The hope that Donald Trump might become more presidential as his inauguration approached has proven misguided. The 45th president of the United States has shown that his own public image is his first priority.
To understand how the future president of the United States thinks and acts, a look back at how he treated one of his former employees can be helpful. The woman in question didn’t become known because of complaints regarding Donald Trump’s behavior. Rather, he himself boasted about his own treatment of her in one of his many books.
Trump hired the woman in the 1980s. “I decided to make her into somebody,” he writes in “Think Big and Kick Ass,” a book in which he seeks to share the secret of his success with the world. He gave her a great job, Trump writes, and “she bought a beautiful home.”
In the early 1990s, when his company ran into financial difficulties, Trump asked the woman to request help from a friend of hers who held an important position at a bank. The woman, though, didn’t feel comfortable doing so and Trump fired her immediately.
Later, she founded her own company, but it went broke. “I was really happy when I found that out,” Trump writes in his book. Although he had done so much for her, he writes, “she had turned on me.”
In Trump’s world, even just the appearance of disloyalty is an unforgivable sin. He encourages his readers to react in such cases with brutal vengeance. Ultimately, the woman lost her home and her husband left her, Trump relates. “I was glad.” In subsequent years, he continued speaking poorly of her, he writes. “Now I go out of my way to make her life miserable.”
At the end of the chapter called “Revenge,” Trump advises his readers to constantly seek to take revenge. “Always make a list of people who hurt you. Then sit back and wait for the appropriate time to get revenge. When they least expect it, go after them with a vengeance. Go for their jugular.”
This hardcore Darwinism helped Trump, who sees life as “a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” become a rich man on the often fierce real-estate market.
Trump, who will be inaugurated on Friday as the 45th president of the United States, appears to be relying on the same formula for success in his new job — despite all of the predictable effects that might have for his country and the world. Just last week, it was obvious on several occasions that Trump has no intention whatsoever of adjusting his behavior to correspond to the dignity of the office he has been elected to fill. He seems to continue believing exclusively in his own maxim: “Think Big and Kick Ass.”
Last Wednesday, Trump once again took to Twitter to aggressively go after those who had dared to voice critique, or whose behavior he disapproved of. He later did the same during a press conference.
After it was leaked that U.S. intelligence had informed Trump that Russia held potentially compromising information about him, including an alleged golden shower with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room, he hit back hard. What the intelligence community had done, he wrote on Twitter, was “very unfair” and a “total political witch hunt!” He then wrote: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
For months, many have been talking about Trump’s lack of maturity and his insufficient dignity for one of the most powerful and honorable political offices in the world. And yet his press conference on Wednesday left even party allies stunned.
He showed himself to be a man with more faith in Russian President Vladimir Putin than in the findings of America’s own intelligence agencies. A man who reacts aggressively to all forms of critique. A man who sought to intimidate CNN reporter Jim Acosta and refused to answer the reporter’s questions because he doesn’t approve of the broadcaster’s coverage.
It was an appearance that lacked everything that one has come to expect from U.S. presidents: self-control, diplomacy, reserve and restraint. He spent much of the press conference praising himself and his team and there wasn’t a moment of irony or self-doubt. Even in the U.S., where referring to one’s own strengths is much more common than it is elsewhere, such a degree of conceit is unusual.
For many, victory is paired with humility. Trump, by contrast, hasn’t passed up a single opportunity since Nov. 8 to boast about his “big” election victory and he continues to cast insults at his defeated opponent Hillary Clinton. Those who thought that Trump’s almost conciliatory Christmas address meant that the president-elect was changing his tune were quickly disabused of that notion.
On the weekend before last, actress Meryl Streep used her speech at the Golden Globes to criticize Trump for his mocking of a physically disabled New York Times reporter during the campaign. The incident was Trump’s revenge against the reporter, who had exposed one of the GOP nominee’s lies. Trump was quick to strike back at Streep. He claimed that he was not making fun of the reporter’s disabilities, even though videos make it clear that that is exactly what he was doing. He then took to Twitter to call Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and “a Hillary flunky.” It was yet another tweet-storm showing how far removed Trump is from reality.
His reactions have become totally predictable, no matter whether he is responding to a perceived slight from an employee, a reporter, an actress or the intelligence community. There is no nuance in his retribution; it is always excessive.
Trump’s behavior can often be reduced to a simple question: Was somebody nice to me or not? It usually doesn’t get much more complex than that. As such, the key to understanding the new U.S. president lies less in his political pledges or in the hopes of his followers and more in the make-up of his personality.
‘Like a Six-Year-Old Boy’
Pulitzer Prize winning American investigative journalist David Cay Johnston, who wrote a biography of Donald Trump, says that he is a 12-year-old trapped in the body of a 70-year-old. In all of the discussions he held with Trump, says another of the president-elect’s biographers, Michael D’Antonio, he came across as a young boy. “Like a six-year-old boy who comes home from the playground and can hardly wait to announce that he shot the decisive goal,” D’Antonio said in an interview.
Johnston and D’Antonio spent hundreds of hours trying to understand this man. And their assessments were only exceeded by Trump himself.
“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” Trump told D’Antonio in 2014. “The temperament is not that different.”
Trump displays the classic worldview and behavioral patterns of people who suffer from narcissism. Even as psychologists are generally unwilling to offer diagnoses of people they have not met in person, many have made an exception when it comes to Trump, in part because he exhibits so many of the symptoms.
Howard Gardner, a professor of developmental psychology at Harvard University, described the incoming president several years ago as “remarkably narcissistic.” Clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis attributes to Trump a “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.” His colleague George Simon even uses videos of Trump to illustrate the disorder in seminars.
Experts say that the classic behaviors associated with narcissism include: an outsized need for attention, recognition and admiration; the inability to feel empathy; constant self-absorption; and grotesquely exaggerated self-praise. For narcissists, the world around them is only interesting insofar as it reflects themselves. Those suffering from the disorder are so hypersensitive to criticism that everyone who withholds admiration is seen as an enemy.
Extreme narcissists, research results show, are so addicted to attention and admiration that they frequently tell lies. And they are so convinced of their own merit that they are incapable of feeling regret: In their eyes, the admission of error is not a sign of greatness, rather it detracts from their grandiosity.
‘Abject Rejection of Reflection’
Self-reflection — the critical questioning of one’s own behavior — is something that Trump sees as potentially damaging. “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he said in a 2014 interview with D’Antonio. The biographer, who conducted numerous interviews with Trump and members of his family, says that this is the most salient characteristic of the entire clan. D’Antonio says Trump “refuses to reflect on what he’s done” and that he exhibits an “abject rejection of reflection.”
This finding goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s reactions, announcements and threats. It is likewise hardly surprising that he hasn’t changed his approach just because he has now been elected president. He is simply unable to.
When Trump spent weeks rejecting intelligence evaluations indicating that Russia’s hacking and release of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee was an attempt to aid his candidacy, that too was the voice of an aggrieved narcissist. Trump was afraid that the shine of his election victory might be tarnished.
One can assume that he is fully aware of the dangers represented to his country by professional hacking and interference from foreign powers. But in such moments, he seems unable to focus on the larger, more relevant problem at hand. He only sees himself and the potential devaluation of his Election Day triumph — with the consequence that he placed more trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange than he did in America’s own intelligence services.
The fact that Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than he did is also seen by Trump as a deep affront — to the point that in November he tweeted that he “also won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
There is not a shred of evidence for this absurd claim. Nor did Trump seem to care that such an accusation is akin to questioning the legality of the election and could erode the popular faith in democracy. Something greater was at stake: His own reputation.
A president who is unable to subordinate his own emotions to the larger issues at stake is doubtlessly a problem. Just as problematic is a commander in chief who is unable to differentiate the important from the unimportant. His Twitter eruption from five weeks before the election, when he began tweeting non-stop at 3.20 a.m., has since become legendary. It wasn’t the situation in Syria that was bothering him, nor was he concerned about the final stages of the campaign. Rather, he wanted revenge — against a beauty queen from 1996 who had the gumption to support Hillary Clinton. He said she was “disgusting” and that, after winning the pageant, had “gained a massive amount of weight.”
Nobody, of course, likes to hear unflattering things about themselves. But civilization, Enlightenment, honor or perhaps mere tactical considerations have created a buffer between impulse and reaction in most people. Trump, though, is different. He represents a return to more archaic times.
He has been aided by an era in which there is apparently a widespread need for more rustic forms of speech and action, where discretion and moderation are derided as “political correctness” and tactical thinking as a fundamental evil associated with the allegedly corrupt “establishment.”
In a motivational speech Trump delivered 12 years ago in Denver, he encouraged his audience to trust nobody. “Be paranoid,” he said. This constant fear of being stabbed in the back and Trump’s need for unconditional loyalty also informed his cabinet choices. His team of designated ministers is primarily made up of people who were early and vocal supporters of his campaign.
Electing Narcissists to Positions of Power
Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions was the first Senator to endorse Trump during the primaries. The president-elect chose Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development even though Carson himself says he has little knowledge of the subject matter. His primary qualification is the fact that he was the first of the Republican candidates to have spoken favorably of Donald Trump. Michael Flynn, a former army general, is to become national security advisor, in part because of his early idolization of Trump. For the position of chief White House strategist, Trump chose Stephen Bannon, head of the ultra-right wing website Breitbart News, the only outlet that consistently supported Trump during the campaign.
All of these nominations show the dangers of electing narcissists to positions of power. Their need for loyalty coupled with their desire to shine brighter than all others is not a good mixture when it comes to assembling competent leadership teams. Often enough, the result is a group of powerless acolytes.
Trump’s temporary interest in naming Mitt Romney to head up the State Department initially looked surprising amid the preference for sycophants he had displayed up until that point. Romney had been vocal and harsh in his critique of Trump during the campaign and it seemed out of character for Trump to be considering tapping Romney for a senior administration job anyway. But he invited Romney to several interviews, staged by Trump as a kind of casting show, and the president-elect provided frequent updates on how the process was going. Ultimately, though, Trump chose Rex Tillerson over Romney — making the publically staged interviews suddenly seem like an elaborate act of revenge against his prominent detractor.
The world is a dangerous place and you have to be ready for a fight: This lesson is one that Fred Trump taught his son Donald early on. An owner and manager of apartment buildings in New York, Fred occasionally brought Donald along to collect rent payments in person on the weekends. According to a vignette related in an article in the Atlantic last June, Donald once asked his father why he stood to the side after ringing the doorbell. “Because sometimes they shoot right through the door,” his father apparently replied.
For Trump, these excursions with his father taught him the importance of being “tough,” or, as his father would have it, a “killer” who only accepts victory and for whom losing is a threat to survival. The idea that the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing became something of a maxim for Trump. In his book “Crippled America,” Trump writes that he felt even as a child that he needed to become “the toughest kid in the neighborhood.”
Trump’s Admiration of Putin
This belief that life is a battle, that only victory matters and that losers are to be ridiculed and abased, was solidified when Donald was sent to military school as a 13-year-old. In this competitive environment, he was seen as one of the most ruthless students. He had no friends because having friends was a sign of weakness. It was more important, he felt, to show strength, to intimidate those around him, to show authority and to be a man.
One of his idols at the military school was baseball coach Theodore Dobias. “Like so many strong guys, Dobias had a tendency to go for the jugular if he smelled weakness,” Trump would later write. But the coach treated boys who showed strength like men.
Against this background, it isn’t difficult to understand Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin. It may well be that Putin has long been in possession of compromising material pertaining to Trump. But it is important to remember that Putin was the first world leader who showed regard for Trump and found words of praise for him.
“He’s a very colorful man, talented without doubt,” Putin said of Trump at a time when many in the U.S. hadn’t yet begun to take the GOP candidate seriously. The Russian leader added that Trump was “the absolute leader of the presidential race.” Trump’s reaction was predictable: “When people call you brilliant, it’s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.”
Trump has also been quick to praise Putin’s leadership, saying admiringly: “At least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” It’s Putin’s aura of strength and lack of compunction that Trump so reveres. “I think he thinks of Putin as being a strong person, and I think he thinks of himself as being a very strong person,” Trump confidant Newt Gingrich said of the president-elect in an interview with SPIEGEL.
The biggest window into his soul is Trump’s Twitter account. Fully 20.1 million people follow Trump on the social media site, but he only follows 42 accounts, which is an adequate reflection of his worldview: It’s enough when only one person has a say.
Trump writes only two types of tweets: those in which he praises either himself or people who have been nice to him; and those in which he attacks those who have not. There is very little room for differentiation or nuance and there are few tweets that don’t have directly to do with his favorite subject: Trump. When he recently sent out Christmas greetings to his followers, it didn’t show his family gathered together. Rather, it was a picture of just Donald Trump, alone in front of a decorated tree. In Trump’s Twitter world, his private life is political. There is no separation.
On Jan. 6, two weeks before the inauguration, the newly elected president tweeted about an issue that would seem to be just as important to him as U.S. relations with China or the future of NATO: He tweeted about “The Apprentice,” the television show that lent Trump a significant portion of his fame. Because Trump was running for president, NBC had chosen Arnold Schwarzenegger to take over as the show’s host and he celebrated his premier on Jan. 6. Trump immediately commented on the show’s weak ratings and then provided his own explanation: “the ratings machine, DJT” was missing. In the primaries, as Trump himself noted, Schwarzenegger had supported the Republican candidate John Kasich.
Great People with Fantastic Futures
When Trump channel surfs, it would seem that he only stops on shows that he is in or which are discussing him. He often turns to Twitter to comment live during talk shows, using the channel to blast his critics as unsuccessful idiots working for a failing broadcaster. Supporters, by contrast, are great people with fantastic futures.
If you follow him on Twitter, it quickly becomes clear that the world of the man who has pledged to return America to greatness is rather small. The only thing important to Trump is his dominance, or the perfect illusion of his dominance. In order to maintain this illusion, Trump must also display his dominance over facts that might sully this perfect image. That’s why he claims via Twitter that he has never insulted anybody even though there are videos proving the contrary. In his world, there is no common ground where facts are rooted. There are only competing subjective interpretations — and it’s a competition that he always wins.
Lies for him are a means to an end — and they are poison for the public discourse. When arguments can no longer be assessed and claims can no longer be verified, democracies can no longer arrive at a consensus. It is akin to restructuring the country in accordance with the Twitter model, in which one person speaks and everyone else watches in horror. It becomes an uncritical, one-way street.
In Trump’s image of himself as a warrior, as a “killer,” there is no room for uncertainty or doubt. The most important thing is to fight the fight, and risk is part of that. During his professional life, Trump has had to declare bankruptcy four times, yet he became a billionaire nonetheless. In the campaign, he was mocked as a clown who didn’t stand a chance, but he is now going to be sworn in as president. In the eyes of his voters, Trump’s surprising triumph merely augments his aura of invincibility — and it can be expected that their awe will only further exacerbate his narcissistic overestimation of himself. There have, in any case, been no indications of humility or temperance in the weeks since his election victory.
A Risk and an Opportunity
At the same time, Trump’s aggression, his appetite for risk, his passion for the hunt, is his greatest weakness. His global network of companies and family members combined with his tendency to surround himself with yes-men from whom he demands unconditional loyalty could ultimately land him in trouble.
Either way, the U.S. and the rest of the world now has to find a way to deal with this rather unorthodox leader. And there is little experience to fall back on, at least not when it comes to leaders of Western democracies. The analogy to Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps most accurate, a man who was likewise considered an unlikely election victor in mid-1990s Italy.
Like Trump, Berlusconi was a successful businessman, had a significant media presence and displayed signs of narcissism. He tried to run the state like a company and had little use for democratic values like freedom of the press or judicial independence.
It took quite some time before Berlusconi ran into trouble due to his numerous iniquities, legal violations and attempts at corruption. His ability to manipulate people and win them over, one shared by many narcissists, ensured him a total of 10 years as Italy’s prime minister.
What, then, is the correct approach to Donald Trump? His grotesque self-absorption and his childish need to be loved present both a risk and an opportunity. And behind his aggressive posturing is a weakness, a vulnerability. As irrational as Trump’s behavior might be at first glance, it is often extremely predictable.
The most effective way to influence him is likely that of flattering him, of giving him all of the respect that he yearns for. Vladimir Putin isn’t the only one who has understood this basic truth. It is a strategy that Barack Obama has apparently followed as well. Following Trump’s election victory, the president quickly congratulated the winner and then graciously received his successor in the White House. Obama had hammered Trump on the campaign trail, but the president-elect had only positive things to say about Obama in the immediate aftermath of their November meeting.
Such overt graciousness likely makes it easier to talk and negotiate with Donald Trump. That might sound a bit simplistic, but that might very well be the best way to deal with the incoming president: thinking simply.