How would Trump’s personality shape his potential presidency?

Katie Couric
Global Anchor

By Alex Bregman

What goes on in the mind of the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump? What makes him tick? Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, spent three months trying to find out, and summed up his conclusions in a cover story for the Atlantic magazine next month. He joined Yahoo News Global Anchor Katie Couric to discuss his findings.

Trump was not interviewed for the study. Instead, McAdams analyzed his books, speeches, tweets and media interviews to build a psychological profile of the presidential candidate. He looked at Trump through the prism of what are known as the “big five” personality traits in the psychological science community: extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. 

He found, first of all, that “Donald Trump’s extroversion is really off the charts. You’re not going to find anybody in public life who has more energy, more socially dominant, more gregarious.” He continued, “The other one is agreeableness on the other end of it: rock-bottom low agreeableness, not humble, not especially caring and kind. His reputation is that he’s pretty arrogant and mean-spirited.”

He told Couric that Trump’s traits are “pretty untypical, especially if you’re looking at people running for public office.”

McAdams reiterated that Trump’s lack of agreeableness is what makes him an outlier: “Trump is singular, I think, for this disagreeableness. I mean, it’s really a powerful feature of his personality.” He continued, “You put those two things together, the high extroversion and the low agreeableness, and you’ve this very dynamic, hard-charging person who at the same time seems to be pretty uncaring and aggressive. And they’re so extreme that you put them together [and] I think it’s kind of a volatile combination.”

Then there’s the question of narcissism. As he told Couric: “In the case of Donald Trump, for psychologists, it’s the first thing that pops out, and it’s just so easy to talk about, because I think one of the cardinal signals of it is self- reference.”

McAdams explained to Couric that upbringing is commonly understood to breed narcissism, but that he didn’t find that to be the case with Trump. He said, “He came from a very loving family. If anything, I think they promoted his narcissism through constant self-affirmation and reinforcement.”

McAdams said that Trump’s relationship with his father, Fred Trump, however, does explain Trump’s “warrior” nature: “His father encouraged him early on to be aggressive. He said, ‘You need to be a killer. It’s a tough world out there, and you’ve got to be ready to fight all the time.’ Now he’s telling his kid this in Queens, where they’re growing up in this beautiful house with a Rolls-Royce in front and a Cadillac. They’re living in the lap of luxury, and it’s a very well- functioning family. So this idea that the world’s a dangerous place, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to fight, is drilled into him by his father in the real estate business.”

McAdams said narcissism isn’t always a bad thing, but in most cases, it “sort of wears thin.”

What is Trump’s psychological appeal to his supporters? McAdams told Couric: “He’s seen as a populist. He’s appealing in a kind of authoritarian way to the insecurities of many Americans. I don’t think it explains all of his appeal, but there’s no doubt that this is part of it.”

One notable group that Trump appeals are evangelical Christians. He explained: “People project onto Donald Trump all kinds of qualities. They see him as a savior. One of these big mysteries of the campaign — or funny things, or puzzles — is that evangelical Christians, many of them, support Donald Trump. Now why would that be the case? … You’ve got a guy whose really not that deeply involved in the Christian tradition, and yet you’ve got evangelical Christians across the country… not all of them, of course, but many, who support him.” Why? He explained: “The idea of being saved or feeling saved is a very relevant notion in evangelical Christianity, and so this kind of language of being saved, being secure, people hear this in him, they want this.”

What did McAdams learn about how Trump would act in the White House based on his psychological profile? His answer is: not much, because he couldn’t find a dominant narrative, which he found in his previous psychological studies of public figures, including Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, that explains Trump’s personality traits. He told Couric: “With respect to his traits and his narcissism, he’s fascinating, but when you get past that, you try to find the inner story, the identity of the man, the beliefs, the values, the philosophy that undergirds this all, it’s hard to find much. It’s as if he has put so much of his time and effort into becoming a performer of this role, of this highly extroverted, disagreeable public figure, that he hasn’t really spent much energy figuring out who he is in terms of his beliefs, his values, the story of his life. And I think presidents kind of rely on that.”

He continued: “I spent a lot of times reading books on Trump, his biographies, his speeches and so forth. The closest I could get to it was: Yeah, there’s a story back there, but it’s a very primal narrative. It’s a narrative about being a warrior, about fighting in a dangerous world, because if you don’t fight hard, you won’t survive. That’s a legitimate narrative, but I don’t think it’s the kind of story that you typically find as inspiring for the American people.”

How did McAdams get the full portrait of Trump without ever sitting down with him? McAdams told Couric: “I’m not a clinical psychologist, I’m not offering diagnosis. We’re not talking about a medical kind of thing here. Instead I’m taking ideas from social and developmental psychology that basically applied to normal people. I mean Donald Trump is a well-functioning person. I mean he’s getting along in the world. I’m not suggesting therapy. That would be completely unethical, and it’s not within my role.”

Finally, what about Trump’s likely presidential opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her place relative to the five major personality traits? He told Couric: “I think of the five traits, the one that probably would stand out and that she is sort of pretty high on — maybe really high — is the conscientiousness trait. She’s always been known by her friends and her enemies as a hard-working person… a very well-organized person, a person who sort of has to work harder than anybody else.” However, he noted, “Then you’ve got to get into her relationship with her husband and the women’s movement and changing mores in American society, and it would make for a very interesting psychological study.”