The President’s central, immutable traits have dictated his (disastrous) response to the pandemic and will continue to do so.
In the crucible of this global pandemic, personality traits one would desire for those in authority would be those that engender unity, demonstrate compassion, and encourage competence. Such traits would include empathy, an ability to take charge of the administrative state, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Well, there are the traits we would hope for in this moment, and there are the traits that we have. Throughout his lifespan, Donald Trump has consistently displayed an absence of conscience, an unwavering drive to dominate others, and an impulsive mode of functioning, all of which are ruinous for the current situation. This trifecta of traits explain why, not only elite opinion, but the majority of Americans view his response as sluggish, chaotic, deceitful, vainglorious, irresponsible and divisive.
One could be forgiven for believing that, given the gravity of the crisis, Trump would transcend – at least to a degree – these destructive personality traits and behave responsibly and collaboratively, as if he had a moral compass. Maybe his lifelong traits would yield to the crisis. Maybe they were always, in part, stagecraft or calculated displays of political incorrectness, crafted to cement his standing with the base. So maybe – even if it has to be thru the model of a Reality TV Presidential Performance – he could behave more responsibly and unite the country, and thus be seen as a ‘hero’.
But no, his response was entirely predictable. These traits are part of his deep personality structure and were never going to yield to the grim reality and leadership demands of Covid-19. Nor will there be any accommodation in his approach going forward. And this is not simply because he is willful (although he is). Rather, it is because he is incapable of any other response.
You don’t need a mental health expert to make this appraisal. You only need to examine the voluminous evidence available in well-researched biographies, his autobiographical efforts, magazine profiles, countless videotape files, court records, tweets and a host of other archival sources of information. Close up Trump is dramatic, flamboyant, irreverent and unpredictable. Many have noted that part of his political prowess is because we can’t take our eyes off him, we have to see what he might do next. But, from 20,000 feet up, his behavior is very predictable, including his patterns of chaos. He may claim “total authority” to the country, but he is a prisoner of his own temperament.
Perhaps the most consequential trait is the absence of a conscience in the man. This deficiency is hard for us to fathom. We all struggle with the strictures of our conscience, even if not always successfully. That struggle is a fundamental humanizing tendency that drives our protective concern for others and constrains our selfish and exploitive impulses. But there is a small percentage among us (1%) who do not struggle with their conscience at all.
Studies reveal this group appear to have an inherited, neuro-developmental abnormality whereby they simply cannot experience much, it at all, three emotional states: fear, shame and guilt. Psychologists call these states “inhibitory” emotions because they guide us to be sensitive to and cautious toward threat situations; and lead us to have an appropriate concern for the effects our actions might have on others, and thus curb our selfish or immoral tendencies.
There are many examples from Trump’s life that reveal his tendency to not experience fear, and therefore be rather desensitized to dangerous situations. For example, there is an anecdote from the biography Trump Revealed (2016) by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in which a teenage baby-sitter takes his five year old charge on an urban adventure. They venture into the sewer system under construction in Manhattan. Shortly after entering, the teenager becomes quite anxious and has second thoughts, “it was pitch black and you couldn’t see the entrance.” But the five year old pressed on into the gathering darkness. “The thing that amazed me”, that teenager, now turned 83, said,”was that Donny wasn’t scared. He just kept walking.”
Trump also maintains that he was “never intimidated” by his tyrannical father. His older brother Freddy, apparently was traumatized by his father’s demanding and critical manner, and succumbed to death at age 43 from alcohol-related conditions. Donald had a different nature.
Trump’s inability to process emotions related to threat situations helps us understand his sluggish response to Covid-19. In January, when he was getting alarming reports about the virus from the intelligence agencies and senior officials, he dismissed them. He compared the virus to the common flu and called it a “hoax”. In February he took no action to develop testing or develop supplies for the looming health care crisis. He seemed blind to the scale of the risk. In their summary of the timeline of Trump’s response, the New York Times states:
These final days of February, perhaps more than any other moment during his tenure in the White House, illustrated Mr. Trump’s inability or unwillingness to absorb warnings coming at him. He instead reverted to his traditional political playbook in the midst of a public health calamity, squandering vital time as the coronavirus spread silently across the country.
His relaxed response to the virus has continued to the present. He hosted a party on March 7 at Mar-a-Lago which became a hot spot for the virus. He touts an economic revival against the advice of his scientists. He mocks the idea of wearing a mask. He tweets support to protestors who flaunt social distancing guidelines.
Response to danger is a very weak cord in his emotional makeup, which places the rest of us at risk.
Likewise, there is an avalanche of data points in his life that point to Trump’s inability to experience the emotions of shame or guilt. This is also a neurologically wired-in deficit that places Trump outside the human contract we all take for granted.
Imagine having a lack of concern for the consequences of your actions on others, even though the effects may be devastating. Imagine being able to do or say anything you desire and, when you are called on it, just shrug your shoulders. Imagine not being able to learn from your mistakes or suffering you may have caused. Where there should be this humanizing tendency to feel shame or guilt when appropriate, there is an empty space in your psyche.
Is there any better, that is more odious example of a blasé attitude toward the welfare of others and the absence of a moral heartbeat than his doling out of ventilators and PPE to governors based on their political leanings and sycophancy to him?
This remorselessness, this indifference to his negligent and divisive behavior can be shown in a number of ways . Two of the most frequent expressions of his remorselessness are his lack of compunction in lying, and shrugging off personal responsibility for actions that might be harmful.
Trump’s ease with lying has been well-documented ( the Washington Post’s Fact Checker noted he has now surpassed 19,000 falsehoods during his presidency). Would he continue this pattern when the lies might have life or death consequences? The list of demonstrable lies surrounding the Covid crisis is long, and includes the administration’s preparedness, taking the pandemic seriously, peddling false hope about treatments, exaggerating the resources available to states, blaming the Obama Administration, or mischaracterizing the conduct of the World Health Organization.
He does not hesitate to put out false numbers and false promises, even when they are quickly and easily refuted by the facts. On the issue of coronavirus testing, he asserted on March 6, “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test… they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.” Disinformation on testing has continued.
There is no compunction about trying to create an alternative reality where he is not only blameless, but a hero in his response to the pandemic. The consequences of such lies – false hope, mistrust and confusion – simply do not register with him.
Trump’s refusal to take responsibility for harm his actions may have produced also flows from this deficit in conscience and empathy. Our conscience – that inner voice of “I should” – motivates us to meet our obligations and commitments to both those we love and the larger community. When this basic concern for others is missing, what’s left is a focus on immediate, egocentric gains. Obligations mean nothing.
Trump sees nothing wrong with this way of being. He easily disavows responsibility for any difficulties on his watch and raves about his performance (“I’d rate it at a 10”). In March, when asked about where the buck stops with regard to the delays in testing, he said “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
When asked legitimate questions about the Administration’s handling of the crisis, he typically denies any difficulties and often attacks the questioner ( “Fake news!”, “That was a nasty question”, “You’re a third rate journalist”).
Trump has no moral fear of the consequences of his neglectful and divisive behavior. Feelings of shame and guilt are totally foreign to him. He may mock wearing masks, but has no problem ‘washing his hands’ repeatedly and blithely of responsibility.
Sadly, a few among us are born with the inability to empathize or care deeply about others. Lacking that basic human tendency, there is little motivation to protect, sacrifice or feel responsible to others.
However, such people are animated by one dynamic in relationships. What they lack in caring, they make up for in the will to dominate. It is the only gear they have. All relationships are transactional and their exclusive focus is on “winning”. All their emotional fuel is devoted to coming out on top.
Collaboration is beyond his reach, as evidenced by the ongoing battle with Governors over supplies.
Instead of displays of empathy regarding the anguish generated by the virus, you get declarations of victory. Recently, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour, asked the President, “are you concerned that downplaying the virus maybe got some people sick?”
Given the opportunity to express at least a smattering of empathy or responsibility, Trump replied, “And a lot of people love Trump. A lot of people love me. You see them all the time. I guess l am here for a reason, and for the best of my knowledge l won. And l think we are going to win again. l think we are going to win in a landslide.”
Trump’s bandwidth of emotions are limited to those associated with his drive to dominate others and prevail over his critics: anger, contempt, jealousy, feeling thwarted, mistrust, glee. He is devoid of the more tender emotions that could engender solidarity or trust.
He has only one gear.
Wash, rinse and repeat for his press conferences. Scripted empathic responses will be read robotically from a teleprompter, while putdowns of the media, Governors and political opponents will be fulsome.
Donald Trump will not change. Cannot change. Even if he calculated that to self-moderate was in his interest, he lacks the emotional infrastructure to do so. His deficits in empathy and conscience are hard-wired. He will be preternaturally drawn to actions that will benefit him and disadvantage others.
It has been difficult but crucial to be clear-eyed about the truculence of the virus. We need to do likewise about the truculence of the President.