The psychology of Trumpism: scientific assessment versus relentless antagonism

2017 has been open season on the psyche of the 45th president of the United States. Psychiatrists and psychologists have gone public to express their concerns about his perceived state of mind despite the established Goldwater rule that it is unethical for them to diagnose mental illness in a living public figure they haven’t examined and whose consent they have not obtained. The consensus seems to be the Donald J. Trump has a narcissistic personality although some have gone as far as to suggest the presence of a demonstrable mental health disorder.

Elsewhere, President Trump continues to provide script writers and comediennes with fresh material for their comedy sketches including parodies of Christmas songs and a forthcoming one-man Broadway show. The “fake news” war between Donald Trump and most of the U.S. mainstream media also shows no sign of abating and if anything continues to be fueled by the president’s Twitter feed. The loss of traditionally Republican Alabama to the Democrats has further emboldened the political center and left who feel that this particular result and following on from a similar one in Virginia, is a prelude to game-changing political gains in the forthcoming mid-term elections in 2018.

Rightly or wrongly it does seems as if Trump is continuously under siege. The relentless negativity towards him and his administration will certainly test the president’s psychological defense mechanisms, and a potential major concern is that these stressors will impact upon serious and life-threatening decision making in the area of foreign policy. However and with time there may be another and as yet not discussed unintended psychological consequence of this relentless ire that could be problematic for Trump’s political opponents.

Although he hasn’t played the particular David versus Goliath card, the relentless negative pressure on Trump could result in a backlash with the development of the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that develop in captive or hostage situations and gets its name from a 1973 bank robbery in Sweden when a robber held four bank employees in a vault for more than 130 hours. On release, the hostages appeared to have formed a paradoxical bond with their captor. Beyond a captive situation and despite disagreement as to the defining characteristics of this syndrome the development of unanticipated empathy has been used to explain certain behaviors of members of religious cults and individuals suffering domestic abuse — relevant for the current Trump situation perhaps? Associated physical symptoms include difficulty sleeping and concentrating, distrust of others, flashbacks and an inability to enjoy pleasurable experiences — all of which are already commonplace on social media when the president is the topic under consideration.

For Stockholm syndrome to develop a number of factors are necessary: (a) the crisis situation lasts a relatively long time — Trump is not due for re-election before 2020; (b) the “hostage” remains in contact with the hostages — Trump is never off the front page news and social media; and, (c) the hostage-takers show some kindness towards the hostages — the U.S. economy appears to be strong, and tax cuts may prove popular in some quarters. With time American voters may, paradoxically, come to feel more positive and empathetic towards the embattled president which could be reflected in a future election.

Therefore, for Trump’s political opposition perhaps the time has come to move away from relentless personal negativity? However, this approach needs careful handing given that for an individual with narcissistic personality traits, being ignored could lead to even more aberrant behavior. The American public has proven to be fickle — something that continues to give Democratic political scientists sleepless nights. The psychology of Trumpism is a new phenomenon and perhaps requires scientific assessment rather than relentless antagonism.

David Kerr is an endocrinologist.

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