to display empathy or sustain charitable behaviors will sound and feel much less genuine than his glowing statements about himself or his aggressive attacks on his detractors.

Counterattacks. Millon noted that antisocial personalities are hyper-alert to criticism. He “sees himself as the victim, an indignant bystander subjected to unjust persecution and hostility” feeling “free to counterattack and gain restitution and vindication.” For Trump, the urge to counterattack appears irresistible. He often uses a favorite attack or counterattack strategy among antisocials—projecting their own malicious ideas and behaviors onto others through name-calling and accusations of illegal (or crooked) behavior. Trump’s pattern of lashing out at others will only continue to escalate.

Moral Emptiness. Antisocial personalities have no ethical or moral compass. As Millon described, they “are contemptuous of conventional ethics and values” and “right and wrong are irrelevant abstractions.” Antisocials may feign religiosity—when it suits their purpose. But the moral litmus test will always involve whether they stand to gain from a particular behavior, policy, or government action. For instance, adopting an anti-abortion stance could serve as a calculated strategy, despite having a history of being “very pro-choice.” In all likelihood, no method for Trump to achieve his ends—including separating children from parents—will be morally beneath him.

Clinicians have observed that some individuals with antisocial personalities burn out. Over time, negative family and legal consequences take a toll, prompting antisocials to conform to social and legal expectations. However, as in Trump’s case, when antisocial personalities wield power, burning out is unlikely. Power provides leverage to evade personal responsibility for financial maleficence and sexual indiscretions. Antisocial personalities who have the upper hand will increase their reckless, impulsive, and self-aggrandizing behaviors in an effort to extend their ever-expanding need for power and control. Trump will continue to be drawn toward authoritarian leaders, because they symbolize his interpersonal goal of gaining power and authority over everyone.

Because antisocial personalities don’t change on their own and don’t respond well to interventions, containment is the default management strategy. Without firm, unwavering limits, deception, law-breaking, greed, manipulation, and malevolent behaviors will increase. An antisocial person in a position to self-pardon or self-regulate is a recipe for disaster. Containment must be forceful and uncompromising, because if an antisocial personality locates a crack or loophole, he will exploit it. Staff interventions, comprehensive law enforcement, and judicial systems that mandate accountability must be in place.

Three main containment strategies remain in play: Republican control; the Mueller investigation, and a November blue wave.

Unfortunately, although many Republicans are concerned about Trump’s behaviors, they’re no match for Trump’s populist charisma. Defying Trump is too costly; he can make Republicans pay with electoral consequences and his populist base will pelt defectors with threatening hate mail. Like him or not, Republicans have little motivation for clashing with a powerful leader who promises them judicial appointments and legislative opportunities, the likes of which they’ve not seen in their lifetimes.

Recruiting independent actors to resist Trump is also difficult. Trump skillfully uses intimidation, direct and indirect threats, and offers of power to recruit new supporters who will walk to the microphone, as Brett Kavanaugh did, and speak to the world of Trump’s unprecedented greatness. Exhibiting a glaring lack of judicial independence, Kavanaugh opened his nomination speech with a no holds barred endorsement of Trump’s character, stating, “No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” Never mind that reflective consultation is anathema to antisocial personalities or that Kavanaugh would have had to review 230 years of Supreme Court nominations to support his statement. Soliciting others to lie for them is a common antisocial strategy. Kavanaugh‘s genuflection to Trump is a foreboding example of how far and deep Trump’s power and influence run.

The Mueller investigation and November blue wave are in danger of being outpaced by Trump’s unmatched speed and skill for playing “games of deception.” Trump’s talent for quickly tweeting divisive messages and propaganda is well-established. Without organized political opposition and a massive public movement for truth, justice, and integrity, Trump will continue winning and most Americans will continue losing.

Even if one or more of these containment strategies succeeds, it’s difficult to envision the American public emerging unscathed. Trump and his followers have shredded civil discourse and elevated division, distrust, and hatred. If he is dethroned, Trump has all but ensured that public conflict over his fall from grace will be painful and violent. Preparation for a Trumpian “call to arms” is necessary.

Coming together to contain a common threat is the best path forward. Trump’s personality and probable future behaviors are inconsistent with American virtues and values and the rule of law. Our youth don’t need a presidential role model who pays off porn stars, locks up children, and locks out the press if they ask him hard questions. For all Americans who crave integrity, honesty, and civil discourse, it’s time to gather together under a large (metaphorical) tent, where all are welcome and respected. We can sort out our differences on climate change, guns, and abortion later. If we don’t come together now—as Mr. Trump himself might say—we’ll soon be facing a huge national and global crisis like no one has ever seen before.

****************************************

John Sommers-Flanagan (johnsommersflanagan.com) is a clinical psychologist, professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, and author of eight books, including Clinical Interviewing (6th edition, John Wiley & Sons). The views expressed here are not representative of the University of Montana or the Montana University System.

 

My Slate Article on Donald Trump’s Dangerous Personality Dimensions

Hi All.

The Slate Magazine article where I use Theodore Millon’s personality descriptions to articulate possible challenges linked to Trump and the U.S. Presidency is out. Here’s the link: https://slate.com/technology/2018/08/no-matter-how-bad-it-gets-trump-will-never-give-up.html

As always, feel free to comment. You can do that here or on the Slate article itself.

John SF

The Rest of the Story on Trump’s Personality

AOIP6519

The Slate article on Donald Trump and his personality is coming out tomorrow morning. Of course, as with all things writing, it was wonderful and challenging. Writing for a popular online magazine like Slate is a new venue for me, so I learned plenty, and was honored to work with Slate’s Health and Science editor, Susan Matthews. She helped me be more focused and more articulate.

I’ll post a link to the article here tomorrow.

The main focus of the article was to look at Donald Trump’s personality through the lens of Theodore Millon’s antisocial personality formulations. Millon’s perspective is fascinating and I think some of his descriptive phrases fit Trump “beautifully,” but one of the  points of the article is for you to be the judge.

In the meantime, I want to share a paragraph that got cut. As we made revisions, it fell slightly outside the focus, but it was one of my favorite paragraphs. . . so here it is:

Recruiting independent actors to resist Trump is difficult. Trump skillfully uses intimidation, direct and indirect threats, and offers of power to recruit new supporters who will walk to the microphone, as Brett Kavanaugh did, and speak to the world of Trump’s unprecedented greatness. Exhibiting a glaring lack of judicial independence, Kavanaugh opened his nomination speech with a no holds barred endorsement of Trump’s character, stating, “No president has ever consulted more widely, or talked with more people from more backgrounds, to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination.” Never mind that reflective consultation is anathema to antisocial personalities or that Kavanaugh would have had to review 230 years of Supreme Court nominations to support his statement. Soliciting others to lie for them is a common antisocial strategy. Kavanaugh‘s genuflection to Trump is a foreboding example of how far and deep Trump’s power and influence run.

After the article is out, I’ll be posting more content that wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

 

More Musings on Donald Trump’s Personality: Spoiler Alert, We’re Not Talking Narcissism Anymore . . . Because it’s Worse than That

Irrigation SunriseAs I mentioned in Part One, much of the focus on DJT has been on whether he meets the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Allen Francis, who helped write the personality disorder criteria, has expressed many times that DJT is “bad, not mad.” His reasoning is that DJT’s narcissistic traits don’t cause Trump personal distress and haven’t adversely affected his functioning; in fact, DJT was elected president! In diagnostic terminology, Dr. Frances is saying that DJT doesn’t meet either the distress or impairment criteria, at least one of which is needed to make a formal diagnosis.

Despite the objections of Dr. Francis, if you look at the DSM-5 criteria for NPD, it’s easy to see that DJT’s public behaviors could have served as the prototype for the DSM’s authors as they developed the NPD diagnostic criteria. But it still doesn’t mean DJT has NPD. In addition to not meeting the distress or impairment criteria, individuals (even DJT) cannot be diagnosed without a clinical interview, principally because all behaviors occur in context (or within a subculture). What’s even more interesting is that given DJT’s context of being a reality television star, running for president, and being elected president, who are we to say whether his apparent NPD characteristics are diagnosable. In those contexts, having NPD behaviors might be adaptive (at least sometimes).

In particular, the context of U.S. President is of special intrigue. Generally, anyone who runs for president probably has some (or many) narcissistic traits. I’m not saying that all U.S. Presidential candidates are, by definition, narcissistic. I am saying that narcissistic traits in a U.S. President are not especially distinguishing features. It’s sort of like saying, “Hey, I found this fish and I also discovered that it can swim!!” Narcissistic traits in a U.S. President does not a news-flash make.

Besides . . . and here’s where I go down a more frightening path. My sense is that what’s unique and distinguishing about DJT isn’t his narcissism (although his narcissism is palpable, but not diagnosable); instead, I think he behaves in ways consistent with individuals who have antisocial personalities. Again, I’m not making the claim here that DJT should be diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Below, I’ll elaborate on my thinking about this.

As I explore how DJT manifests an antisocial personality style (not APD), I’ll be quoting liberally from the amazing work of the late Theodore Millon (see: Disorders of Personality, 3rd ed., 2011). Millon was a psychologist famous for his writings on personology in general, and personality disorders, in particular.

Just FYI: The following quotations and comments don’t refer to APD diagnostic criteria. Millon (2011) believed those criteria were too concrete and simple and therefore inconsistent with the concept of personality. Instead, my focus is on individuals who think and behave in ways consistent with Millon’s formulation of “Aggrandizing-Devious-Antisocial Personality.” These individuals, although not necessarily diagnosable in the DSM or ICD sense, exhibit a style consistent with antisocial psychological and interpersonal dynamics.

Before I dive into Millon’s descriptions, which are fantastic, by the way, let’s take a brief historical tour.

Way back in Aristotle’s time, his student, Theophrastus (371 – 287 B.C.), wrote about specific personalities, one of which was “The Unscrupulous Man.” Here’s one of Theophrastus’s descriptions.

The Unscrupulous Man will go and borrow more money from a creditor he has never paid . . . . When marketing he reminds the butcher of some service he has rendered him and, standing near the scales, throws in some meat, if he can, and a soup-bone. If he succeeds, so much the better; if not, he will snatch a piece of tripe and go off laughing (from Widiger, Corbitt, & Millon, p. 63).

If you recall Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotle was big into virtues or virtuous behaviors. Here we have his student describing someone who isn’t especially virtuous. Theophrastus’s description involves a pattern of taking from others; The Unscrupulous Man apparently thinks that theft of others’ goods and property is acceptable, and perhaps laudable. Serendipitously, I’m reminded of a few examples of this attitude and unscrupulous behaviors in DJT. Specifically, there are well-publicized bankruptcies, reports of non-payment to contracted employees, and a statement in one of his debates with Hillary Clinton that not paying any federal income taxes “makes me smart.” Hardly anyone (other than Sarah Huckabee Sanders) would step up and contend that DJT is neglecting himself because of his interest and focus on the welfare of others. That DJT frequently works systems and people to his advantage is relatively unarguable.

About 2000 years later, interest in The Unscrupulous Man re-emerged. The famous American physician, Benjamin Rush wrote about “perplexing cases characterized by lucidity of thought combined with socially deranged behavior. He spoke of these individuals as possessing an ‘innate, preternatural moral depravity’” (p. 425). Millon summarized Rush’s description: “He claimed that a lifelong pattern of irresponsibility was displayed by these individuals without a corresponding feeling of shame or hesitation over the . . . destructive consequences of their actions” (p. 425). Rush himself wrote: “Persons thus diseased cannot speak the truth upon any subject” (1812, p. 124).

Earlier this year, the Washington Post (May 31, 2018) reported, “President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days.” Of course, the Post limited their analysis to public statements, so their estimate is probably low. Rush’s description of someone who “cannot speak the truth on any subject,” has some surface validity in that it sometimes seems that DJT tells unnecessary lies. Given an opportunity to speak freely, it’s not unusual to hear DJT begin exaggerating about inaugural (or other) crowd sizes or to completely dissemble, “I never fired James Comey because of Russia!” or “I’m the only politician that produced more than I said I was going to produce, and we’re only 1 1/2 years in” or ________________. You can fill in the blank, I’m sure.

The history of APD as an entity is peppered with commentary of astonishment (an astonishment similar to the mainstream press) and their repeated surprise that DJT was behaving in ways that were unprecedented, over and over, and in a sense, normalizing combat between the  Office of the President and the Press Corps, who were quickly labeled as “the enemy of the people.” Historically, there was a similar repeated surprise over discovering (and rediscovering) that there was a “type” of mental patient who, in many ways seemed perfectly normal, but in the place where moral values existed for others, there was only emptiness. The usual signs of insanity were missing, but constructs of ethics and morals were viewed as quaint ideas existing only on other planets or in alternative universes. Given this moral lacunae, early on, the condition was referred to as “moral insanity.” This term emphasized the consistent observation that these people appeared sane in all other respects—and often charming. Henry Maudsley (1874), put it this way:

“As there are persons who cannot distinguish certain colours, having what is called colour blindness, so there are some who are congenitally deprived of moral sense” (p. 11).

In the early 1900s, Emil Kraepelin, upon whose work forms the foundation for modern diagnostic systems, described a personality type that he referred to as “morbid liars and swindlers.” These types “were glib and charming, but lacking in inner morality and as sense of responsibility to others; they made frequent use of aliases, were inclined to be fraudulent con men, and often accumulated heavy debts that were invariably unpaid” (Millon, 2011, p. 428). One of Kraepelin’s disciples, a German physician, later added, “. . . that many of these individuals were unusually successful in positions of either political or material power” (Millon, p. 429)

Obviously, DJT has been “unusually successful” both politically and materially. Of greater prescience is a quotation from Jimmy Kimmel Live (May 25, 2016) where DJT described his used of aliases. “Over the years I’ve used alias (sic), and when I’m in real estate and especially when I was out in Brooklyn with my father and I’d want to buy something . . . I would never want to use my name because you’d have to pay more money for the land. If you’re trying to buy land, you use different names.”

Also in 2016, but on a less grand stage, consistent with Kraepelin’s formulation of morbid liars and swindlers, my 90-year-old poker-playing father quickly identified DJT as “a con man” (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2016/11/05/what-my-card-playing-genius-father-says-about-donald-trump/).

One final note before ending Part Two.

A Kraepelin disciple from Germany made an interesting point . . . and one that Millon repeatedly emphasizes. Not only is it that individuals with antisocial characteristics may not be disordered, in fact, they may be very successful: “Schneider observed that many of these individuals were unusually successful in positions of either political or material power.” (Millon, p. 429).

Part Three is coming . . . although I’m hoping that my Slate Magazine article is coming sooner.