A study in shallowness: Donald Trump by Karl E. Scheibe


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

  1. Is uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention.
  2. Interaction with others is often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior
  3. Displays rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions
  4. Consistently uses physical appearance to draw attention to self
  5. Has a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail
  6. Shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion
  7. Is suggestible, i.e. easily influenced by others or circumstances
  8. Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are

(p. 714)

And here are the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
  3. 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)
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

(p. 717)

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)





Trump: The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly



Republicans now own the shop.  They control the executive, the legislative and will choose the next U.S. Supreme Court justice who will unlock the current 4 to 4 balance.  The ball is theirs and they will have few excuses for any lack of success with their initiatives.


Trump now must perform after a campaign was based on reality TV. Trump has to figure out to address his stated priorities: healthcare, immigration and jobs.  He also has to follow through or totally back off on his trade and protectionist rhetoric.  While he can set up barriers, he cannot reverse globalization, especially when it comes to the flow of information.  The digital world will escape his control.  Ideologically, Trump, a self- confessed narcissist, will have a hard time facing up to and constructively dealing with all the multifaceted demands of the job.  There is a possibility that he could be impeached (numerous civil suits are ongoing) and, while remote, some woman could still bring evidence to press charges on sexual assault or some hidden tax fraud.


A final good thing that comes to mind is the absolute trashing of both the Republican and Democratic party structures.   The Democrats, expecting a relatively easy win over the unprofessional and “naïve” Trump, lost the Senate and the presidency as well as performing poorly across the country at the state and local levels.  The so-called Republican establishment is still coming to terms and like the Democrats must redefine their focus, who they represent and what they stand for.  Bernie Sanders is certainly pushing in this direction.  Trump, on the other hand, probably does not have the intellectual and political depth to reorder the Republican party.  This will be left to a struggle between the likes of say Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, and the alt.right ringer Stephen Bannon who was Trump’s campaign CEO and now has been appointed Chief Strategist.  At any rate, the US political structure overall has lost its legitimacy especially with anyone younger than the baby-boomers and even with them so the process of rethinking could be healthy.


Bad: Trump’s promised economic policy of tax cuts for the rich will certainly increase the already large budget deficit (Reagan and other Republicans have done the same even though they decry debt).  His promised spending programs without increased government revenues will be inflationary.  His foreign and trade policies promise to create instability with the possibility of trade wars with China and Mexico.  Certainly his promise to slap high tariffs on imported products will inflate prices at Walmart where many of his voters like to shop.


Very Ugly: The Brazilian and other foreign press are already reporting assaults on minorities.  If Trump does not restrain his apparently enthusiastic support of the alt.right and their racially charged actions, things could get very ugly.  I don’t see Trump as a Fascist as he has not organized (as of yet) a party or movement to persecute those who don’t agree with him.  This could happen but it won’t take place without resistance.  It could get very ugly, but hopefully it won’t.  Trump has expressed himself as a sexist and for young women and girls this is an exceedingly poor example.  My own granddaughter reacted to him by saying: “He’s mean.”  That is not a good image for the President of the United States.

Of course, the major concern is that Trump could purposely or accidentally launch a nuclear war.  This is totally beyond the pale but when he says “bomb the shit” out of them, he fails to show restraint and responsibility.  His diplomacy thus far shows neither pragmatism nor practicality.  When people don’t have a sense of direction, guidance and response, most anything can happen.  Reportedly the Islamic State, Russia, Hungary and Zimbabwe are the foreign entities that have praised Trump as a positive, but it seems for their own cause and not let’s say world peace and commerce.

Obama, in step with the vast majority of the scientific community, signed the Paris Accord on climate change.  Trump promises to drop out.  If the scientific community is right, this will be a major setback that could have extremely negative consequences in the long term for our children and grandchildren.  Certainly, the debate is complex and convoluted and the climate deniers reflect the wider delegitimization of all things that have a waif of education, elitism, political correctness, and the traditional liberal (market economy) democratic (participatory) political structure.  American sociologist, Robert Bellah, wrote of civic religion and the “people’s” dedication to principles enshrined in the Constitution.  It is very ugly that political divisions have rent the shared values and it will be truly ugly if Trump pushes the country further in a direction of rich, white, parochial, nationalistic, racist, militaristic and macho ideas in his quest to make America “great” again.

Postscript:  I just watched Trump’s interview on 60 Minutes and if I were a supporter, I think I would be disappointed.  He backed off on Hillary, Obama, health care and even immigration and certainly had little to say about creating jobs for his rust-belt, white working class supporters.