Why Donald Trump May Actually Believe That What He’s Saying Is ‘True’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Trump Tweet from two years before his campaign kicked off.

We may be past the point where it matters to wonder why Donald Trump does the things he does. Instead we can just note that he does them. As I’ve argued before, his virtuosity in being able to switch almost instantly from bombast to talk-show charm is an important part of his success.

A reader makes what may by now be an obvious point but is still worth reckoning with. He was responding to the post in which I noted Trump’s combination of masterful TV performance and near-total ignorance of the actual job and challenges of being president. Emphasis added:

I'm a clinical psychology doctoral candidate about a year away from graduation, and I think that there's actually a psychological explanation for Trump's ignorance.

Normally I wouldn't diagnose someone without spending time with them in a 1-on-1 interview, or without speaking to people who are close to them and who are reliable reporters, or without some kind of objective data collected from empirically supported psychological tests, but I think it's safe to say that Donald Trump is really and truly a narcissist, in the personality disorder sense.

I think that Donald Trump's ignorance is a manifestation of his narcissism. Trump hasn't bothered to educate himself about outside issues because, to him, everything he says is automatically true. Why learn about something that you believe you've already mastered?

Let’s stop to note Trump’s relevant quote today on Morning Joe. Who does Trump rely on for foreign-policy guidance, he was asked? “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” Back to the reader.

Imagine going through life with the conceptual framework that you simply cannot be wrong. Facts would cease to matter, and education would largely be irrelevant, because you're the one who determines what is and isn't true. In fact, people who claim to have expertise would become the enemy because they would provide information that would exist outside of yourself. If everything you say is the ultimate, universal truth, than anything that exists outside of yourself must be deception.

I think that Trump earnestly believes every single thing that comes out of his mouth, and that the reason his beliefs seem to change is because his reality is fluid.

When Trump claimed that he had refuted David Duke he really believed it, because in his world he is infallible. When, in the reality the rest of us share, he clearly did not refuse David Duke's endorsement and instead said that he doesn't even know who David Duke was, that was also true, because he believed it to be true.

For Donald Trump there's no need to convince him that, as in George Orwell's novel 1984, 2+2=5, because for him 2+2 equals whatever he currently believes it equals. He seems earnest because he really is an earnest guy, and he refuses to work on his ignorance because he deeply, genuinely  believes that he's right, about everything, all of the time. I think that he feels attacked because he lacks the capacity to understand that the rest of us don't subscribe to his own version of reality.