Trump’s erratic personality - Martin Scicluna
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Trump’s erratic personality - Martin Scicluna

President Donald Trump continues to use much the same language to the media and his public as he did on the campaign trail for the presidency.

President Donald Trump continues to use much the same language to the media and his public as he did on the campaign trail for the presidency.

As President Donald Trump stands at the podium to make his annual State of the Union Address to the joint session of the United States Congress in the House of Representatives today, it will be difficult for many to separate his attempt at statesmanship from his erratic and disruptive personality.

In the months after he was elected two years ago, many people in the US were all too ready to diagnose with confidence the psychiatric illness “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD) in President Trump. But this came to an abrupt halt after the publication of a letter in the New York Times by Allan Frances, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University in North Carolina, and the man who had first defined NPD as an illness.

His letter made clear that Trump did not have that condition: “He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill.” There is a marked difference between NPD, a classified psychiatric illness, and narcissism, a personality trait. Narcissists train themselves from an early age to block out other voices, other opinions, so one of the few voices they trust is their own.

They are accustomed to listen to themselves talk, debating different sides of the same issue, finally reaching a decision about what to do and the best way to do it. Trump is not alone. Narcissism haunts many heads of government, military commanders and business leaders.

A common misconception is that hubris, which is not a medical term, is indistinguishable from narcissism. “On the contrary,” points out Nick Bouras, emeritus professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, “narcissism is expressed with a blatantly attention-seeking, grandiose sense of self-importance, a persistent search for admiration and lack of empathy.” 

Bouras argues, however, that narcissism and hubris – a word from ancient Greek – are “fundamentally distinct”. The latter is characterised by overconfidence, over-ambition, arrogance, excessive pride and, often, treating others with contempt.  

Trump as president displays both hubris and narcissism. Unlike almost all other presidents before him, he does not make a distinction between how he behaved as a candidate for the presidency and how he behaves in office. This is in part a product of his narcissism, in that he sees himself as different. But it is also because he senses the depth of public disillusionment with failures of past presidents to live up to their promises.

Trump has systematically set out to fulfill the policy commitments he espoused as a candidate (even if they bring the US government to a standstill). And he continues to use much the same language to the media and his public and, notoriously, on Twitter, as he did on the campaign trail for the presidency. 

Most presidents deliberately change in office. Trump’s inaugural address, which shocked some and delighted others, was not markedly different from his speeches during the campaign. 

In many senses he is still on the campaign trail and continues to hold rallies in a style similar to that which he adopted as a candidate and with a frequency that appears to surpass those of almost all his predecessors. They are announced at short notice, which gives the appearance of being spontaneous. Yet their locations are carefully chosen to mobilise his support base. 

Trump wants controversy. He thrives on it. He is not a team player. He watches television news in the early evening as a boxer will watch videos of his fights to improve his performance

Trump’s words jar with many, but they also chime with others. He has no intention of losing touch with the frustrations, anger and feelings of those people in the Rust Belt States who voted him into office against the odds.

He honed these skills through his television appearances, chiefly on The Apprentice. This, in turn, has helped him to develop a new political language – simpler, more direct and well suited to political rallies. Some claim that his poverty of language is not deliberate, but a sign of mental deterioration. It could be both. Few, however, can claim not to know where Trump stands on most issues.

He does not respect facts. Disobliging facts are disparaged or ignored. 

“Trump news” is often a stream of consciousness rant, involving misquotation of facts, the manipulation of evidence and playing on emotions. Yet it is foolish to ignore the marketing skills and expert use of social media that lie behind his technique.

Trump wants controversy. He thrives on it. He is not a team player. He watches television news in the early evening as a boxer will watch videos of his fights to improve his performance. Television and Twitter are central to his operation.

Trump is both creative and destructive. Efficient and inefficient. Thoughtful and unthinking. Intemperate and cool-headed. He intends to be a deal-maker and a deal-breaker. As with all such people, there will be many predictions about him that will turn out to be wrong, but some will be right.

Why are the foreign policy elite in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin having so much difficulty in embracing Trump’s approaches to trade, defence spending and foreign policy? It is not as if their own methods have been highly successful. Trump relishes the one-off initiative as well as the off-the-wall attack. He is stirring the pot and forcing a response.

A more worrying fact about Trump, which could be seen as a reflection of his character, is that he has spent time on the edges of bankruptcy. During his election campaign, this was not widely acknowledged by the electorate. Indeed, some even took the turn-around in his financial fortunes as a positive factor. Why did Trump escape criticism on his business record?

The answers are complex, among them that his reputation as a businessman has been artificially boosted by The Apprentice. But it reflects a troubling neglect of character and trustworthiness in voters’ and shareholders’ regard for business and political leaders. 

What about Trump’s personality – his admiration for authoritarian ‘strong men’, his xenophobia, sexism, crudeness, childish petulance, paranoia, impulsiveness and contempt for decent values? It should continue to be carefully evaluated and linked to his performance. He has chosen to operate very differently from his predecessors, so he should not complain or think that he is being judged unfairly merely because he is scrutinised more than most. 

As the New Yorker magazine noted two years ago, in by far the majority of cases “the history of besieged presidencies is, in the end, the history of hubris, of blindness to one’s faults, of deafness to warnings”.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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