Donald J. Trump: The Conspiratorial Mind Beneath That Epic Golden Hair
by SB Veda
His first press conference left even his friends at Fox News aghast – but last week, Donald J. Trump seemed to reach another marker on the road to insanity.
Having already peppered his rise to power with conspiracy theories on Barack Obama, millions of illegal immigrants engaging in voter fraud, and his now common refrain about ‘fake news’, last week President Trump while in his first meeting with the de facto head of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to back down from a claim made by Fox News ‘judicial analyst,’ Andrew Napolitano that Barack Obama had a British intelligence agency wiretap his phones.
“At least we have something in common,” Trump said, his hand pointed in Merkel’s direction, presumably a reference to reports that the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitored her cellphone.
He also called Napolitano a “very talented legal mind,” by which it can be inferred that he felt Napolitano had a high level of credibility in his opinion.
The claim has been rejected by the Obama administration’s intelligence chief, James Clapper, and by leading Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But Trump, and his spokesman, have persevered with the allegation.
A day earlier, Sean Spicer, the President’s press secretary read from a series of press reports that he claimed supported the wiretapping allegation. In doing so, he read out verbatim a claim by Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano that three intelligence sources had confirmed to him the Obama administration used GCHQ to spy on Trump so there would be “no American fingerprints on this”.
The claim drew a rare outspoken response from the normally taciturn UK surveillance agency, GCHQ, which dismissed it as “utterly ridiculous”.
The allegation was also rejected by the British government.
It’s not popular in scholarly circles to explain geopolitics with reference to the psychology of world leaders. While Lincoln was depressed, did it affect his governance of the nation? Napoleon was a megalomaniac, and that surely reflected in his policies. Churchill was an alcoholic and he is largely revered for his leadership qualities, though notably not in South Asia where his callous indifference to a famine cost three million lives. Hitler was a methamphetamine addict, and Stalin was paranoid – one could certainly see how these traits influenced decisions.
Even before Donald Trump was elected, pundits, commentators, activists, politicians, and academics rushed to assess the man’s mental health. Diagnoses of Trump as living with narcissistic personality disorder became so common that the psychiatrist who helped define the illness, Dr. Allen Frances, spoke out to clarify that the 45th president may be a narcissist, but wasn’t necessarily mentally ill. As Dr. Frances argued, “When people are bad, they should be labelled appropriately and denounced for their behaviours. We should not use mental illness to slur someone.”
Still, many psychologists see a link between extreme politics and unsound beliefs: “People at the political extremes are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories,” said psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen, of VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who has studied such beliefs. “They generally have a high level of distrust of the government and what the powerful are doing.” Like the others experts STAT interviewed, he hasn’t examined Trump and spoke generally about what behaviors such as the president’s might, according to published studies, reveal about the thoughts and emotions driving a person.
Research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are more common among people with certain personality traits. “Agreeableness,” for instance, is defined as being considerate, trusting, willing to compromise, and caring about getting along with others. People who score low on measures of this trait tend to pick fights and see enemies everywhere.
A fragile sense of self-worth also drives people to find causes for their problems outside of their own actions, including in nefarious cabals. When people feel that events are beyond their control and do not have a strong “sense of agency,” meaning the feeling that they are in control of their own fate and can make things happen, conspiracy theories offer appealing explanations for why. One way to restore feelings of agency is to assert that you know what’s going on and others don’t.
Although it might seem paradoxical for the most powerful man in the world to doubt his ability to make things happen, Trump was infuriated by courts blocking his original immigration ban and reportedly flew into a rage when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia. A feeling of frustrated powerlessness and a sense that events are spiraling out of control breed conspiracist beliefs, research has found.
“One of the things Mr. Trump finds disquieting about the office of the presidency is that he can’t control it,” said psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. “It’s not like being CEO of a private, family-controlled company. It drives him crazy that he can’t just lift his hand and say, ‘make this happen.'”
Conspiracy Theorist beliefs in the face of setbacks are particularly likely in people who are high in narcissism, the trait that psychologists most commonly see in Trump. When a narcissist’s feelings of personal superiority “are undermined” van Prooijen said, “he looks for a scapegoat.” With someone who “needs to constantly feel that he’s superior to others,” said psychiatrist Dr. Lance Dodes, who is retired from Harvard Medical School and practices in Beverly Hills, Calif., “any challenge will be met with a furious rage reaction. In that state he may very well believe that people are conspiring against him because his emotional experience is that he is being attacked.”
Negative attitudes toward authority make people more likely to believe the worst of the powerful. So does greater cynicism about politics, such as that it is a “swamp” that must be “drained” – as Trump has said – and “exaggerated pride in their country, the idea that theirs is better than all others,” van Prooijen said.
In Trump’s case, though, one cannot discount the early influence of his lawyer, Roy Cohn. During the 1970s Roy Cohn was not only Trump’s lawyer and emissary when he had to deal with the criminal underbelly of organized crime in the real estate sector in New York, he was also Trump’s ‘consigliore,’ his chief advisor and mentor.
Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s right hand during the communist witch-hunts of the ‘red scare’ era in the 1950s, and he played a significant role in sending the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair after their conviction for espionage. While most historians agree of the Rosenberg’s culpability, few actually believe the extent of their crimes warranted being put to death. Cohn made sure they weren’t around to file any appeals during a time of anti-communist hysteria.
As the New York Times said of Cohn’s influence on the president: “Mr. Trump’s response to the Orlando massacre, with his ominous warnings of a terrorist attack that could wipe out the country and his conspiratorial suggestions of a Muslim fifth column in the United States, seemed to have been ripped straight out of the Cohn playbook…. For 13 years, the lawyer who had infamously whispered in McCarthy’s ear whispered in Mr. Trump’s.”
The paranoid atmosphere that surrounds the Trump administration seems like a function of a self-obsessed president who truly does believe he’s an outsider, who thinks the “establishment” is out to get him, who gets his news from sources he genuinely trusts but dearly shouldn’t, and who listens to Steve Bannon the same way he used to listen to Cohn. That’s what his actions indicate, anyway.
The paranoia has trickled down to the staffer level. It was reported in the Washington Post that some staffers are using apps that delete messages once they are read, others turning off their work phones at home, and keeping them in drawers or lockboxes for fears they could be used to eavesdrop.
In the flurry to protect oneself, truth is frequently compromised.
On this, again, queues are taken from the top. When Trump, for instance, is confronted with evidence – such as in the wiretapping allegation – that he was wrong, one might reasonably expect him as the president of the United States to re-evaluate his claim. But for Trump’s paranoid administration, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; instead, it’s an indication that “the truth” (which is, of course, “out there”) must be buried even more deeply than they imagined. For true believers, empirical, verifiable evidence isn’t all the important anyway. (Before Trump, former Vice President Dick Cheney, stated long after every credible official said there were no the WMDs in Iraq, persisted in the claim that “just because we haven’t found them, doesn’t mean they are there.”)
A dangerous echo chamber emerges when a paranoid administration engages in routine motivated reasoning, as well as confirmation bias (interpreting new evidence as supporting one’s existing beliefs) and availability bias (“evidence” that is close at hand is more likely to be drawn upon). After all, the more the press, activists, and other citizens call the president out, the more paranoid, defensive, and combative he and his administration become.
This is exactly what three prominent professors of psychiatry wanted to avoid when they wrote to President Barack Obama, last November to express their concerns about President-elect Trump’s mental state, urging that a psychological evaluation be done during the transition.
The co-signatories to the letter cited Trump’s “widely reported symptoms of mental instability — including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.” They went on to conclude: “(these) lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office. We strongly recommend that, in preparation for assuming these responsibilities, he receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.
No doubt, the President views these three professors with suspicion.
Here, according to The APA, are the 9 criteria for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. If an individual has 5 out of the 9 they have a confirmed diagnosis of this illness. Many individuals have “traits” of narcissism but only about 1% of the population has clinical NPD.
“Summary : A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believe that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement
- Is interpersonally exploitative
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
While it’s irresponsible to play arm chair psychologist, one cannot ignore the level to which the current President of the United States has exhibited behaviours consistent with all nine of the above traits.