Trumpology 101 — A Definitive Guide to Current Presidential Behavior
Unprecedented! How often have we heard that word since this presidency began? Millions of people react each day with anguish, alarm and disgust — a shared experience that raises a question: at what point will we consider this behavior to be “precedented”? For so many of us, this is a critical need, this ability to predict the President, not just for our own individual state of mind, but also for stability around the world.
In his continuing destruction of political norms, Donald Trump recently achieved something of a milestone: He was criticized and attacked by some of his most loyal right-wing supporters for working with Democrats, effectively closing the loop on the entire political spectrum. Yes, his base remains unwavering — an intractable segment of people who he rightfully says (using a graphic deadly example) will never abandon him no matter what he does. But if anything, current events confirm to us that Trump defies prediction to a degree unmatched by any politician. And since unpredictability leads to instability, it’s time to revisit, and in some cases, entirely abandon the predispositions with which we have attempted to anticipate presidential behavior.
Many millions of words have been generated to analyze and predict Trump, giving rise to an international school of thought entirely focused on the psychology of Trump, but because his behavior doesn’t really conform to any human behavioral precedent for a world leader, this body of knowledge — like its many namesake buildings and products — deserves its very own brand name: Trumpology. The mission and scope of Trumpology is to predict this president’s behavior with a sober and scientific eye, not just for some modicum of nationwide and international stability, but for our own sanity as well.
Consider that so much of what we feel toward this president is directly influenced by our expectations and beliefs around what a president should be. The ongoing chaos threatens to create a state of low level PTSD — if it hasn’t already — among those who cling to the expectation of order, civility and truthfulness from the president. This is not to say that we should accept the behavior we have witnessed, but for our own mental health, and as a first step, we do need to dramatically lower our expectations so as to bring them into alignment with our new reality. That begins with acknowledging the most daunting fact that we all must confront: Our president is not a normal human being.
Now, whether on TV, the internet or in print, this is typically where the pundit/writer begins some form of armchair diagnosis that goes well beyond their qualifications. While I may have majored in Psychology, I am not a mental health professional and for that reason, I will resist the temptation to expound on what appears to be the prevalence of a pathological narcissistic condition in our president. I am instead going to draw upon the psychological approach known as Behaviorism to understand what we are up against. First, some background.
Behaviorism was a powerful field of study that emerged in the early 20th century and was based on the premise that everything can be explained by observable behavior and that all behavior could be traced to and influenced by a reward. Think of the hundreds of pigeons and lab rats who received either food or shocks or something more insidious to make them behave in a certain way. At its most fundamental, the underlying theory says that all behavior is based on a “stimulus-response” model, meaning that, ultimately, all behavior can be predicted by the stimulus.
Behaviorism was controversial, but it reached its apex thanks to a man named B.F. Skinner, who became so famous in the circles of psychology that they named a box after him — the “Skinner Box” — a small enclosure where pigeons learned how to peck for food pellets. For behaviorists, terms like the human soul, empathy or emotions are secondary and completely irrelevant, because all behavior is a result of the stimulus — the reward or punishment that the rat, pigeon or president receives.
While Behaviorism has its flaws, there is beauty in its clarity and it is perfectly suited for our current needs. It allows us to dispense with all manner of psychological jargon, philosophies and ideologies, and boil everything down to outcomes — that is, what creates the behavior of our president and how might it best be controlled through a reward system that guides him to positive outcomes. We are, after all, dealing with a primitive being, not too different in its motivational impetuses than those of pigeons or lab rats and possessing only a slightly larger vocabulary. Armed with this methodology, we are “locked and loaded” to understand and begin to create the conditions under which our president might behave in an optimal way.
But where do we begin?
We can take comfort in knowing that behaviorist methodology is already being applied to elicit positive behavior in the president. Several people, from world leaders to internal White House aids, have embraced the stimulus-response contingency that now exists. Some examples of positive stimuli that have been presented to the president with some success include:
· Talking about positive poll numbers or crowd sizes
· Having big parades
· Sharing articles that tell Trump how great he is
· Self-pleasuring “Campaign” rallies
· Cabinet meetings in which each attendee showers praise upon Trump
· Comparing him favorably to any and every great historic leader (or more accurately, any human that’s ever existed).
These are all stimuli that generate a positive response, but we can’t learn fast enough, and so the world is frantically building a body of knowledge for how to manage and predict Trump. Fortunately, because we are dealing with a relatively simple life form, there are some obvious “rules” that we can now begin to codify:
Rule #1 — Trump is #1 and all that matters.
In our reality-based “normal” world, we operate based on social norms, in which empathy and loyalty govern our relationships and influence our interactions.
Consider the concept of Loyalty. All loyalty has a temporal component that gives it its meaning; we imagine loyalty as something that endures over an extended period of time. In contrast, Trump demonstrates an oxymoronic variety of “temporary” loyalty that really amounts to no loyalty at all.
Now consider empathy, the human capacity to understand our fellow man by “putting ourselves in their shoes” as we say. For Trump, there is only one pair of shoes. Empathy is a completely irrelevant concept because all of his relationships are transactional, with their value defined exclusively by what they yield to Trump within a very short window of time (more on this in Rule #2). Each relationship is only as good as the value of its last transaction to Trump, whether it involves an individual, a company, a country, an ideology, a party, a global institution or even a wife. The overriding principle is that, for Trump, every one of these relationships are judged by how they enhance his image of himself.
All interactions are transactional and Trump’s positive self-image is the currency of that transaction. Those who interact with Trump will benefit by stocking up on and spending that currency at the only place where it is accepted.
Rule #2 — Time is compressed.
As noted in Rule #1, loyalty has no shelf life because Trump’s behavior is governed by the circumstances of the moment — he lives in the world of now, although some exceptions apply (more on that in Rule #3). Rule #2 is one of the rules that makes it so easy for Trump to lie; it is as if anything far enough back in time, which need not be very far at all, doesn’t really exist. He may not believe or remember certain incidents, but in the majority of cases, they are irrelevant to how he behaves in the current moment.
Time compression also explains two other behaviors: Trump’s very fluid politics, in which he can change ideologies or agendas on a dime based on his narrow time-dependent reality; and his very short attention span, which requires that all necessary information be delivered to him in pictures or short sentences in order for him to process it and form some degree of mental connection between past and present.
Just as the Skinner box delivers rewards to pigeons to elicit behavior, Trump has two counterparts for the Skinner box. The first is what we know of as “television”, or more accurately, it is an array of televisions tuned to various networks, each of them eliciting a positive or negative response. Some televisions — tuned to Fox News, for instance — dole out repeated and intoxicating rewards, while others (the “fake news media”) generate punishment. The various stimuli determine the direction and extent of his positive or negative behavior.
The second of Trump’s Skinner Boxes is Twitter. Just as a pigeon pecks at a tab to deliver a reward, so does Twitter elicit pecking behavior on the part of Trump. The observable behavior is identical: instant gratification as a reward for rote repeated actions on the part of the captive organism.
Because of Rule #1 (Trump is #1), Twitter and television are likely to provide a continuous stream of rewards, but because of Rule #2, anything that doesn’t conform to Rule #1 relatively quickly is likely to be rejected. One can imagine why something like reading a book, which is a direct affront to time compression, is so unfathomable for Trump unless that book complies with Rule #1, as in “The Art of the Deal” or similar subject matter. In this sense, Rule #1 is the strategy for addressing Rule #2 — If you can make it about him, he will pay attention longer.
Rule #3 — Grudges and vendettas endure
The exception to Rule #2, Trump seems to be able to remember the people, organizations and other entities that he hates, most likely because these are things in his life that serve as a sustained threat to Rule #1. He has shown no observable ability to forgive, apologize, feel regret or reconcile. A positive transactional benefit (in the moment) can cancel out a vendetta, but those are rare occurrences. For this reason, those who interact with Trump are encouraged to avoid things that have any association with a past failure, of which there are many.
A byproduct of this rule: everything is personal for Trump, leading to sometimes childish interactions characterized by name calling and petty attacks — a behavior that is impossible to imagine from any world leaders in our lifetime. These are “contests” of a sort, and it is critical for Trump to win them in his mind. Whether he is up against a gold star family or a political rival, this often means getting in the last word of attack or branding someone with a clever nickname, which leads us into Rule #4.
Rule #4 — Fear of the unfamiliar
We have all seen and heard Trump recoil at the thought of women’s bodily functions (menstruation, nursing, going to the bathroom), and this visceral reaction is representative of a general discomfort with anything that is outside of his small orbit. Lacking any intellectual curiosity has assured him of a high degree of unfamiliarity with knowledge of the world that we take for granted. His defense mechanism against these fears is right in line with that of many infamous dictators and tyrants throughout history: control, dehumanize and destroy what you fear. While our Constitution protects us from these transgressions, it is clear that Trump doesn’t understand that either, thus explaining his efforts to destroy it too.
Characteristic of so many of the fearful is their effort to objectify that which they fear, and because people present a generally unfamiliar and complex set of stimuli, it is far easier to dehumanize and objectify those sets of people that are unfamiliar. And so, for example, the vast legacy, history and value of each individual African American is reduced to “The Blacks”, and many women are either “disgusting” or easily controllable simply by seizing their genitalia.
Trump often talks about how he has elevated women to positions of power, but we can presume that this is because he believes, despite his fears, that women are inherently weak and easier to control. In those instances where a strong woman transcends his ability to control them, his behavior is more characteristic of a cornered lab rat.
Rule #5 — Success is a function of other people’s failure
In the large majority of events, Trump’s success has come at a cost to others, and this is often the only way he could have succeeded. He lives in a zero-sum world: there are winners and losers, but to Trump, winners come at the direct expense of losers. In fact, he takes pleasure in ridiculing and humiliating these so-called losers because it directly fuels his sense of himself as a winner.
Similarly, he has repeatedly and effectively used a legally sanctioned example of zero-sum behavior: declaring bankruptcy, which, by its nature, erases debt at the direct expense of creditors and taxpayers.
A corollary of this rule: Success cannot be shared, and in fact, success of those in close proximity to him is unacceptable. Even close allies are transformed into threats if they garner the spotlight at his expense.
Trump’s lack of loyalty to people is also applicable to ideas and beliefs. Trumpology supersedes ideology, in that the ideas or people toward which he behaves positively are always a function of how it makes him feel rather than a political point of view. Since these feelings are always going to be based on a zero-sum winner/loser model — and he can’t share the podium because of Rule #1 — he has engaged in a sustained effort to obliterate each and every achievement of his predecessor, regardless of impact or ideology.
The most consequential example of this dynamic is his attempted facilitation of Barack Obama’s failure as a critical basis for his self-perceived importance. For example, Obamacare may have helped 20 million people secure much-needed health insurance, but like the Iran Nuclear deal, or the Paris climate agreement, or the creation of DACA, the personal threat to Trump’s legacy that these achievements represent takes precedence over the collective health, safety and survival of many millions of people around the world.
This paradigm knows no political or geographic boundaries: Friends of the U.S are not necessarily his friends, nor are enemies of the U.S. necessarily his enemies. His definition of a friend is more about his personal calculations (Rule #1) versus geopolitical realities, the latter not so much a “rule” than a deeply complex set of norms that are continually being adapted and refined to protect national and global interests in a volatile world.
A potential approach to this challenge: rebrand each and every achievement as one that is exclusively a creation of Trump, even if it is identical to what might have already been accomplished. Trumpcare, the Trump-Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump-Iran deal — for the rest of the world, the names matter not nearly as much as the outcomes, and with the benefit of Rule #2, there’s a good chance that Trump won’t know or even consider the difference (and if he does, see Rule #8).
Rule #6 — Attention is an addiction
It should be mentioned that “success” and attention are often synonymous in Trump’s mind, even if it is negative attention from “losers”. This partially explains the insatiable desire for media coverage and adulation that often transcends the content of that coverage.
This insatiability element can be traced to Rule #2; because time is condensed, he doesn’t retain or ascribe value to past adulation for anything more than a very brief period of time, but we can speculate that the principles of brain chemistry and addiction apply just based on his observed behavior. There seems to be no satiation threshold — the point at which satisfaction is reached — which is a common characteristic, if not the definition, of other forms of addiction and the reason that Trump can never get enough attention.
As with transactions, his most recent binge of self-orchestrated adulation is what defines his state of mind. This is why he often seems as if he is still campaigning for President. The hunger for attention carries many of the standard symptoms of other addictions, but because he is President, there will be no meaningful intervention.
Rule #7 — Empathy-free
The corollary to Rule #1, the fact that Trump is all that matters means that no one else matters and as a result, he is unable to perceive the experiences of others with any meaningful degree of empathy.
This missing capacity for empathy manifests itself in awkward attempts at sympathy in cases like the destruction of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria or the mass shooting in Las Vegas. You can’t help but want him to stop trying because he so clearly is unable to feel the pain of others, much less shed a tear. (At this writing, he has now completely dispensed with the façade of sympathy for Puerto Rico).
In the wake of catastrophic loss, his internal programming compelled him to tell one of the victims to “Have a good time”, as if they were about to enter a casino. He described his trip to Las Vegas two days after the tragedy as “a tough day for me personally”. His tossing of paper towels to the suffering Puerto Ricans was classic stimulus-response behavior — a rote, repeated pigeon-like action that had nothing to do with empathy or relief for those around him and everything to do with the adulation (reward) he felt with each “shot”.
This doesn’t mean he’s incapable of some tele-prompted acknowledgment of the victim’s horrific challenges, but such expressions are completely coerced from him by his jittery aids. What inevitably rises to the top, always, is how it affects him, and if we were granted total transparency, we would know that he’d much rather be playing golf.
Rule #8 — Truth is irrelevant
In the real world, we govern our personal behavior by how it aligns with our version of reality. If we are people of reasonable mental health, we experience a state of dissonance or guilt when our actions or statements diverge from what we believe to be true. Throughout our lives as normal people, we have found that truthful behavior has been rewarded and the opposite has been punished, and the net effect of those rewards and punishments — as Behaviorism would predict — has led the large majority of us to an adulthood of rational and generally truthful behavior. Even the occasional liar must adapt to the real world to be rewarded by ensuring a certain degree of either “proof” or plausibility to the lie that they are telling, and that creates dissonance.
Strikingly, none of these guardrails of reality apply to Trump. An entire dissertation could be researched and written on how this man came to be, but Behaviorism would explain it very simply: For whatever reason, Trump was never effectively conditioned to behave normally as he grew up and developed his worldview. In fact, it is far more likely that he was consistently rewarded for lying and punished for telling the truth, and those behavior patterns have become indelible, which brings us to our final rule.
Rule #9 — None of this will change
It is long past the time for all of us to recognize there is no path for this President to become “presidential”. He is hard-wired to behave as he does. We can now see the patterns of stimuli that trigger a surge of pleasure-inducing dopamine in his brain and result in clearly observable and predictable behavior.
Is he unfit to be President? Absolutely, but this is our reality, our world’s reality, and as long as he remains in office, we must adapt as best we can for our mutual safety and security. That requires a recalibration of our expectations and actions, especially as it relates to the stimuli that are presented to this person. Like “breaking news”, a continuous sense of outrage can’t be sustained in any constructive way. That does not mean Trump isn’t outrageous, just that we should no longer be surprised. But most importantly, we need a new set of rules by which to rationally navigate this presidency for as long as it endures.
For now, the conventional rules are obsolete, but fortunately the new ones are fairly obvious and actionable. As we refine and build upon Trumpology, it can serve as a road map and the best possible chance for us to come through this, not just as the country that we know and love, but as an intact world community that can sidestep its own self-destruction.