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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 16-Jul-17


Sunday 16-July-17

The Psychology of Trump: Three surprising preferences that drive how he behaves

Much has been written about the bizarre actions of President Donald Trump. Psychiatrists, psychologists and pundits have analyzed his machinations and have diagnosed dire mental conditions, yet it seem three preferences he has around particular groups of people go a long way to explaining his actions.

Media and the masses, attention and approval

By and large, the media aim to play the role of representing the wider world. They espouse common values. They alternatively admire and challenge the rich and powerful. And, with shock, awe and information, they entertain the masses, which is something Trump understands well.

And Trump has masses of supporters who lap up his vicious invective. He has given voice to their angry lives and hope to their desperate survival. He feeds their deep conspiracy theories and promises them all the American dream that few could ever find. And in return they blindly believe.

Trump plays this instrument endlessly and effectively, feeding them all shocking statement after shocking statement. The media love this game too, as shock is always good for sales.

The paradox here is that very few people would do such things, as much because of the disapproval they would garner as anything. Just the thought of criticism is enough to keep most of us in line. But Trump is not like this. He craves attention far more than approval, and so continues to say outrageous things.

Another reason Trump cares little for approval is his big boss past. People in power have little to fear from those beneath them and can break social values with impunity. Indeed, such acts are power signals that send a clear message. Pay attention, they say, I could hurt you and get away with it. I am above the law.

News has a short half-life and attention flows similarly. Shocking news gains more momentum, yet it too fades. Trump hence keeps up a steady stream of invective, ably supported and reported by the parasitic media. He then drinks from this hose of attention, pumping disapproval to prolong the feast.

Friends and colleagues, loyalty and truth

When it comes to friends, Trump plays a different game, and again an unconventional one. Most of us like friends for who they are. We trust them to keep our interests at heart and accept them as they are, warts and all.

By some accounts, Trump makes a good friend, at least in supporting those in need. However, he sees this as a transaction and expects absolute loyalty in return. There are dire stories of his delight in vengeance against those who have betrayed him, again as a symbol of power and signal to other would-be traitors. He also plays this as a game, promising desired things in return for the promise of fealty, as can be seen in his reference to FBI Director Comey keeping his job shortly before asking for his personal loyalty.

One of the important roles a friend plays is as trusted confidante to whom we can expose our true selves and who will tell us the truth, even if is difficult to hear. Trust is important here on both sides, first that the teller of bad news will not take advantage, and then that the receiver will not take it badly or lash out.

The same principle applies for people with whom he works. He expects blind loyalty in exchange for keeping their jobs. This can be a problem when professionalism dictates truth that is inconvenient for Trump. He is accustomed to dictating what is and what is not as a matter of convenience, and woe betide anyone who contradicts him. Already it seems, his staff avoid giving him news that could trigger an outburst.

Before becoming president he invested a lot in befriending many in the media, yet who now are being critical. Rather than taking such comment seriously, he becomes enraged at this disloyalty and seeks harsh punishment. He also uses such cases as food for his Twitter outbursts that feed his attentional needs.

Family, obedience and love

A final category is his family. You cannot sack your family -- anyway, they carry your all-important name into the future. So you have to treat them differently.

The classic position of the alpha male that Trump takes is of control. Little of import happens in his companies without his approval, even though his family members are running them, and it is probably the same at home. Unquestioning obedience is the name of this game.

The paradox here is that obedience is even more important than love. Sure, he likes adulation, but control is so important for him that the semblance of affection is sufficient. You don't have to love him, but you probably do have to say you love him, even though everybody knows it's a sham.

A question here is whether these who cannot escape might yet betray him the worst. Starved of love and under the thumb, they may react and rebel, biting the hand that feeds them in ultimate revenge for years of micromanagement.


There is the red thread running through all this. Attention, loyalty and obedience are about how people behave, not how they think or feel. Trump cares not what you think or feel, only what you do and only for him. He seems to lack any empathy, which is a deep problem for someone who purports to leadership, though perhaps is a strength for would-be autocrats. And so, in his fantastic universe, he is the puppeteer and people dance. They pay attention. They are loyal. They obey. And heaven help those who dare to disobey, be disloyal or look away. For this god is a terrible god. His power and his glory know no end.


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