What if Donald Trump is a sociopath?
It’s obvious to me that Donald Trump is a very dangerous person who should not under any circumstances be given power over other people. It’s also obvious that his supporters don’t see him that way. It’s tempting to dismiss them as intolerant bigots — and he certainly has some of those among his fans — but I think there’s a more benign explanation. I think a lot of people (including the bigots) are being conned by a world-class sociopath.
There’s an argument that it’s inappropriate to speculate about the mental disorders of public figures like Trump. After all, I’m not a psychiatrist. And even a professional psychiatrist would be prohibited by the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule from offering an opinion on the mental health of a public figure unless they had conducted an examination and been given permission to issue a statement.
I don’t think that applies here, because I’m not practicing psychiatry. Nothing I say here will affect Trump’s mental healthcare. I’m not violating psychiatric ethics by speculating about his sociopathy any more than I would be practicing medicine without a license if I saw an injured football player on television and speculated that he pulled a hamstring.
Furthermore, sociopathy is unusual among mental disorders in that it’s not the people who have it that suffer from it, but rather everyone else around them. The reason we talk about sociopathy is so we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from them. And that necessarily means learning to recognize sociopaths in the wild.
So I admit I can’t offer a definitive diagnosis that Donald Trump is a sociopath, but if he is a sociopath, here are a few things worth thinking about:
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then he has no empathy for other people. Their suffering doesn’t produce an emotional response in him. A sociopath might see a pedestrian hit by a car and go over to take a look. Standing there, staring at the broken body writhing in pain, he wouldn’t necessarily find it upsetting, and it might not occur to him to offer first aid or call for an ambulance. When Trump responded to Khizr Kahn’s criticisms, it never occurred to him to acknowledge the loss Kahn had suffered when his son, an American soldier, was killed in combat. When Trump was confronted about this, he countered that he too made sacrifices in building his business empire.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then his lack of empathy would mean he effectively has no conscience. Unable to feel empathy for other people’s suffering, he would have no reason to avoid a course of action that makes others suffer. In fact, whether or not other people suffer wouldn’t even enter into his thinking. A sociopathic manager might keep his employees working long hours away from their families to meet a deadline before the holidays and then fire them all without a thought because he doesn’t need them any more. Trump dismisses concerns about his multiple bankruptcies by pointing out that business ventures go bankrupt all the time, but it never occurs to him to express concern for all the people who lost money by trusting him to pay his bills.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then his lack of a conscience leads to what might be called a very pragmatic view of ethics: It doesn’t matter what’s right or wrong, it doesn’t even matter if he gets caught. All that matters is whether he can get ahead by doing it. Trump businesses routinely refuse to make full final payments on bills they owe. If they know the unpaid amount isn’t large enough to be worth a long lawsuit, and if they know they won’t need that contractor again in the future, then as far as they’re concerned, there’s no point in paying the bill. This is classic sociopath thinking.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then he divides people into two simple categories: People he needs something from, and people who don’t matter. And once he gets what he needs from someone, they stop mattering. The transition can be shockingly abrupt. A sociopath pursuing sexual conquest will lavish attention on a woman, charming her for hours or days until he gets her into bed…and then dump her immediately after sex because he got what he wanted. This is why many of us expect Trump to pivot away from the extreme right — he got their primary vote and he’s done with that, so now he’s ready to move on to the next group he needs to manipulate.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then he will engage in one-on-one manipulation of the people he needs something from, with no need to be consistent. A sociopath will tell his wife he loves only her, and then he’ll tell his girlfriend he’s planning to leave his wife. A sociopathic manager will tell a subordinate that he’ll recommend them for his job when he moves up…and then he’ll tell all his other subordinates the exact same thing.
Trump obviously can’t manipulate voters one-on-one, but he does flip-flop on issues all the time, depending on who he’s talking to and what he thinks they’d like to hear. As I write this, after more than a year of promising mass deportations of illegal immigrants, Trump told a group of Hispanic advisors that he might not do that after all, and now he’s wavering all over the place on the issue (and meeting with the Mexican president today). Trump has been courting the white supremacist vote, but I think they’re just another group he’s manipulating, to be abandoned without hesitation if he no longer needs them.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then all that matters to him is saying whatever will get him what he wants. Notions of truth or consistency are irrelevant to sociopaths. They tell unending streams of lies. There is some evidence that the speech centers in the brains of people with sociopathic personalities are organized a bit differently than those of normal people, allowing them to decouple speech from logic and memory. The technical term for speaking without regard for truth is bullshitting, and Trump seems to do it a lot.
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then any appearance of caring for other people is just an elaborate act. Sociopaths don’t feel empathy, but they can learn from watching how other people behave. They can express concern when something bad happens, and they can even cry real tears. But when faced with a novel situation for which they haven’t learned the normal response, their hollow emotional interior gives them no guidance, and they might do something that reveals them for what they are. I know a sociopathic business owner who, within minutes of the planes striking the towers on 9/11, told all his employees to start researching which insurance companies were going to lose money so he could short their stock.
(As I was writing this, news came out that African American basketball player Dwyane Wade’s cousin was shot and killed in Chicago, and rather than express condolences for this tragedy, Trump tried to use it to promote his candidacy by tweeting “Dwyane Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!“)
If Donald Trump is a sociopath, then all his one-on-one manipulation will result in everyone hearing a different set of lies, and to keep his lies working, he’s going to try to keep people from comparing notes. In ordinary settings, sociopaths try to break up relationships around them, to discourage people from talking to each other. A sociopathic manager who doesn’t want subordinates comparing stories might tell each of them that the others are jealous of their success and trying to sabotage their career. Trump can’t keep people from talking about his highly public political campaign, but a desire to keep people from comparing notes would explain why Trump is so angry with the press all the time: They tell people what he’s been saying, often at a time when he’s switch to saying the opposite.
In the end, if Donald Trump is a sociopath, he will leave a trail of destruction behind him. His manipulations will make him the center of attention in anything he gets involved in. Some people will be conned into doing his bidding, and others will waste time and resources fighting against him. Either way, he will make everything about him. His presence will be a whirling maelstrom that cannot be ignored, and he will grind down every person, institution, or social structure he encounters.
Just look at how much time we spend talking about what Donald Trump is saying. This election could have been about so many things — healthcare, taxes, gun control, cyber security, police reform, foreign policy — but instead we waste time talking about Trump and how to respond to him. (E.g. I’m writing this rather than something else.) Trump has been involved in thousands of lawsuits. He has dumped two wives, bankrupted four of his own companies, and hurt a lot of investors and small business owners that made the mistake of getting involved with him. He destroyed the United States Football League, and he seems to be destroying the Republican party.
Donald Trump is a sociopath, and we need to stop him from becoming President before he destroys a lot more.