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INTERVIEW: Being Donald Trump

US psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Strange Case of Donald Trump, says the outgoing US president intends to act as president in exile during the upcoming administration

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 1 Dec 2020
Being Donald Trump
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Being Donald Trump is not easy. It is actually exhausting, but most importantly it is also dangerous. The outgoing US president is the embodiment of alternative realities, and on his way out from the White House he has been determined to take down US institutions, democratic traditions and values with him.

Trump has continued to spout baseless claims of voter fraud since the victory of Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden in last month’s US presidential elections, including the staggering suggesting that the FBI and US department of justice were somehow involved in rigging the elections against him.

He has called the two agencies “missing in action” in investigating voter fraud. In an interview with the US cable network Fox News, his first since the elections, Trump said “and how the FBI and department of justice – I don’t know – maybe they’re involved, but how people are getting away with this stuff, it’s unbelievable.”

While America is trying to focus on the new Biden administration that takes office in January, it has still been difficult for many to take their eyes off the outgoing president and his endgame.

Dan McAdams, a US psychologist who has pioneered the study of lives and personalities and is the author of “The Strange Case of Donald J Trump: A Psychological Reckoning,”  told Al-Ahram Weekly in an exclusive interview that Trump would never concede the elections, would not take part in the inauguration ceremony on 20 January and would continue to fight as “president in exile”. 

McAdams, who is a professor of psychology and education and social policy at Northwestern University in Illinois, is also the author of almost 300 articles and eight books, including The Art and Science of Personality Development and The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By.

In his opinion, Trump is extraordinary and much stranger than any diagnostic category.

McAdams’s work has been featured in leading US media outlets such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and CNN. In his interview with the Weekly, McAdams emphasised that Trump only exists in the present moment.

He is a man without a future or a past who lacks any sense of life narrative or ethics beyond winning at all costs, McAdams said.

Trump, McAdams argues cannot form a meaningful life story because he is the “episodic man” who sees life as a series of battles to be won. There is no connection between the moments, no reflection and no potential for growth when one is compulsively in the present.

In his latest book, published by Oxford Univrsity Press in March 2020, McAdams says that Trump’s lack of a life story - or what psychologists call a “narrative identity” - to various personality traits.

Being Donald Trump

“Truth for Donald Trump is whatever works to win in the moment... He moves through life episode by episode, from one battle to the next, striving in turn, to win each one. The episodes don’t add up or form a narraive arc.” McAdams writes.

He argues that Trump is a “truly authentic fake. Trump is always acting, always on stage - but that is all he really is.He is not introspective, retrospective, or prosepctive. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now. In his own mind he is more like a persona than a person, more like a primal force or superhero, rather than a fully realised human being,” McAdams adds.

Accordingly, one of the most disturbing features of the Trump presidency is his failure to adopt a moral agenda and language for leadership, which stems directly from his inability to create a moral story fot his own life.

“The feature’s of Trumps strange personality - his orientation to love, his proclivity for untruth , his narcissistic goal agenda, his authoritarian sentiments - can be fully appreciated and understood only if we realize that they revolve around the empty creative core, the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was,” McAdams says.

Being Donald Trump
Don McAdams

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Dan McAdams spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly's Manal Lotfy on what to expect from the president after the elections and the Trump phenomenon

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Did you expect Trump not to concede defeat even a month after the elections?

I expected him not to concede a month after the elections, four years after the elections, and up until the day he dies. Trump has never conceded in any contest in his life. As he sees it, he has never lost. Many people think he just says that, but he really believes it. He really believes that he has won the elections. He really believes that he never had a bankruptcy in the 1990s, even though at least four of his casinos went bankrupt. He will never admit to a defeat. So, it does not surprise me.

We should not expect him to take part in the inauguration ceremony on 20 January?

There are two things that he should be doing that he won’t do. One is to promote a peaceful and seamless transition from one administration to the next. Every president before Trump has done this. When the next president is elected, the current president invites that person to the White House, and they begin the process of transition. There is a lot involved in that, and there are all kinds of protocols and so forth. Former president Barack Obama did it the next day after Trump won in 2016. It happens every time, except this time, Trump will not participate in that.

It is possible that his assistants will work behind the scenes to promote some of the transition. [This week Biden receives his first intelligence briefing, and that requires cooperation from the national security team in the White House].

The second thing that Trump should do but will not do is taking part in the inauguration on 20 January. Tradition has it that the outgoing president attends the inauguration and sits near the new president. And while the new president gives his inaugural address, the outgoing president should applaud and smile. That is not going to happen. There is no law that says Trump must do it, and I cannot imagine him participating in either of those two traditions.

What do you expect from Trump in the next few months?

I am pretty sure what he won’t do. I am not exactly sure what he will do. But one possibility is that he will effectively operate as a kind of president in exile. What I mean by that is that he will use media platforms, especially right-wing media platforms, as well as Twitter, to continue to be part of the conversation regarding the presidency and to continue to appeal to his millions of followers. He will continue to say that the election was illegitimate and was stolen from him and that he is the rightful president.

He won’t have any power, but he will still have the ears of Republican politicians, especially senators, because he is so extraordinarily popular with the Republican base. More than 73 million Americans voted for him; this is just extraordinary. That is almost 10 million more than he got in 2016 when he was an unknown quantity. Of that 73 million, maybe half, I think, are die-hard devoted to him. And they do not believe that the election was fair, even though there is no evidence for that. And they will continue to look to him as their leader.

They won’t consider the new administration to be legitimate. And if ex-president Trump does not like something that Biden does, and he won’t like anything that Biden does, the Republican senators I think will effectively bow to Trump’s will as they have for four years.

Alternatively, Trump might find something else to do, such as making money. That might divert him from the view that he is the legitimate president and maybe that is more likely. But we do not know. We have never had to entertain these speculations before about any outgoing president.

How do you explain Trump’s popularity after years of fuelling ethnic tensions and his repeated lies and poor handling of the Covid-19?

I talk about this in my book. I try to make sense of it all. I think for many people, they either do not believe that he lies and that is just made up by the mainstream media, or maybe more likely they do believe that he lies, but they think he’s doing it for them. Trump has an extraordinary appeal to white, uneducated American men, and women too, living in small towns and rural areas. And I think that for many of them he makes them feel that they are actually part of America in a way that they have not felt before. They may feel that the modern world has left them behind as the United States has become more urban, more educated, younger and more diverse, ethnically and racially.

I think this ageing white electorate feels more and more that they are not part of the conversation. They have been left behind economically, and maybe more importantly culturally. For them, Trump is a throwback to the 1950s. He speaks their language, which is to say a rough, authentic, in-your-face kind of vulgar, highly materialistic language, with no moral perspective. He speaks that language to them. They resonate with that. And he makes them feel part of America.

There was an extraordinary interview in the New York Times the day before the elections. A farmer from Nebraska said that he had voted for Trump in 2016 and would vote for him in 2020 because, for the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged to the country. I was kind of taken by it. I think Trump is a complete liar, a charlatan, an autocrat and the worst thing that has happened to the United States in maybe 50 years, but I was moved by this farmer, talking about how he feels that he is a part of the United States now, which he never felt before.

Trump makes certain people feel that way, even as he repulses many millions more.

Is the Trump phenomenon part of the post-truth world?

Yes, and he made it work for him and he exacerbated it. People around him, like his aide Kellyanne Conway, helped him. On the second day of his administration, after the inauguration, he claimed that the crowd was the biggest in history. Of course, it was not, but Conway said that the president was stating alternative facts, as if there are two different realities out there. One reality that some people see, and the other is the president’s reality, and these are different but supposedly equal realities. So, now we have a very split kind of electorate, and we have reality and alternative reality. It is simply crazy.

I do not know how we can find some sort of consensus. I do believe that of all the politicians on the national scene right now Joe Biden is probably more able than any of them to bring Americans together because people tend to respect him on both sides. Still, I am not sure he can do it. I mean, I think we are really pretty far down a bad path right now.

Have you ever seen any other character like Trump?

Before writing the book, I wrote an article for the Atlantic magazine in 2016. So, I started researching Trump in early 2016. I did not know much about him at the beginning, and I figured that I would be able to use many of the standard ideas in psychology to make sense of him.

I was able to do that. I used to talk about him in terms of concepts that are well known in the psychological literature, ideas like narcissism, for example. He is a very extroverted, outgoing, socially dominant person. He lacks any kind of empathy. And there is a whole language in psychology that you can use to apply to Trump, and I tried to use it in an objective way and to draw from basic research principles and well-argued theories with evidence in psychology.

But I concluded that this can take you only so far. Over the course of the last four years, and especially as I was writing the book, it became harder and harder for me to normalise him, to find similar kinds of people. I think the most unique feature about him is that he does not have a story. He does not have what we called a narrative identity about who he is and how he came to be. He does not think about himself in time. He does not have a moral framework. He does not struggle. He does not have multiple thoughts that conflict. He is almost like a beast or small child, very primitive, very primal.

How does it feel to be Trump?

It is like this: he wakes up in the morning ready to fight the new battle, whatever it is, and he will do whatever it takes that day to win the battle, and then he goes to bed. He wakes up five hours later, and he starts over with a new battle. So, he lives in the moment, fighting to win the moment.

It is not like, I did something yesterday and will follow it up today. That is not how he works. He is more like a boxer in the ring. A boxer is fighting his opponent for three minutes in the ring, and he does everything he can to survive. And then the bell rings, the boxers go back to their respective corners, and then they start over again. That is like Trump. There is no continuity from one boxing round to the next. He does what he has to do to win in the moment. And then he goes to the next fight. So, if he has a presidential campaign, it is great because he never runs out of energy. He is ferocious, right in your face. I think it is part of the reason why 73 million people voted for him.

If you live exuberantly in the combative moment, then you do not need to worry about the kinds of things you and I worry about, like being consistent with what we said yesterday, or strategic with respect to what we might do tomorrow. He is not consistent. He is not strategic. He simply fights to win whatever the battle is right now. So, each day is a different fight or battle, and he strives to win, and then he goes to the next day. Who else lives like that? Nobody to my mind; it would wear you out.

How has he managed to govern for four years?

 Trump did not have many big problems for three years, except the ones he created for himself. But then out of the blue in February 2020, the virus came from nowhere. It is the biggest challenge ever for any president – for Barack Obama, or Ronald Reagan, or any of them, it would be a massive challenge, but they would have developed a plan.

All countries have struggled with Covid-19, but nobody has failed the way the United States has failed. Trump was completely unable to deal with it. I have always thought that Trump would be the worst leader ever if we ever got into a war. Because in a war, you have got to plan long term, you must be strategic, and that is not what Trump does.

What do you expect him to do in the coming years?

It is an open question as to what he is going to do going forward. I think one possibility is that he will continue to fight as a kind of president in exile. Maybe there are other options too. But he will always fight. I guess the issue is, will he be fighting in a political sense or will he move on to something else?

There is some talk that he is planning to run in 2024. But planning is not something Trump really does much of. So, it is kind of hard to know what he is going to do going forward. One thing is certain, and that is that he will never concede the elections. He will never say that he lost the elections.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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