The Political Psychology of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is one of the most divisive and controversial candidates in contemporary American politics. Seen as a courageous straight talker by some and a boorish loudmouth by others, Trump has certainly instigated a number of challenges to the traditional political order.

Two characterizations concerning Trump seem to dominate the public discourse: One is that Trump’s speech patterns and judgments seem incoherent and shifting, and that he therefore must really have no political philosophy at all. The other is that Trump is a fascist and dictatorial demagogue; an ugly apparition of the 1930s rearing its head again. I think both of these characterizations are misguided and that they prevent us from getting a clearer picture of what Trump is all about.

There are two prongs here: One is the psychological properties of Trump’s cognition and personality, and the other is a matter of historical analogy.

If we start with the historical analogy, Trump is not a fascist. The precise political analogy is that he is a European style right-wing populist, akin to the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Front Nationale, Alternative für Deutschland, and so on. These parties are sometimes referred to as “far right” parties, but they are really only far-right on immigration: In matters of economic policy, they are frequently left of more traditional right-wing parties. With regards to Trump, apart from protectionism in matters of trade, we don’t yet know much about the economic policies he will favor, but one study concerning the political preferences of Trump supporters found that they supported economic policies that were significantly to the left of all other GOP candidates in the 2016 primaries. Thus with his extreme scepticism of immigration and his centrist economic policies it makes more sense to see Trump as an American version of a European right-wing populist, and not a fascist. Trump’s opponents make the legitimate point that he really doesn’t seem to care too much about rule of law, the division of powers, and the principles of the constitution. But to be fair, many left-wing candidates have also instigated unconstitutional policies, which have been upheld by judges through judicial activism and judicial review, without them getting accused of being fascists. If Trump is a fascist, then so, presumably, are they. It doesn’t hold up.

Then there is the psychological question of Trump’s personality and cognition. Trump is strikingly incoherent in his speech patterns and very often changes his opinions. For this reason, his opponents often claim that Trump doesn’t have a political philosophy at all. But to understand Donald Trump from a psychological perspective, we must distinguish between political stances and a person’s approach to politics in general.

Trump’s approach to politics can best be described as transactional and realistic. By transactional, I mean that Trump applies the logic of business to the domain of politics. While the two overlap, each discipline also has areas where their traditional reasoning styles are distinct. Now, Trump often explains this inclination by reference to the fact that he is a businessman. But that can’t be the whole story. Mitt Romney was also a businessman (and by most accounts, a far more successful one than Trump). But while Romney also applied his business acumen to solve certain political challenges, such as cost-cutting at home, he nevertheless conceded that in matters of global stability and foreign policy, a more traditional style of political reasoning would be more suitable.

Trump doesn’t agree with that – he proposes to apply the transactional logic of business to politics across the board. His own explanation – that he is a businessman – is not sufficient to explain this preference. Part of the explanation must also be found in his personality, which is that of a supreme realist. Extreme realism and the transactional outlook define lion’s share of Trump’s approach to politics. He asks: “What will the bottom-line be, and if I’m going to help you, what have you done for me lately?”

For example, the European countries have been free-riding off the defence spending of the United States for decades. Since they are allied with the US through NATO, they bank on the United States’ military being so strong that they don’t need to uphold a military that can defend their own countries. The European countries know that the United States has not been willing to leave them to their fates, since the US has an interest in keeping their part of the world stable, pro-Western and safe. But why should the United States strive to keep Europe safe? It all has to do with amorphous, long-term interests, such as containing Russia and fostering an international community that believes in liberal democracy and Western values. Thus, no American president has dared to scale back America’s engagement in Europe, even though they all know full well that the Europeans are free riding on America’s defence. But such abstract, long-term interests that have no immediate payoff now, are precisely the types of priorities that get relegated to the back seat of consciousness by Trump’s transactional and immediacy-oriented cognition. If the question is “what have you done for me lately,” the European countries have been lying on the couch, munching Doritos and watching reruns of bad sitcoms, while the United States has been busting itself working two jobs to keep both their continents safe.

In an unprecedented move among US presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump has said that under his leadership, America would not necessarily come to the aid of a NATO ally under attack. Trump says that to determine that question, he would first consider how much the ally in question has contributed to the alliance. His precise words were that he would come to the aid of an ally only “if they fulfil their obligations to us.” The transactional disposition is evident here. “We’ll only scratch your back if you scratch ours.” This is the logic of business, and not of grand scale geopolitics where superpowers may often end up with freeriding client states. Now, we’re not saying that Trump is wrong to employ this logic – that’s for you to decide. But it’s definitely wrong when people say that Trump doesn’t have an approach to politics. He’s transactional and looks to immediate reality which he perceives viscerally and without the filter of traditional morality.

The realism and transactional disposition can’t really be separated. They must be seen in conjunction if we are to understand Trump’s psyche. Nonetheless, the realism can be seen especially clearly when Trump is talking about immigration. Now most people in their morality distinguish between the world as it is and the world as it should be. But to Trump, these two are intertwined. His cognition is so reality-focused that it is reality itself that determines the morality of a given behavior. Thus, concerning the wave of terror attacks in Europe, Trump has said:

“We have problems in Germany, and we have problems in France … They have been compromised by terrorism. … They have totally been. … And you know why? It’s their own fault. Because they allowed people to come into their territory.”

In other words, he is placing the blame, not on the terrorists, but on what the most likely outcome will be from of a given type of behavior. The outcome of an action and the morality of it are inseparably bundled up together in his cognition. It’s like a certain pick up artist who once said:

“If a woman got raped, that is a sad thing. It’s a bad thing. But whose fault is it? Is it the woman’s fault? No, I’m not saying that. … But a woman can do things to reduce the likelihood that she will get hurt. If I get a BMW car right now and I leave the key inside and park it in a bad area and it gets robbed, whose fault is that? Is it the thief’s fault, or is it my fault for being a moron?”

One should not succumb here to the fallacy of thinking that just because the blame may logically belong on the shoulders of the one party or the other, then that is also how things must be psychologically in the minds of actual people. Especially not when dealing with supremely reality-oriented people like Donald Trump. The point is that in his cognition, he is not inclined to look to some imagined pie in the sky for how to relate to the world. The moral status of an action is to a large extent determined by how the world is, free of references to principles and abstractions.

This type of reasoning was also on display when Trump said John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured. Now, this is perhaps not the finest instance of Trump’s reasoning, but I select it because it shows how Trump’s cognitive style prioritizes objective reality over all other competing considerations. If the guy is such a war hero, then why did he allow himself to be captured?

Just like with his position on NATO, where the immediately evident free-riding of European states takes precedent over more long-term and amorphous considerations about maintaining an American world order, the immediate physical fact of McCain being captured trumps more abstract concerns about whether people would even sign up to defend their country in the future if that is the way U.S. presidents are going to be talking about the country’s POWs.

A third example of this supremely reality-oriented cognition can be found in one of Trump’s more recent statements about the Constitution. Faced with the rejoinder that his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States might be unconstitutional, Trump responded:

“Our Constitution is great. But it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide.”