I am posting an article by my brother, Karl. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wesleyan University and a practicing clinical psychologist. Here is the article, with his permission. I included the above cartoon on my own initiative.
In order to develop an understanding of psychological depth, it is useful to explore the opposite of such depth—individual shallowness. My choice of a subject for this analysis is arbitrary but not capricious. Donald Trump provides an obvious and current case study of what is meant by human shallowness. All of what I say about him, of course, is based upon my reading of what he has said about himself and about what others have said. I have never met the man and have no claim to special insights about his character. But he has chosen, in becoming a candidate for President of the United States, to lay himself open to be known and evaluated. Information about him is plentiful—but obviously partial and incomplete. With this caveat, I can at least provide some reflections on the version of this man that has been projected to the great public.
The New York Times has published an account of five hours of recorded conversations with that took place two years ago—before his run for president.[i] The interviews reveal a person who is obsessed with his own celebrity, someone who has a morbid fear not so much of failing as of being either ignored or embarrassed. He contends that he does not engage in much personal analysis, for “I may not like what I see.” He has a willful lack of interest in history, does not read books, is impatient and has a limited range of attention. He is distrustful with other people and does not, in general, respect others—because he does not view other people as warranting his respect. The interviews recount an episode in which he became angry at his former wife, Ivana, because of her skill at skiing, which made Trump’s ability appear to be inferior to hers.
After the records of Trump’s practice of engaging in unwanted sexual advances to women, he at first denied having actually taken such liberties. These denials were, of course, met with testimonies of such advances by many women, which in turn were branded by Trump as false.
These and other details of Trump’s life reinforce the conclusion that he is properly described by two closely related disorders: Histrionic Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder[ii]
Here are the prime diagnostic criteria for the first: Histrionic Personality Disorder
- Is uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention.
- Interaction with others is often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior
- Displays rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions
- Consistently uses physical appearance to draw attention to self
- Has a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail
- Shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion
- Is suggestible, i.e. easily influenced by others or circumstances
- Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are
And here are the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
My argument here is descriptive and is not an attempt to be explanatory. I am not asserting that Mr. Trump has behaved the way he has because he “has” these personality disorders. But I am asserting that his behavior fits these descriptions with uncanny accuracy.
Over the century of its modern evolution, psychology has developed an extensive amount of experience in noting the behavioral characteristics of human beings that go together. The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists ten categories of Personality Disorders.[iii] The two personality disorders that fit Mr. Trump so well are the ones that correspond to the opposite of individual depth. A person who is deep would also be a person of learning, historical appreciation, human sympathy, understanding, thoughtful, caring, altruistic, forgiving, and modesty of bearing. The figure of Abraham Lincoln comes to mind—the first Republican presidential candidate provides a neat antithesis to the most recent one.
How then could such a shallow person win election as President of the United States? A proper response to this question demands a consideration of context. A major part of that context is that the election of 2016 was preceded by eight years of Democratic rule. Also, Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, had already spent eight years in the White House—and her return would be another Clinton presidency of which we have already had eight years, within living memory for most of the electorate. Finally, Mr. Trump, in addition to being a shallow person, is without question a large person—filling the stages on which he stood, and manifesting a style that was, in many ways, that of the anti-politician—disregarding convention, propriety, good manners, and standard rules of political conduct. He was also preceded by the first black president in our history—and let us conjecture that a generalized and pervasive racism in our nation might have potentiated a reaction. Withal, the drama of everyday life demands change and abhors boredom. Trump’s very shallowness of character allowed him to act out a defiant and compelling attitude of bold change—and our electorate buried its sullen reserve, and came out to choose him in unprecedented force. The drama of history is inherently unpredictable—which is why it is worth watching.
A paradoxical advantage of having a man as President who is quite shallow is that he has no deep commitments to any action, cause or purpose that might require him to do or say something that could bring trouble. Conservatives have been deeply suspicious of Mr. Trump because of his vacillations on matters such as abortion rights, gun control, and immigration policy. My own conjecture is that Mr. Trump has nothing that would count as deep commitments on these or on any other matter of public policy. His motivation for action has derived in the past from whatever actions might best serve his own private advancement or gain. This will continue to be the case. This means that as the external winds blow, so will Mr. Trump’s commitment to policy change. I do not particularly fear his having access to the nuclear codes, for as a practical matter, no personal objectives could possibly be served by resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. He has all of the attention and glory he needs, and is assured of this continuing for the next four years. He will go with the flow in his presidency so that he might continue to bask in attention, doing nothing to jeopardize the heights he has achieved.
[i] See Michael Barbaro, nytimes.com/2016/10/26/us/politics/conald-trump-interviews.html?_
[ii] See DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statisistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association,
[iii] These are considered to be Axis II disorders, under the multiaxial system of classification. “A personality disorder an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, leads to distress or impairment. (DSM-IV-TR, p. 685)