Months before the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place, Dan P. McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, set out to better understand Donald Trump, and how his personality might influence the way he would govern if he were ever to be elected.
In his article “The Mind of Donald Trump,” McAdams concluded that the then-presidential hopeful is extremely extroverted, extremely disagreeable, narcissistic, and filled with anger. McAdams suggested that Trump is a fighter, but that, apart from a desire to win, it is not clear what motivates him to fight. “It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation,” he wrote at the time.
I recently spoke with McAdams about what has happened since the election, and whether he believes the last few months can tell us anything about Trump’s presidency. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Clare Foran: Now that Trump has taken office, is there anything you’d revise in your original analysis of who he is and what he might do as president?
Dan P. McAdams: I have to admit that when I wrote the piece I did not think he would win the election. If I were writing it today, though, I would stick pretty much with what I wrote, but I would emphasize two things more than I did.
The first is that I would double down even more on the idea that what you see is what you get when it comes to Trump. The piece starts off with this uneasy sense that Donald Trump is playing a role. I wanted to get behind the mask, but by the end I’m frustrated because there’s a lot less behind the mask than you expect. You expect there to be some kind of deeper philosophy that might explain what he will do as president, and that’s very difficult to find. So I end the piece by arguing that he’s always fighting to win, even when it’s not clear why.
Now that Trump has won the election, we’re seeing this dynamic continue to play out. He’s still fighting, even though the election itself, and the battle that was the campaign is over. Most candidates want to win the election so that they can become president, but it seems like Donald Trump wanted to become president so that he could win the election. It’s all about winning, but even now that he’s won he can’t seem to let go of the fight. He continues to fixate on the election, and is now disputing—without evidence—the numbers on Hillary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote count. I think he’s going to continue to create chaos and attempt to emerge out of the confusion and uncertainty he creates as a victor.
The second thing I would emphasize more is the theme of authoritarianism. I think what we have seen in the last six months—and now that he is president—is that Trump really doesn’t know how, or want, to work within the typical institutional structures of democracy. Like an authoritarian leader, he wants to transcend that and connect directly to the people. He does that through Twitter, by going around the press, or by making it sound as though the world is an extraordinarily dangerous place and positioning himself as a sort of authoritarian leader, savior and strong man who will deliver the country from “carnage,” to use a word he used in his inaugural address.
Foran: Why do you think you didn’t emphasize the idea of authoritarianism more at the time you wrote the piece?
McAdams: I think there were mounting signs that he seems to pander to this authoritarian dynamic, but Trump has never held public office before, and in that kind of situation you always want to hedge your bets because you just don’t know and some people rise to the position. I think that was kind of in the back of my mind. We’re only a few days into his presidency at this point, but it doesn’t seem like he’s moderating.
Another reason I may have underestimated the extent of Trump’s authoritarian leanings is that when I think of an authoritarian I often think of someone who is a true believer in something. They take office and they have an agenda that they really believe in and Trump doesn’t seem to have much ideological conviction, so I thought, how can he be an authoritarian? But actually Trump does have principles. He believes in power and strength, and he believes in himself. So that becomes his philosophy.
Foran: In your article, you suggest that Trump seems remarkably prone to lying and deceit. What did you think when, immediately after the inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a number of false and, in some cases easily disprovable, statements to the press, and then was subsequently defended by a Trump advisor who said he was providing “alternative facts.”
McAdams: The lying has gotten more extreme now that he’s in the Oval Office, and I didn’t think it would get this bad. I thought Trump utters falsehoods in order to promote some kind of agenda or for some specific strategic purpose, but now there are times when it seems like he just lies for the sake of lying.
For example, he claimed that it stopped raining almost as soon as he started delivering his inaugural address, and that was fact checked and shown to not be true. It’s hard to see why anyone would lie about that, other than out of extreme narcissism, but even then it seems extremely insignificant and unimportant, and from what I can tell he hadn’t been challenged over it.
Foran: You mentioned at the outset that you started your article by asking the question of who Donald Trump really is. Trump started his presidency by doubling down on many of his most controversial campaign promises, including putting out a directive for the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Doesn’t that suggest that we should really focus on his actions rather than trying to ask the question of what motivates him?
McAdams: I think it’s really important to try to understand who the president is. And when you learn that there isn’t much behind the mask except for these narcissistic goals and authoritarian values, that’s important to learn, and it helps you predict what kind of president he is going to be.
Right now, he is following through on what he said he’s going to do, though it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to pull any of this off, but things will happen in the presidency that we can’t predict. You need to know what kind of person he is, what motivates him, what his strategies and styles are to know how he might behave in a situation that nobody could predict. So I think it’s a worthwhile venture to do what I did.
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