Donald Trump has recently been talking about how he “aced” a cognitive test during a medical exam. With approximately 100 days remaining before the next presidential election, perhaps it would be more helpful to consider Donald Trump from the patterns of his actual, ongoing behavior. The patterns in one’s naturally-occurring behavior are much more revealing than answers to a one-time, formal cognitive test in a doctor’s office.
First, a caveat: IQ tests can also indicate aspects of personality. That’s partly because context matters. Trump has been touting about how he perfectly repeated back a five-word sequence. This is somewhat similar to the digit-span memory recall subset in a standard IQ test, but with words instead of digits. An issue here is this subtest item also reveals something about the person’s social anxiety level, having to perform in front of a doctor in the medical exam room. This context may distract from the positive exhibition of the person’s short-term memory. It’s interesting, therefore, to consider that Trump’s good score here can represent one of his deficits: Trump feeling he can do and say anything he wants, regardless of circumstance. We’ve all witnessed him insulting or blaming others, without any validity requirement, let alone, social grace. Not a good quality for the President of the United States.
Trump Is Always In ‘Attack Mode’, Striking Preemptively
Whether Trump “aced” the formally-administered cognitive test or is lacking in the number of oars he has in the water, if we look at the whole span of Trump’s public life before and since moving into the Oval Office, we can safely say Trump is not a complex, nor a strategic, thinker. Trump acts on impulse and his impulses are most often defensive. His behavior is reminiscent of a Komodo dragon whose main behavior is to patrol the border of his territory for enemies or the unfamiliar. Trump’s behavior is also similar to a Hamadryas baboon who seems to assume each approach by a another adult male is prelude to an attack. Trump likes spectacle, he likes to startle people. His goal seemingly is to dominate people…before they do it to him. Trump is all about preemptive strikes. It’s a perversion of the Golden rule. Trump is more interested in dominating than governing.
Trump’s ‘Attack Mode’ Fits the Current Context of Fear
One thing a person, product or idea vying to be the leader must do to become popular is fit into the context of the times. The American context Donald Trump has risen in and continues to aggravate is FEAR — now, fear of Coronavirus and fear of job loss, added to American’s pre-Covid19 fear of jihadis, fear of terrorists in general, fear of immigrants and transgenders as next door neighbors, fear of randomness and — because of the tumbling of the Twin Towers and the 2008 US economy — fear of seeing one’s future receding beyond recognition. Many Americans feel they are losing ground, losing their share of what they call “the goodies.” And they want back in. Trump supporters see him as a way back in and as a way to thumb their noses at the traditional powers that be. Trumpers perceive that it is this traditional power structure that they feel has marginalized them.
Fear is like a bucket of ice water unexpectedly dumbed on your head from behind. It makes you curl your shoulders inward and hunch down, all in an instinctual response to protect yourself. Fear is now a covert force running through the American zeitgeist. At its more overt and intense level, fear is also a primary emotion of those who support Trump. Fear is also boosted by a close-kin of fear: the feeling of helplessness.
Much of the media likes to criticize Trump, but his attentional pull for a sizable swatch of Americans is that he’s going with the contextual flow. It might seem as if the media likes politicians who swim upstream, but it’s the same affection bears hold for migrating salmon.
Presidential candidates cannot change the contextual climate. The national agenda is increasingly impervious to campaign stratagems or economic, social or moral crusades. Candidates must swim with the tides. By his very nature, Trump is doing that — he’s agitating the already agitated.
Many Americans, particularly from lower or lower middle class socioeconomic rungs, have seen their salaries stagnate while the rich and powerful stuff their own wallets. On the other end of the spectrum, while studying perceptions of life by what banks call “mass affluent” and “hi-affluent” populations, I have found that twenty years ago, these two groups had different stories about their life and times. Now these two groups share a very similar narrative: “I need more and in these uncertain and unpredictable times I don’t know if I can get more, so I have to keep on seeking more.” Their primary concern is their wealth and they feel Trump is better for them in that respect compared to any Democrat.
Trump, the Performer
Trump, ever-vigilant for a slight, seems always on the preemptive defensive. So, he erects the biggest buildings, flaunts the biggest lifestyle, has the biggest hairdo, and trash talks the loudest. His ethic is BE BIG and steam-roll over others who do not agree with him. In effect, his motto is, “You’re Fired.”
Trump doesn’t care about the details of geopolitical and domestic policy. In the place of policy he inserts a way of behaving, and that way is performance — condense and exaggerate everything and display it exclusively for communication purposes, both to gain attention from his base and divert his detractors attention away from more important national issues.
In the age of presidential candidates always-in-view and never offstage, voters choose presidents like Hollywood bestows Oscars — based on a portfolio of performances, past, present and imagined. “Persona” is the real issue. Candidates do not “run” for president, they audition for the part. The ones that exude confidence in debates and vigor on the stump, are usually victorious. In 2016, Jeb Bush, and in 1988, Michael Dukakis, exhibited empathy with children, but their personae was one of being too weak and too bureaucratic. Perhaps now, Biden, too. In contrast, when Reagan was in the hospital after an attempt to assassinate him, Alexander Haig (“I’m in charge here”) was perceived as too power-hungry. Donald Trump seems to fit today’s bill, pretty well: Brash, tough-talking, defying convention and advocating non-traditional positions. “Drain the swamp.”
Trump’s Fear of Humiliation Diminishes His Cognitive Abilities
Trump is vigilant and activated against feeling humiliated. As president, Trump sees America as humiliated by foreign leaders who out-maneuver the US on issues of trade, immigration and foreign policy. For Trump this is a personal sensitivity as much as it is political. Trump feels humiliated even by being in proximity to people who, for him, are less than perfect — for example, women who are not beautiful by his standards. Trump also feels humiliated by strong, opinionated women and by the media. Trump only wants to hear nice things about himself, as perhaps he hears from Vladimir Putin. Otherwise Trump can go ballistic. And he has his hands on the nuclear codes.
The difficulty with humiliation is it’s buried deep in the most ancient part of the brain — the “reptilian” brain. Seemingly, humiliation has no half-life, as we know from places like Kosovo. Grudges persist.
In general, the difficulty with fear is it trumps reasoning. Cognitively speaking, fear wreaks havoc on mature thinking and language. The result is not just a simple dominance of emotion over reason, as some have posited to explain the success of Brexit. The worst consequence of fear is not that it obliterates the possibility of compromise. The capability that is most needed in today’s world is not that of finding a least common denominator. What the world needs now is imagination. Fear foreshortens the time and motivation needed for the mind to integrate differences and think imaginatively.
Fear reels in one’s vision, literally and metaphorically. A frightened person loses sight of the forest, the bigger operative concept, the wider context. Each data point or thought becomes separated and isolated from each other. As a result, a frightened person lives a kind of frenetic, staccato ‘now.’ There is no time to ponder, to wonder or to think. There’s only room to act…preemptively.
Trump: A One-Dimensional Thinker with No Subtlety
Fear deflates open minds into absolutist minds, parsing only in literal, concrete and extreme binary terms. Are you like me, or not? Are you with me or against me? Subtlety and complexity are erased. All that is left is black or white, no grays. This is Trump’s tic for tac world. If you do this, I’ll do that. According to the world of Trump. if you want to keep out immigrants, it’s simple, build a wall — it’s concrete and visible. You can see it and touch it.
Relatedly,, Trump seems incapable of dealing with more than one variable at a time. Given the job requirements of the POTUS, this seems to be a most disturbing limitation of Donald Trump. Almost a comical version of this one-variable rule was exhibited in response to early impeachment talk by Speaker Pelosi. Namely, Trump saying he can’t legislate and adjudicate at the same time.
In Our Covid19-Induced Uncertainties, America Needs Artful Leadership
Fear is a rich soil for selfishness. You can come to think only of yourself. The hell with the other guy or gal. To wit: not wearing a mask during the pandemic is seen by Trump as an exhibition of his personal power and by many of his supporters as a freedom guaranteed by the US Constitution. The idea of the “common good” is obliterated. “Me” is all that remains.
A fearful attitude in everyday life can produce an over-vigilance for threat, never for shared context or opportunity. The world is seen as a fixed pie. Someone’s loss is someone else’s gain. That’s Trump and many of his supporters who turn everything into a symbol of a culture war. That might be business as usual for Trump, as CEO of Trump, Inc. But it’s not okay as Trump, President of the United States, or for any president. On election day let’s remember Trump’s actual, ongoing behavior patterns, more than his remembering a five-word sequence in a cognitive test.