Donald Trump: Sociopath in Chief

Now that Donald Trump (hereafter referred to as “DT,” so my fingers don’t cramp up typing his name over and over) is president-elect of the United States, I am going to stop mocking him temporarily to do what we all now must: take the man seriously.

Because, even though it is great fun to disparage DT—something the media has been gleefully doing for forty years—the man has now weaseled himself into a position where everyone must find a way to wrap their heads around him. And I mean that literally. Like it or not, DT is going to be living in our heads for at least the next four years, so Americans, particularly those who did not vote for him, are going to have to find ways to allow him to exist in their consciousness without letting him destroy what’s left of their sanity.

For Democrats, the shock of DT winning—the sudden existential dread of his ascendance and coronation—is akin to the shock many people on the Republican side felt when Barack (Hussein!!!) Obama was elected. The pendulum has swung back, the shoe is on the other foot, and that about exhausts the metaphors for this kind of thing. But back in 2008, even Americans who couldn’t stomach a black man in office and who were repulsed by his politics could go to bed at night knowing that their president was an honest, decent, level-headed man who wasn’t likely to do anything super crazy.

No one has that luxury anymore.

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

As a writer, the thing I dreaded most about a possible DT presidency was having to think and write about the guy for the unforeseeable future. On the whole, I find DT to be a boring oaf who sucks up much more energy and attention than he deserves. He’s basically the Kim Kardashian of politics, a media succubus who feeds on public attention. Before November 8, he was easy to ignore. Now, everyone (even many of his supporters) must live with that niggling fear in the back of their heads, nascent but growing, that DT could someday—set off by an intern rolling her eyes, or an ayatollah who doesn’t like his haircut—end us all.

This state of generalized anxiety is caused by fear of the unknown, the biggest unknown being what DT might actually do as president. Right now, there is a tremendous effort to rationalize DT’s election by searching for the causes—racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, unemployment, income inequality, political dysfunction, Hillary hatred, God's will, Satan’s revenge, etc.—that could possibly lead to such a disastrous effect. Furthermore, all the pundits and prognosticators who got it wrong the first time around are busy trying to find a silver lining in DT’s election, hoping against hope that DT the candidate will be different from DT the president. They are hoping that, faced with real problems in the real world, DT will stop bullshitting and start being reasonable. He is a businessman, after all; he’s practical, so maybe he will start doing practical, business-like things. They hope. Maybe he doesn’t mean what he says. They hope. Maybe he’ll surprise us all and turn out to be an okay president. They hope.

This is folly.

Throughout the election people begged DT to change his ways—to temper his language, education himself on policy issues, prepare for the debates, become more “presidential” etc.—and he ignored them. To think that DT will now somehow morph into a more responsible and thoughtful person out of respect for the office of president is pure fantasy. Thinking doesn’t get much more magical. It’s like asking a bird to be a fish. DT does not respect the office of the president, or anyone or anything. He only respects himself. He only listens to himself. He is solipsism incarnate. Ego personified. His mind is an echo chamber of self-affirmation. The worst part is, the affirmation DT is receiving from the world is precisely what DT tells himself: I am right, I am smarter than everyone else, and anyone who says otherwise is an ugly, idiotic loser.

The desire to look for that silver sheen rather than acknowledge the cloud for what it is—a dark, menacing harbinger of thunder and chaos—is understandable. But there are ways to look at the cloud, recognize the danger, and find shelter from the storm.

DID WE JUST ELECT A SOCIOPATHIC NARCISSIST?

Many reasonable people befuddled by DT’s antics have tried to explain them with various forms of freshman psychology. He’s a bully who is a cowardly nub of a man underneath it all. He’s a man who lives large to compensate for smallness in other areas. He’s a man who didn’t get enough attention from his mommy as a kid. And it’s true, DT’s entire life looks like a monument to his super-sized ego, a gleaming tower of babble, spit-shined with the sweat and tears of others, for the sole purpose of reflecting his own perceived greatness back at him.

Thinking about DT using common psychological tropes is a mistake, however, because his true psychology is much more devious and dangerous.

Recently, while working on an unrelated project, I did a great deal of research on the behavior of narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths: what motivates them, how they see the world, what it’s like to live in their psyche, and most important, how they differ from the rest of the population. I am no expert on the subject, but it strikes me that understanding how sociopaths view the world may be a particularly useful lens through which to view the current American predicament.

Opinion varies on whether DT is a narcissist, sociopath, psychopath, megalomaniac, or some special blend of psychological disorders that has yet to be named. (For the rest of this article, DT will be referred to as a sociopath, even though he may very well be a full-blown psychopath. Some psychologists use these terms interchangeably, and some see distinctions, but all are part of a spectrum of personality disorders that are difficult to parse.) At least one clinical psychologist, George Simon, thinks DT is such a textbook example of various personality disorders that he uses videotape of DT to teach seminars in how sociopaths and psychopaths manipulate people. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes,” he says. “He’s a dream come true.”

At the very least, DT is a textbook example of an abusive, narcissistic sociopath. The delusions of grandeur, the need for attention, the habitual lying, the callous disregard for other people’s feelings, the fragile ego beneath it all . . . look it up. The diagnosis fits like one of Ivanka’s gloves.

As it happens, however, sociopaths often do very well in a capitalistic society. Many of the most successful CEOs and lawyers in this country are clinical sociopaths, because these fields disproportionately reward people who are smart, aggressive, driven, and calculating, as well as those who don’t really care how their actions affect others. Some researchers have even suggested that sociopathy is an evolutionary adaptation to the conditions of modern existence, since the emotional detachment necessary for expedient decision-making can be a strategic advantage in human interactions, particularly if one party is trying to persuade, manipulate, or cheat the other one.

Sociopaths are not all bad, either. They can be smart, charming, and charismatic. When they are on their best behavior, they can be the life of the party. They often radiate a confident energy that other people find attractive, and talk about things that others find superficially interesting. In a recent New York Times article, Gail Collins recalled how DT had once objected to a column she wrote by sending her a copy of the piece on which he had written, “The face of a dog!” The next time she saw him was at a lunch meeting where “he told interesting jokes about how much money he got for product placements on his TV show.” For those who think DT is crazy, she reminded her readers that “if you met DT at a private social occasion, you would probably find him to be a fairly pleasant person.”

What she just described is a casual meeting with a sociopath.

SOCIOPATHS VS. THE REST OF US

The difference between sociopaths and actually pleasant people is that sociopaths have a dark hole in their psyche that is much deeper and emptier than most people can imagine. Yes, they can be charming, but they use their charm to disarm people, to convince them to let their critical guard down—to earn their trust. Why? Because it is much easier to manipulate and deceive someone who trusts you. What sociopaths do best is lie to your face, then stab you in the back. That’s their core skillset.

This characterization could apply to virtually every politician in the land, of course. And it does, to an extent, because a certain amount of sociopathy is necessary to thrive in the American political system. The difference is that DT not a normal politician, and his psychological makeup is several magnitudes more disturbing than anyone who has ever held the presidency. There is no template or precedent for DT. The person he most closely resembles is a Bond villain. He may not yet have a plan to take over the world (that would mean having a plan, after all), but in the next four years his bizarre psychology will be on full, spectacular display for all to see.

Trust me, things are about to get very weird. Mystifying decisions will be made. Odd alliances will surface. Mind-melting nonsense will flood the media. Reason, logic, and sanity will seem like quaint vestiges of a bygone era. Coherence and meaning will be as elusive as DT’s tax returns. The world will look like it is coming apart at the seams. Understanding how sociopaths think—why they do what they do, and why their behavior seems so strange and unsettling to the rest of us—may be an important key to surviving it all.

NO, HE WILL NOT CHANGE

Let’s start by dispensing with the idea that DT will change once he’s in office.

It has been said a thousand times: DT is a liar, bigot, racist, misogynist, bully, and hate-monger who appeals to humanity’s basest impulses. To hope any of this this will change just because he’s been elected president is—well—that’s what normal people do when faced with the contradictions of an abusive sociopath. They hope the mean, horrible, unthinkable things he says and does aren’t the “real” him—and pray, against all evidence to the contrary, that the charming, charismatic surface character he portrays at the office and at dinner parties (or on television) is his truer self, and that somehow the better side of his nature will prevail.

This is how normal, decent, rational people get hoodwinked by these kinds of people. Sociopaths rely on regular people to believe that everyone is playing by the same rule book, and that they believe the same things you do. They are not, and do not. Sociopaths believe you are a dupe for believing them, and amuse themselves by trying to figure out how to take advantage of your gullibility. That’s the trick DT used to ascend to the highest office in the land, and it is the trick he will try to play with the rest of the world. And why not? DT has spent his entire privileged, entitled life taking advantage of people. Why? Because to a sociopath, that’s what people are for!

And guess what? It works.

The reason DT can hire contractors and architects to build his projects, then weasel out of paying them without losing a wink of sleep, is that he doesn’t care about the contractors or the architects as people. Their just pawns in his game, and if the game allows him to get away with not paying them—by suing them, or bullying them, or calling their work crap—that’s the smart play. The same goes for taxes; not paying them by using bankruptcy law to his own advantage is just a logical strategic move. Ethics and values are for saps. His treatment of women is no different. He walks in on naked beauty-pageant contestants because he can, and because the contestants aren’t people to him; they are just a collection of more-or-less fabulous body parts for him to ogle. Likewise, he will say anything about anybody, because he does not care—nor is he capable of caring—how hurtful his words might be. In fact, if hurting someone is necessary to gain a strategic advantage in a given situation, he will do it every time.

In DT’s mind, his willingness to hurt people, and their powerlessness to hurt him back, is a kind of superpower. Right now, what that means to DT’s lizard brain is that he is temporarily invulnerable. He won the election, after all, so people are duty-bound to respect him, or at least pretend to. Democracy has certain protocols for the so-called “peaceful transfer of power,” and he will take advantage of every one of them, because he is counting on the civilized world to act toward him as if he is a normal person who deserves the respect that comes with the highest office in the land. He is not, and has proven it over and over again a thousand times—but he is a sociopath, so he is counting on everyone else to give him the benefit of the doubt. And he knows they will, because he’s also a life-long abuser and a bully. He knows people are afraid of him, and he likes it that way, because it gives him power over them. As he moves into the White House and assumes genuine power—a privilege he will immediately begin abusing—he will remind everyone that hey, he won the election and Hillary didn’t, so it is your job, as a citizen, to let him exercise all that immense power. When the shit hits the fan, as it inevitably will, he will ask the American people to trust him—because, even though things may look bad, he has their best interests at heart. (This is what people want to hear, and he knows it, which is why he will say it, over and over again.) And when things get really bad, he will blame it all on someone else—Obama, Hillary, Democrats, Republicans, his cabinet, ISIS, Iranians, Putin, God, whoever—and insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is the solution, not the problem.

THE BIG LIE

If it’s any consolation, a good portion of the planet has the same problem we do: what (or how) to think about DT. To the rest of the world, he personifies all the worst traits of the infamous ugly American. He’s an arrogant, ignorant, vulgar, contemptuous philistine—and proud of it. In order to get around that, we need to find new ways of understanding the clusterfuck of chaos that is going to rain down on us, and new ways of talking about the strange and mystifying realities that are going to be competing for our attention in the coming years.

Take the idea of lying, for instance. It gets pointed out and proven and fact-checked over and over again that roughly eighty percent of everything that comes out of DT’s mouth is a lie. Calling what DT says a “lie” misses the point entirely, however. DT does not “lie” in the way normal people understand the term, because lying in that way implies that the liar knows “the truth,” but is choosing to say something else. This is not how DT’s mind works. In his mind, he does not “lie” in the conventional sense, because he does not subscribe to any form of truth other than his own. Other people can lie about him, of course, when they challenge his version of reality. But to DT, there is no such thing as a lie, there are only different ways to arrange words in order get the results he wants. He attaches no value to the words that come out of his mouth beyond how other people react to them, and if people react the way he wants them to, then he has chosen the right words. End of story. Whether other people consider what he says “true” or “false” is entirely irrelevant. To DT, people who are tying themselves up in knots trying to separate his facts from his fiction are dupes. They are morons chasing their tails in a value system he does not recognize—a value system which, in fact, he enjoys manipulating. DT loves nothing more than to accuse other people of lying about him, in what amounts to a perpetual game of “I’m rubber, your glue.” To him, it’s fun, because it frustrates people and puts them on the defensive. If someone accuses him, he accuses them back. If someone sues him, he sues them back. That’s what he does, and has been doing, his entire life. Any actual legal trouble he settles quietly, out of court, and life goes on. That’s the system, and he takes full advantage of it.   

DT uses normal people’s expectations of truth and honesty against them in a kind of moral sleight-of-hand. Think of it as a magician’s trick. Magicians create a distraction in one hand while they pull off the deception in the other. The distraction in DT’s case is the impossible tangle of lies and half-truths and absurdities that come out of his mouth. Bigger lies make for a better distraction. That’s why, when more than a dozen women come out of the woodwork accusing him of sexual assault, DT did not admit any wrongdoing (remember, in his mind he can do no wrong), he doubled-down on “the truth” and accused them all of lying. That they could all be lying is patently absurd, but that does not matter at the level DT is playing the game. While everyone in the world of normative values was busy trying to figure out how awful a sexual predator DT is (the distraction), he was busy casting himself on the campaign trail as a victim of political correctness run amok, reminding people that the country is under attack by radical Mexican-Muslim jihadi serial rape killers, and promising his minions that, if elected, he will give each of them a pickup truck full of rainbows and stardust.

And it worked. DT convinced half the people in this country to vote for him, and in America, fooling half the population enough. Many of the folks who voted for him may have thought things couldn’t get much worse for them, or that some change—any change—is better than no change at all. Well, they’re about to find out. Creative destruction is how capitalism refreshes itself, and how democracies transfer power without spilling blood. Err too far on the side of destruction, however, and all bets are off.

Thus far, all of DTs prevarications and bluster have been in service of his greater goal, to win the presidency. I submit to you, however, that the presidency is but a stepping stone to another, larger goal of which we are not yet aware. Normal people think of the presidency as a position of great power and responsibility. DT may think of it as neither. He may merely think of it as a business opportunity. Or as a joke (me, president?). Or as a way to exact revenge on everyone who has mocked him all these years. Or he may just do things to prove he can, because he’s president. Or he may get tired of it and resign. No one knows.

The big mistake is to believe that DT will ever change, that he will ever tell “the truth” as most of us understand the term, or that he will ever do anything, for any reason, that does not benefit him personally in some way, shape, or form. He won’t change, because he can’t change. This is the way his brain is wired, and the world’s reward system has declared him the “winner” time and time again, so why should he change?

NORMALIZING THE ABNORMAL

There is a feeling the world over that America has jumped the shark by electing DT. It is absurd, and yet it is also true. It was “unthinkable” a week ago, yet it is now our reality. The surreal feeling many people have been experiencing since the election is the human mind trying to make sense of the non-sensical, of being forced to accept a truth that cannot possibly be true. The human mind needs explanations and reasons, cause and effect need to be connected. And so, now, the great normalization begins—the process of telling ourselves that the nation hasn’t gone nuts, that there must be a rational explanation for DT’s ascendance, that the insanity of the electorate is really (we hope) a sane reaction to the current insanity of American life.

In a couple of weeks, the idea of DT as president will have sunk in, and most of us will, out of necessity, find a way to accept it and try to move on. Soon, the idea of president DT will feel almost normal. Indeed, this normalizing of the abnormal has already begun.

Part of the normalizing of DT is the idea that because he is the president-elect, Americans must respect him and give him a chance—that we should all suspend our judgment of him for the time being, give him the benefit of the doubt, and see what happens. But it is possible to respect the office without respecting the man. And if you respect the office, you owe it to the country to subject everything DT says and does to intense and ruthless scrutiny, from Day One.

Suspending judgment of DT’s character and actions, even for a short while, is the sort of dangerous, wishy-washy, shoulder-shrugging complacence that will allow him—buffeted by majorities in both the House and Senate, a compliant Supreme Court, and the crippled state of contemporary journalism—to run the country into the ground (or up in smoke). If DT starts appointing people from the island of misfit politicians (Sarah Palin for Secretary of the Interior, for instance, Newt Gingrich for Secretary of State, or Rudy Giuliani for attorney general), that would be a clue to dust off your critical-thinking skills. His appointment of campaign-manager Steve Bannon—the addled brain behind the Trump fanboy site Breitbart.com—as his "chief strategest," should be a fairly clear indication that every word coming out of the White House for the next four years will be even more shameless propaganda than usual.

(Note: The apparent mind-meld between DT and alt-right zealot Steve Bannon is frightening all on its own. If you’ve gotten this far, and still think I’m exaggerating the potential insanity of the Trump presidency, please, please, please at least watch this trailer for the latest film Steve Bannon produced and directed. It’s called Torchbearer, and stars Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson as a modern-day prophet lamenting the fall of mankind in the scariest possible way you can imagine. This, friends, is the man behind DT’s message. And the reason you don’t know about it is that the news sources you rely upon don’t (gasp!) take Duck Dynasty seriously.)

These are not difficult signs to see. Remember, the last time we elected a dim-witted Republican who doesn’t read and makes decisions with his gut, we got a trillion-dollar war and the world financial system almost collapsed. Republicans, too, should be worried, because DT isn’t really a Republican, he’s an independent blowhard who co-opted the Republican party and used it pretty much the way he uses everyone else.

Because that’s what sociopaths do. Let the psychodrama begin.