What Makes Trump Tick? The International View

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Until recently, the most famous Scottish-American could well have been Scrooge McDuck. Now there’s a new title holder. The millions of Americans who share this heritage, including me, reflect somberly upon the shift to the Trump brand. Here is Mr. Trump back in the motherland a few years ago, at some golf course ceremony. (David Moir / Reuters)

A reader who is a mental-health professional in Australia responds to speculation in some previous posts (notably here) that Donald Trump’s public persona meets many of the criteria of actual mental disorders: (Emphasis added in his note.)

I am responding to the comment made by a clinical psychology doctoral student… I think that your reader made a very compelling case in their first paragraph as to why we can’t “safely say that Donald Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder”; namely that this requires extensive quantitative and qualitative assessment over a period of time with the individual’s personal engagement. Also, it's hard enough for those with NPD to seek help, without thinking they're going to be compared to this whole mess!

However, they missed one incredibly important reason why he probably doesn’t have a personality disorder: Trump’s narcissism is part of the product he’s selling.

Trump is one of the world’s most successful salespeople of a personal brand, a reality TV star and an American politician. Self assured attention seeking is the key to success in all these arenas. Trump’s had a long history of seeing how much people like him when he shows no doubt.

I think people are struggling to determine how much of what Trump does is a performance. But, the difference between performance and self-perception is vital. The lack of empathy is a performance of his non-PC persona. His disinterest in listening to experts is part of his ‘Übermensch of the people’ act. His desire to be seen as exceptional and to be admired by others is ultimately no different from that of any other presidential campaign pitch.

I would argue, however, that Trump’s inner world, how he really perceives himself and relates to others remains very much a mystery. That aspect, the self-perception, is crucial to diagnosing personality disorders. You would know better than I, but I imagine there is much about a politician’s inner world that we don’t see from the public performance.

Trump should not be subjected to armchair diagnoses. Not just because it’s a cheap shot, not just because it’s a profound misunderstanding of clinical psychology and an injustice to those who do suffer from personality disorders, but because the claim that Trump is mentally ill is too easy and too comforting.

The ‘disordered’ Trump character is the twisted reflection the ‘hopelessly aloof’ Obama caricature that some hold in their head. We struggle to empathise with those who seem to be pitching their message to someone else. It’s part of the same inability to even attempt to understand the other that drives political animosity in your country and mine (look up Clive Palmer if you want the low-rent Australia version of Trump). Writing people off as mentally ill absolves us from needing to engage with a point of view that needs to be engaged with, regardless of how toxic it is.

Trump is Trump. You can’t diagnose him; the disease is in the political system. In the partisan politics of the current era there’s never been a happier warrior, because he’s completely at home there.

Good luck with that one.

***

And who is this Clive Palmer, referred to above? He’s the person you see pictured below, with a follow-up explanation from the Australian reader about why the comparison with Trump is illuminating.

Clive Palmer, announcing a plan to build a replica of the Titantic (Olivia Harris / Reuters)

From the Australian mental-health practitioner:

The more I see of what's happening in America right now, the more convinced I am that we really dodged a bullet over here with Australia's very own Trump, Clive Frederick Palmer.

Up to a point, the stories seem remarkably similar. Take one eccentric/absurd business man (greatest hits: announcing that he was building his own replica of the Titanic, getting his football team kicked out of the country's premier league for bad business practices, opening a dinosaur park where the dinosaur burnt down) with delusions of grandeur.

Add in a bid for leadership of the country, funded by his personal wealth, with a populist campaign that promises the moon. Stir through a climate of animosity towards 'politics as usual' that's tainted both major parties Finish up with a scattershot of policies drawn from the left and right side of politics, with no unifying philosophy beyond "things will be better!" and "let's make more money!".

What saved us is the parliamentary system. Palmer had been chased out of party politics years ago, and there is no way in our political system that anyone can ride a populist wave all the way to the top because the party hacks can trip you up a hundred times along the way. Palmer had to start his own party and scurry to find legitimate candidates for both houses of parliament in time for the election….

Minor parties here need to build themselves over successive elections by demonstrating that they're actually legitimate about their values and about being a serious part of the political system. How's the Palmer United Party doing in it's first term? Well two of the three Senators have left the party citing cronyism and abuse. Palmer was taken to court by Chinese investors for misusing their funds. His old nickel refinery has gone into voluntary administration and sacked its workforce, after having donated heavily to his campaign. His bizarre behavior in office and the ever-present whiff of corruption have pretty much ended any hope of re-election. And the Titanic II still hasn't been built.

The American system has a lot of advantages, but I'm not sure how well it holds up to snake-oil salesmen at times like this.

***

To round out today’s internationally themed dispatches, a reader in Canada says that the Trump era has already arrived there:

We in Toronto have already elected Donald Trump, in the person of Rob Ford, a populist, wealthy son of a demanding father who made a political point of not owing anyone anything.

If our experience offers any guide, the election of Donald Trump would lead to disaster for the United States, and a worse disaster for Donald Trump. By the end of his first term, even his worst enemies would pity him. The United States might well simply lose four years, in the sense that Rob Ford's term as mayor stopped some important initiatives cold and brought no new ones to the table.

Rob Ford enjoying a moment of levity during a Toronto city council meeting in 2013. (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

Of course, losing direction in a city government, even an alpha world city, has many fewer potential consequences than dysfunctional or even malignant government in the planet's leading economic and military power. Unlike Donald Trump. Rob Ford had and has expertise in responsive government; he got elected partly on his well earned reputation as the quickest councillor to return phone calls. Unfortunately, even a major city mayor cannot handle the whole business of a city by returning phone calls, and most analysis I have seen suggests that Rob Ford quickly found himself well out of his depth as mayor. The mismatch between Donald Trump and the skill set required of an American president appears much greater.