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UNBRIDLED AND EXTREME PRESENT HEDONISM
How the Leader of the Free World Has Proven Time and Again He Is Unfit for Duty
PHILIP ZIMBARDO AND ROSEMARY SWORD
In the summer of 2015, we commenced what would become an ongoing discussion about Donald Trump. He had just thrown his hat in the ring as a Republican presidential candidate, and our initial conversation was brief: he was in it for the publicity. For us, as for many Americans, Donald Trump had been in the periphery of our consciousness for years, first as a well-publicized New York City businessman and later as a mediocre television personality. And like most, we didn’t take him seriously. Why would we have? He had no political experience, and he failed to show any real interest in philanthropy, much less in helping the American people or non-Trump businesses. His products were made outside the United States, and multiple lawsuits indicated he didn’t pay those small businesses that supplied him with goods and services. He had also created Trump University, for people who wanted to get certified in business administration, at a fee of $43,000 for one year. It was a scam—the same lessons were available online for free for anyone, and the mentors who were supposed to give students personal guidance were rarely available. Students who took Trump University to court won their lawsuits, and Trump U got dumped. Simply put, Donald Trump was a businessman interested primarily in personal gain, sometimes using unscrupulous methods.
We also knew that, for decades, Trump had flip-flopped, switching political parties—first a Democrat, then a member of the Reform Party, then a Republican, then a Democrat, and finally a Republican again. Surely, it seemed, “The Donald” was in the running merely to gain media coverage, to place himself in a better position to make even more big deals and to up-level his product line: Donald J. Trump.
Then, as the months progressed, we became increasingly concerned that, given his “straightforward” or “outsider” presentation and his charisma, he would appeal to people who were unaware of the dangers of narcissism in extremis, or of the offensive behaviors that can accompany it. While we are not trying to diagnose here (which would be close to impossible in any case), we would like to call the reader’s attention to associated behaviors that include but are not limited to condescension, gross exaggeration (lying), bullying, jealousy, fragile self-esteem, lack of compassion, and viewing the world through an “us-vs.-them” lens. Having observed the schoolyard bully tactics Trump employed during the Republican debates, and his absurdly boastful presentation during interviews, we felt it was important to raise awareness about this set of behaviors. So, in January 2016, we published an online Psychology Today column about bullies and the hostile social environments they create in schools and businesses (Sword and Zimbardo 2016a).
As Trump’s campaign, and his narcissism, gained momentum, so did our efforts to make people aware of the potential dangers he posed for our democracy. In March 2016 we published a column about the narcissistic personality (Sword and Zimbardo 2016b). In it, we shared clinically documented narcissistic behaviors, hoping it would be easy for readers to come to their own conclusions that Trump fit every example. We did not mention his numerous romantic dalliances, or the growing number of sexual harassment lawsuits he faced, or his three marriages, in which he traded up for younger, more beautiful women. Each of these, on its own, is not exceptional, but it doesn’t take a mental health professional to determine that these behaviors, coupled with his ever-shifting political party affiliations (changes that could be viewed as having been made to bolster his image and ego), indicated that this person’s main focus was self-interest, and were incongruent with one important character trait the American people have come to appreciate in their president—at least up until November 2016: stability.
Furthermore, through our observations, it was glaringly apparent, based on Zimbardo’s time perspective theory (Zimbardo and Boyd 2009), later developed into time perspective therapy by Sword and Sword (Zimbardo, Sword, and Sword 2012), that Trump embodied a specific personality type: an unbridled, or extreme, present hedonist. As the words suggest, present hedonists live in the present moment, without much thought of any consequences of their actions or of the future. An extreme present hedonist will say whatever it takes to pump up his ego and to assuage his inherent low self-esteem, without any thought for past reality or for the potentially devastating future outcomes from off-the-cuff remarks or even major decisions. Trump’s behavior indicates that his time perspectives are totally unbalanced. It’s not necessary for him to take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (either the long or short forms) in order for us to come to this conclusion. Our assertion that Trump qualifies as among the most extreme present hedonists we have ever witnessed comes from the plethora of written and recorded material on him, including all his interviews, hundreds of hours of video, and his own tweets on his every personal feeling.
What follows is meant to help readers understand how we’ve come to the conclusion that Donald Trump displays the most threatening time perspective profile, that of an extreme present hedonist, and is therefore “unfit for duty.”
Time Perspective Theory and Time Perspective Therapy (TPT)
We are all familiar with the three main time zones: the past, the present, and the future. In TPT, these time zones are divided into subsets: past positive and past negative, present hedonism and present fatalism, and future positive and future negative. When one of these time perspectives is weighed too heavily, we can lose out on what’s really happening now and/or lose sight of what could happen in our future. This can cause us to be unsteady, unbalanced, or temporally biased.
Being out of balance in this way also shades the way we think, and negatively impacts our daily decision making. For instance, if you are stuck in a past negative experience, you might think that from now on everything that happens to you will be negative. Why even bother planning for your future? you might think. It’s just going to continue to be same old bad stuff. Or, if you are an extreme present hedonist adrenaline junky intent on spiking your adrenal glands, then you might engage in risky behaviors that unintentionally endanger you or others because you are living in the moment and not thinking about the future consequences of today’s actions. If you are out of balance in your future time perspective, constantly thinking and worrying about all the things you have on your endless to-do list, you might forget about or miss out on the everyday, wonderful things happening in your life and the lives of your loved ones in the here and now.
SIX MAIN TIME PERSPECTIVES IN TPT
1. Past positive people focus on the good things that have happened.
2. Past negative people focus on all the things that went wrong in the past.
3. Present hedonistic people live in the moment, seeking pleasure, novelty, and sensation, and avoiding pain.
4. Present fatalistic people feel that planning for future decisions is not necessary because predetermined fate plays the guiding role in one’s life.
5. Future positive people plan for the future and trust that things will work out.
6. Future negative people feel the future is predetermined and apocalyptic, or they have no future orientation.
THREE MAIN TP BIASES
1. Past bias: Good and bad things happen to everyone. Some of us view the world through rose-colored glasses (past positive), whereas others see the world through a darker lens (past negative). We have found that people who focus primarily on the past value the old more than the new; the familiar over the novel; and the cautious, conservative approach over the daring, more liberal or riskier one.
2. Present bias: People who live in the present are far less, or not at all, influenced by either past experiences or future considerations. They focus only on the immediate present—what’s happening now (present hedonism). Decisions are based on immediate stimulus: internal hormonal signals, feelings, smells, sounds, the attractive qualities of the object of desire, and what others are urging them to do. Present-biased people who are influenced by past negative experiences are likely to feel stuck in the mire of the past now (present fatalism).
3. Future bias: No one is born thinking about how to plan for the future. A number of conditions, including living in a temperate zone (where it’s necessary to anticipate seasonal change), living in a stable family or stable economic/political society (where a person learns to trust promises made to him), and becoming educated, can create future-positive-oriented people. In general, future-oriented people do very well in life. They are less aggressive, are less depressed, have more energy, take care of their health, have good impulse control, and have more self-esteem. Those stuck in the past, and locked into negative memories, feel fatalistic about the present and may have lost the ability even to conceive of a hopeful future (future negative).
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Time Perspectives
Through years of research, we have discovered that people who live healthy, productive, optimistic lives share the following traits—what we call an “ideal time perspective”:
• High past positive/low past negative;
• Low present fatalism/moderate selected present hedonism; and
• Moderately high future-positive orientation.
Conversely, we have found that people with pessimistic time perspectives, usually due to trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, or posttraumatic stress, share the following time perspective profile:
• High past negative/low past positive;
• High present fatalism and/or high present hedonism; and
• Low future/no future orientation.
Having a dose of selected present hedonism in one’s overall time perspective profile is important because enjoying oneself and having fun is a healthy part of life. Yet, too much of a good thing can cause numerous problems.
Present Hedonism and Arrested Emotional Development
As just mentioned, present hedonists live and act in the moment, frequently with little to no thought of the future, or the consequences of their actions. Most children and teenagers are present hedonists. Each day, they build on past experiences, but their concept of the future is still under development. People suffering from arrested emotional development, usually caused by a childhood trauma, are also present hedonists. Without therapy, the ability to mature emotionally beyond the age of trauma is difficult to impossible. When they reach adulthood, they may be able to hide their lack of emotional maturity for periods, but then, when in a stressful situation, they revert to behaving the emotional age they were when they were first traumatized. Depending on the degree to which the childhood trauma affected the person suffering from arrested emotional development, they may find that, over time, their present-hedonistic time perspective has morphed into extreme present hedonism.
Without proper individual assessment, we can only make a best guess as to whether Donald Trump suffers from arrested emotional development, which may or may not be a factor in his extreme present hedonism. Yet, with access to the extensive amount of print and video media exposing his bullying behavior, his immature remarks about sex, and his childlike need for constant attention, we can speculate that the traumatizing event was when he was sent away to military school at the age of thirteen. According to one of his biographers, Michael D’Antonio, Trump “was essentially banished from the family home. He hadn’t known anything but living with his family in a luxurious setting, and all of a sudden he’s sent away” (Schwartzman and Miller 2016). This would help explain his pubescent default setting when confronted by others.
Extreme Present Hedonism
An extreme present hedonist will say or do anything at any time for purposes of self-aggrandizement and to shield himself from previous (usually negatively perceived) activities, with no thought of the future or the effect of his actions. Coupled with a measure of paranoia, which is the norm, extreme present hedonism is the most unpredictable and perilous time perspective due to its “action” component. Here’s how it works:
The extreme present hedonist’s impulsive thought leads to an impulsive action that can cause him to dig in his heels when confronted with the consequences of that action. If the person is in a position of power, then others scramble either to deny or to find ways to back up the original impulsive action. In normal, day-to-day life, this impulsiveness leads to misunderstandings, lying, and toxic relationships. In the case of Donald Trump, an impulsive thought may unleash a stream of tweets or verbal remarks (the action), which then spur others to try to fulfill, or deny, his thoughtless action.
Case in point: Trump’s impulsive tweet “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” (Associated Press 2017) caused members of his staff to scramble to find evidence to make the false and slanderous claim “real.” That one extreme present hedonistic tweet has led, ironically, to multiple investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible Russian connections at the expense of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.
Another concerning characteristic of extreme present hedonists is the often unwitting—we like to give some extreme present hedonists the benefit of the doubt—propensity to dehumanize others in order to feel superior. This lack of foresight and compassion is also a trait of narcissism and bullying, which we address later in this chapter.
Donald Trump’s Extreme Present Hedonistic Quotes
It could be argued that almost anyone can be presented in a negative light when scrutinized or quoted out of context. However, when one runs for the highest office in the land, and then wins that prize, such scrutiny is expected. In the case of Donald Trump, a rich trove of recorded examples gives us a strong picture of the inner workings of his unbalanced psyche. The following well-known quotes, which we’ve organized into categories—some of them overlap multiple categories—compiled by Michael Kruse and Noah Weiland for Politico Magazine (“Donald Trump’s Greatest Self Contradictions,” May 5, 2016) illustrate his extreme present hedonistic penchant for off-roading from his script and/or saying or tweeting whatever pops into his mind, making things up, repeating fake news, or simply lying:
• “Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition” (The Art of the Deal, 1987).
• “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have a lot of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Republican rally speech, June 16, 2015).
• “Written by a nice reporter. Now the poor guy. You ought to see this guy” (remark made while contorting his face and moving his arms and hands around awkwardly, at a campaign rally in South Carolina, November 24, 2015, about journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that can limit joint movement or lock limbs in place).
• “Made in America? @BarackObama called his ‘birthplace’ Hawaii ‘here in Asia’” (Twitter, November 18, 2011).
• “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down … And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering” (at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, November 21, 2015). The next day, This Week host, George Stephanopoulos, pointed out that “the police say that didn’t happen.” Trump insisted otherwise: “It was on television. I saw it happen.”
• “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” (Twitter, November 27, 2016).
• “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her—wherever” (remarks during CNN interview with regard to Megyn Kelly, following the previous night’s Fox News debate co-moderated by Kelly in which Kelly asked Trump about his misogynistic treatment of women, August 7, 2015).
• “Look at that face! Would anybody vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?… I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” (remarks in Rolling Stone interview with regard to Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, September 9, 2015).
• “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy … You can do anything” (off-camera boast recorded over a hot mic by Access Hollywood in 2005 and published by the Washington Post in October 2016).
• “The world is a vicious and brutal place. We think we’re civilized. In truth, it’s a cruel world and people are ruthless. They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you … Even your friends are out to get you: they want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife, and they even want your dog. Those are your friends; your enemies are even worse!” (Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life, 2007).
• “My motto is ‘Hire the best people, and don’t trust them’” (Think Big: Make It Happen in Business and Life, 2007).
• “If you have smart people working for you, they’ll try to screw you if they think they can do better without you” (Daily Mail, October 30, 2010).
• “You haven’t been called, go back to Univision” (when dismissing Latino reporter Jorge Ramos at an Iowa rally, August 2015).
• “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” (at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina, December 2015).
• “Look at my African American over here. Look at him” (at a campaign appearance in California, June 2016).
• “I’m, like, a really smart person” (during an interview in Phoenix, Arizona, July 11, 2015).
• “It’s very hard for them to attack me on my looks, because I’m so good looking” (in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, August 7, 2015).
• “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.… My primary consultant is myself” (from MSNBC interview, March 16, 2016).
Trump also exhibits two generally known personality traits that, when combined with extreme present hedonism, amplify our concern: narcissism and bullying behavior. In order to help readers understand the complexities of narcissists and bullies, how these two characteristics dovetail with extreme present hedonism, and demonstrate how the president displays these predispositions, we’ve condensed years of study on these two subjects.
The Narcissistic Personality
I alone can fix it.
Donald Trump, Republican National Convention, July 2016
In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud introduced narcissism as part of his psychoanalytic theory. Throughout the ensuing decades, it was refined and sometimes referred to as megalomania or severe egocentrism. By 1968, the condition had evolved into the diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic people are out of balance in that they think very highly of themselves while simultaneously thinking very lowly of all those whom they consider their inferiors, which is mostly everybody. Narcissists are emotional, dramatic, and can lack compassion and empathy, as those traits are about feeling for others.
What follows are some of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. (Note that because this is about narcissists, we use the term you.)
• Believing that you’re better than others: This is across the board in your world; you look down your nose at other people.
• Fantasizing about power, success, and attractiveness: You are a superhero, among the most successful in your field; you could grace the cover of GQ or Glamour magazine, and you don’t realize this is all in your mind.
• Exaggerating your achievements or talents: Your ninth-place showing in the golf tournament becomes first place to those who weren’t there and, if you’re brazen enough, even to those who were. Although you plunked poorly on a guitar in high school before you lost interest in the instrument, you tell others you took lessons from Carlos Santana.
• Expecting constant praise and admiration: You want others to acknowledge when you do anything and everything, even if it’s taking out the garbage.
• Believing that you’re special and acting accordingly: You believe you are God’s gift to women/men/your field/the world, and that you deserve to be treated as such by everyone. They just don’t know this.
• Failing to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings: You don’t understand why people get upset with you for telling it the way you think it is or what you think they did wrong.
• Expecting others to go along with your ideas and plans: There is only one way and that’s your way, so you get upset when others share their thoughts or plans because surely theirs aren’t as good as yours.
• Taking advantage of others: You take your parent’s/friend’s car/tools/credit card/clothing without asking, or cut in line in front of an elderly person, or expect something much more significant in return for doing a small favor. “What’s the big deal?”
• Expressing disdain for those whom you feel to be inferior: “That homeless person isn’t even wearing a coat or shoes in freezing weather. What an idiot!”
• Being jealous of others: You, and not so-and-so, deserved the award/trophy/praise and recognition. Also, if you think someone is more attractive/intelligent/clever or has a more prestigious car/significant other/house, you hate and curse him.
• Believing that others are jealous of you: You believe everybody wants to be you.
• Having trouble keeping healthy relationships: Your family and friends don’t understand you, so you don’t stay in touch with them anymore. You lose interest in your romantic relationships each time someone better comes along; you have recurring unsatisfying affairs.
• Setting unrealistic goals: You believe that one day you will be a CEO/president/great musician/artist/best-selling author, marry a movie star, or have Bill Gates’s billions.
• Being easily hurt and rejected: You don’t understand why people purposefully hurt your feelings, and either it takes a long time for you to get over it or you don’t ever get over it.
• Having a fragile self-esteem: Underneath it all, you are just a delicate person, which makes you special, and you don’t understand why people don’t see this about you.
• Appearing tough-minded or unemotional: Read: You act like Mr. Spock.
While some of these symptoms may come across as simply elevated personal confidence or high self-esteem, they’re different in people who have a healthy dose of confidence and self-esteem because whereas these people don’t value themselves more than they value others, the narcissist looks down on others from his lofty pedestal. The narcissistic personality frequently appears to be a conceited, pompous braggart who dominates conversations and has a sense of entitlement. He wants the best of whatever is available, and when he doesn’t get his way, he may become annoyed or angry. He becomes Mr. or Ms. Petulant in action.
Interestingly, what lies underneath this personality type is often very low self-esteem. Narcissists can’t handle criticism of any kind, and will belittle others or become enraged or condescending to make themselves feel better when they perceive they are being criticized. It’s not unusual for a narcissistic personality to be blind to his own behavior because it doesn’t fit his view of his perfect and dominant self. But a narcissistic personality can spot one of his kind a mile away, and will either put down or generally avoid that other mindless competing narcissist.
Unfortunately, narcissistic people may find their relationships falling apart. After a while, folks don’t want to be around them; all their relationships (personal, work, or school) become problems. Sometimes their finances are troublesome, too, because it’s hard to keep up their image without expensive accoutrements.
The Bully Personality
I hope Corrupt Hillary Clinton chooses Goofy Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. I will defeat them both
Donald Trump, Twitter, May 6, 2016
Bullying is defined as systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more people, whether they are students at school, peers in the workplace, or family members. Research indicates that some bullies may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, while others may have difficulty interpreting or judging social situations and other people’s actions—they interpret hostility from others when none was meant. For example, a person unintentionally bumps into a bully, who views this accident as an act of aggression; he therefore overreacts, which triggers the bully response of seeking revenge.
Bullying behavior is often learned at home from family members, such as parents or older siblings who display this form of aggression. Generally, bullying behavior is caused by stress in the bully’s life. Bullies have often been abused or are driven by their insecurities. They typically want to control and manipulate others to feel superior. The anger they feel as a result of their hurt is directed toward others. Their targets are those whom they consider weaker than they and/or different.
A bully’s actions are intentional: to cause emotional or physical injury to one or more people, usually on a repeated basis. Many readers might recall basic types of bully as portrayed in film or on television, such as Biff in Back to the Future or Eddie Haskell on the television show Leave It to Beaver. As the decades have unfolded and our technology has evolved, so have the numbers and types of bullies.
• Physical bullying occurs when people use physical actions to gain power and control over their targets. It’s easiest to identify and most likely what people think of when they think of bullying.
• Verbal bullying involves using words, statements, and name-calling to gain power and control over a target. Typically, verbal bullies use relentless insults to belittle, demean, and hurt others.
• Prejudicial bullying is based on prejudices people have toward people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations. This type of bullying can encompass all the other types of bullying. When prejudicial bullying occurs, those who are somehow considered “different” are targeted and the door is opened to hate crimes.
• Relational aggression, frequently referred to as emotional bullying, is a sneaky, insidious type of bullying that manifests as social manipulation. The goal of the relational bully is to ostracize others to gain social standing and to control others.
• Cyberbullying refers to using the Internet, cell phones, or other technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person; cyberbullying usually involves a teen or tween. If an adult is involved in this harassment, it is called cyber-harassment or cyberstalking. This form of bullying has gained momentum, as there is much less risk of being caught.
• Sexual bullying consists of repeated, harmful, and humiliating actions (sexual name-calling, crude comments, vulgar gestures, uninvited touching or sexual propositioning) that target a person sexually. It can occur in a group and can be considered a show of bravado among the perpetrators; when done one on one, it can lead to sexual assault.
If you take into account the sexual harassment/assault lawsuits that have targeted Trump over the years, you will find that he has displayed every one of these bullying types. Bullying is not “normal” and is therefore unacceptable behavior—or, at least, it was unacceptable up until the 2016 presidential election. Culturally in the past, bullying was considered a normal rite of passage (while this line of thinking may never have been realistic); it is certainly not so today. With extreme bullying becoming increasingly pervasive, often with tragic results, we can no longer view it as simply a part of growing up, much less a part of being a grown-up.
The Trump Effect
I’m gonna bomb the shit out of them!
Donald Trump during campaign rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, November 13, 2015
One person can affect an entire nation, and nowhere do we see this more clearly than with “the Trump Effect,” which was originally defined as an increase in bullying in schools caused by the rhetoric used by Donald Trump during his campaign. This particular definition of the Trump Effect—not to be confused with definitions that refer, for example, to the stock market, to Trump’s publicly skirting the truth, or to the uptick in populism in Europe—gained traction in the media as campaign season deepened and Donald Trump won the election.
In short order, the bullying crept beyond schools to include religious and racial bullying by adults. At least four mosques were burned to the ground. Jewish cemeteries across our nation have been desecrated. Two innocent Indian engineers were shot while having dinner, as was a white American who tried to intervene. One of the engineers died, but not before his killer yelled racial slurs at him that culminated in “Get out of my country!” More recently, articles about the Trump Effect have largely been replaced by continuing coverage of Trump’s tweets, his odd behavior, and his campaign team’s possibly illegal ties to Russia. However bizarre it may seem, the Trump Effect exists, and is a growing phenomenon.
A report from Maureen Costello of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Teaching Tolerance project, “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the 2016 Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools,” lays out in no uncertain terms the dire consequences of Donald Trump’s behavior. It indicates that immigrant students, children of immigrants—close to one-third of pupils in American classrooms are the children of foreign-born parents—African Americans, and other students of color were fearful, while their friends worried for them and wanted to protect them.
Yet, many children were not afraid at all. Rather, some used the name “Trump” as a taunt or chant as they ganged up on others. Muslim children were called terrorists; those of Mexican descent were told that they or their parents would be deported; children of color were afraid they would be rounded up and put into camps. The bullying caused some of these children to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
One consistent theme across grade levels emerged: the students understood that the behavior on display was not okay. Also, our research revealed that the great many people who witness such bullying do nothing, and many of these passive bystanders feel prolonged shame for their inaction against this injustice experienced by friends and classmates—another negative fallout of bullying, beyond its targeted victims.
While the long-term impact of these noxious experiences on children’s well-being may be impossible to measure, the students were stressed and anxious in a way that threatened their health, their emotional state, and their schoolwork. It is common knowledge that stressed students have a more difficult time learning, and in fact, the report indicated that there were many instances in which anxiety was having an impact on grades and was affecting students’ ability to concentrate. All students, though, regardless of whether they are members of a targeted group, are vulnerable to the stresses of the Trump Effect.
If we dive a little deeper, we realize that children are a reflection of their upbringing. More than likely, the angry acting-out of some students toward others in our schools is a reflection of what they observe in their homes. So, how has a small but active segment of our population been reacting to Donald Trump’s presidency? Statistics show that they have become even more emboldened and, in recent months, have taken to engaging in hate crimes against Jews as well as Muslims and Mexicans; speculation about Trump’s approval of white supremacist/anti-Semitic groups has emboldened them.
According to the SPLC, in the two-week period between Election Day and February 9, 2017, there were seventy anti-Jewish incidents and thirty-one anti-Muslim incidents, the majority being bomb threats. These figures are proportional to the respective populations of Jews and Muslims in the United States, which means Jews and Muslims have a roughly equal chance of being victimized.
The recent rash of desecrations of Jewish graveyards and places of worship, and the burning of mosques, should be extremely concerning to all of us as Americans, as we are a nation composed largely of immigrants. These insults against the identity of Jews and Muslims promote the dehumanization of our fellow human beings. Although the president was eventually forced to condemn the acts of anti-Semitism, in our research for this chapter, we could find little evidence of his condemnation of the attacks against American Muslims. This reluctance to serve and protect segments of his population is yet another sign for bullies that their behavior is acceptable to the man in charge.
A Scary Venn Diagram
In Donald Trump, we have a frightening Venn diagram consisting of three circles: the first is extreme present hedonism; the second, narcissism; and the third, bullying behavior. These three circles overlap in the middle to create an impulsive, immature, incompetent person who, when in the position of ultimate power, easily slides into the role of tyrant, complete with family members sitting at his proverbial “ruling table.” Like a fledgling dictator, he plants psychological seeds of treachery in sections of our population that reinforce already negative attitudes. To drive home our point, here are what we consider to be two of Trump’s most dangerous quotes:
• “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know” (remark made during a campaign rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, August 9, 2016); and
• “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters” (remark made during a campaign appearance in Sioux City, Iowa, January 23, 2016).
Before Donald Trump, it was unfathomable for American citizens to consciously consider voting for, and then inaugurating, a person as unbalanced as this president. Admittedly, it’s possible, as Guy Winch points out in his February 2, 2016, Psychology Today article, “Study: Half of All Presidents Suffered from Mental Illness.” According to Winch, many of our previous presidents may have suffered from mental health issues, including depression (Abraham Lincoln), bipolar disorder (Lyndon Johnson), alcoholism (Ulysses S. Grant), Alzheimer’s disease (Ronald Reagan), and transient bouts of extreme present hedonism (John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton). We have also survived a president who blatantly lied to cover his criminal tracks before he was caught in those lies (Richard Nixon). In the past, Americans have pulled together and worked to overcome our differences. We moved forward collectively as one great country. Unfortunately, in more recent times, it appears we have become a bipolar nation, with Donald Trump at the helm as his followers cheer him on and others try to resist him.
In presenting our case that Donald Trump is mentally unfit to be president of the United States, we would be remiss if we did not consider one more factor: the possibility of a neurological disorder such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which the president’s father, Fred Trump, suffered from. Again, we are not trying to speculate diagnoses from afar, but comparing video interviews of Trump from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s to current video, we find that the differences (significant reduction in the use of essential words; an increase in the use of adjectives such as very, huge, and tremendous; and incomplete, run-on sentences that don’t make sense and that could indicate a loss of train of thought or memory) are conspicuously apparent. Perhaps this is why Trump insists on being surrounded by family members who love and understand him rather than seasoned political advisers, who may note, and then leak, his alarming behavior.
Whether or not Donald Trump suffers from a neurological disorder—or narcissistic personality disorder, or any other mental health issue, for that matter—will, undeniably, remain conjecture unless he submits to tests, which is highly unlikely given his personality. However, the lack of such tests cannot erase the well-documented behaviors he has displayed for decades and the dangers they pose when embodied in the president of the United States.
In line with the principles of Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California 17 Cal. 3d 425 (1976), known as the “Tarasoff doctrine,” it is the responsibility of mental health professionals to warn the citizens of the United States and the people of the world of the potentially devastating effects of such an extreme present-hedonistic world leader, one with enormous power at his disposal. On the whole, mental health professionals have failed in their duty to warn, in a timely manner, not only the public but also government officials about the dangers of President Donald Trump. Articles and interviews intent on cautioning the masses prior to the election fell on deaf ears, perhaps in part because the media did not afford the concerned mental health professionals appropriate coverage, perhaps because some citizens discount the value of mental health and have thrown a thick blanket of stigma over the profession, or perhaps because we as mental health professionals did not stand united. Whatever the reason, it’s not too late to follow through.
When an individual is psychologically unbalanced, everything can teeter and fall apart if change does not occur. We wonder how far-reaching, in our society over time, the effects of our unbalanced president’s actions will be and how they will continue to affect us as individuals, communities, a nation, and a planet. We believe that Donald Trump is the most dangerous man in the world, a powerful leader of a powerful nation who can order missiles fired at another nation because of his (or a family member’s) personal distress at seeing sad scenes of people having been gassed to death. We shudder to imagine what actions might be taken in broader lethal confrontations with his personal and political enemies.
We are gravely concerned about Trump’s abrupt, capricious 180-degree shifts and how these displays of instability have the potential to be unconscionably dangerous to the point of causing catastrophe, and not only for the citizens of the United States. There are two particularly troubling examples: (1) his repeatedly lavishing praise on FBI director James Comey’s handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and then, in early May 2017, abruptly and abusively firing Comey for the very investigation that garnered such praise, but in this case actually because of Comey’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia; and (2) his stating during the campaign that NATO was obsolete and then, later, unexpectedly stating that NATO was necessary and acceptable. As is the case with extreme present hedonists, Trump is “chumming” for war, possibly for the most selfish of reasons: to deflect attention away from the Russia investigation. If another unbalanced world leader takes the bait, Trump will need the formerly “obsolete” and now-essential NATO to back him up.
We as individuals don’t have to follow our nation’s leader down a path headed in the wrong direction—off a cliff and into a pit of past mistakes. We can stand where we are at this moment in history and face forward, into a brighter future that we create. We can start by looking for the good in one another and for the common ground we share.
In the midst of the terrorist attacks on places of worship and cemeteries mentioned earlier, something wonderful emerged from the ashes: a spirit of overwhelming goodness in humanity. In the wake of the attacks, Jews and Muslims united: they held fund-raisers to help each other repair and rebuild; they shared their places of worship so that those burned out of theirs could hold gatherings and services; and they offered loving support to those who’d faced hatred. By observing ordinary people engaging in acts of everyday heroism and compassion, we have been able to witness the best aspects of humanity. That’s us! That’s the United States of America!
A final suggestion for our governmental leaders: corporations and companies vet their prospective employees. This vetting process frequently includes psychological testing in the form of exams or quizzes to help the employer make more informed hiring decisions and determine if the prospective employee is honest and/or would be a good fit for the company. These tests are used for positions ranging from department store sales clerk to high-level executive. Isn’t it time that the same be required for candidates for the most important job in the world?
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, is a scholar, educator, and researcher. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for his landmark Stanford prison study. Among his more than five hundred publications are the best seller The Lucifer Effect and such notable psychology textbooks as Psychology: Core Concepts, 8th edition, and Psychology and Life, now in its 20th edition. He is founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project (heroicimagination.org), a worldwide nonprofit teaching people of all ages how to take wise and effective action in challenging situations. He continues to research the effects of time perspectives and time perspective therapy.
Rosemary Sword is codeveloper of Time Perspective Therapy and coauthor of The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (in English, German, Polish, Chinese, and Russian); The Time Cure Therapist Guidebook (Wiley, 2013); Time Perspective Therapy: Transforming Zimbardo’s Temporal Theory into Clinical Practice (Springer, 2015); Time Perspective Theory (Springer, 2015); Living and Loving Better with Time Perspective Therapy (McFarland, 2017); and Time Perspective Therapy: An Evolutionary Therapy for PTSD (McFarland, forthcoming). Sword and Zimbardo write a popular column for PsychologyToday.com and contribute both to AppealPower, a European Union online journal, and to Psychology in Practice, a new Polish psychological journal. Sword is also developer of Aetas: Mind Balancing Apps (www.discoveraetas.com).
Associated Press. 2017. “President Trump’s Claim That Obama Wiretapped Him Basically Died This Week.” Time, March 24. http://amp.timeinc.net/time/4713187/donald-trump-obama-wiretap-fact-check/?source=dam.
Kruse, Michael, and Noah Weiland. 2016. “Donald Trump’s Greatest Self Contradictions.” Politico Magazine, May 5. www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/donald-trump-2016-contradictions-213869.
“Mental Health Experts Say Donald Trump Is Unfit to Serve.” 2017. The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. MSNBC, February 21. www.msnbc.com/the-last-word/watch/mental-health-experts-say-trump-is-unfit-to-serve-882688067737.
Psychology Today Editorial Staff. 2017. “Shrinks Battle Over Diagnosing Donald Trump,” January 31. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brainstorm/201701/shrinks-battle-over-diagnosing-donald-trump.
Schwartzman, Paul, and Michael E. Miller. 2016. “Confident. Incorrigible. Bully: Little Donny Was a Lot Like Candidate Donald Trump.” Washington Post, June 22. www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/young-donald-trump-military-school/2016/06/22/f0b3b164-317c-11e6-8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html?utm_term=.961fefcee834.
Stetka, Bret. 2017. “As Presidents Live Longer, Doctors Debate Whether to Test for Dementia.” NPR, February 17. www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/02/17/514583390/as-our-leaders-live-longer-calls-for-presidential-dementia-testing-grow-louder.
Sword, Rosemary, and Philip Zimbardo. 2016a. “Bullies.” PsychologyToday.com, January 24. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-time-cure/201601/bullies.
________. 2016b. “The Narcissistic Personality: A Guide to Spotting Narcissists.” PsychologyToday.com, March 29. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-time-cure/201603/the-narcissistic-personality.
Winch, Guy. 2016. “Study: Half of All Presidents Suffered from Mental Illness.” PsychologyToday.com, February 2. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201602/study-half-all-presidents-suffered-mental-illness.
Zimbardo, Philip, and John Boyd. 2009. The Time Paradox. New York: Atria.
Zimbardo, Philip, Richard Sword, and Rosemary Sword. 2012. The Time Cure. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Copyright © 2017, 2019 by Bandy X. Lee