The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning

The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning

Trump book cover with Dan McAdamsPsychologist Dan McAdams explains the strange behavior of Donald Trump in his new book.

When Northwestern University psychologist Dan P. McAdams first wrote about Donald Trump’s psyche for The Atlantic in 2016, he knew his subject was a very strange person. He just couldn’t nail down why.

His new book, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning, provides some startling answers. Trump, McAdams asserts, may be the rare person who lacks any inner story, something most people develop to give their lives unity, meaning, and purpose.

A life story provides a moral frame of reference because it grounds your experiences in basic values and beliefs, according to McAdams, a narrative psychologist who pioneered the study of lives.

Trump, McAdams argues, can’t form a meaningful life story because he is the “episodic man” who sees life as a series of battles to be won. There is no connection between the moments, no reflection, and no potential for growth when one is compulsively in the present.

Donald Trump is a “truly authentic fake,” writes McAdams, professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. “Trump is always acting, always on stage – but that is who he really is, and that is all he really is. He is not introspective, retrospective, or prospective. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now. 

In his own mind, he is more like a persona than a person, more like a primal force or superhero, rather than a fully realized human being,” McAdams adds.

McAdams’ eighth and latest book, a four-year project, is a collection of insightful stand-alone essays that each explore a single psychological facet of the president. Taken together, The Strange Life of Donald J Trump vividly connects Trump’s lack of a life story ­-- or what psychologists call a “narrative identity” -- to his combative personality, his powerful charisma, his penchant for lying, his high level of disagreeableness, and other characteristics.

 “Truth for Donald Trump is whatever works to win in the moment,” McAdams writes. “He moves through life episode by episode, from one battle to the next, striving in turn, to win each one. The episodes don’t add up or form a narrative arc.” 

Themes of Redemption

McAdams, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Science, studies personality and how people change over time. His narrative approach to studying human lives places stories and storytelling at the center of human personality.

For more than two decades, McAdams and his students have been coding life-story interviews, looking for themes of one particular life story -- redemption. Their published work shows that people who tell their life story in redemptive terms -- such as overcoming suffering or adversity -- enjoy better mental health and higher levels of happiness, compared to people whose life stories show fewer themes of redemption.

Moreover, researchers have found strong associations between redemptive life stories and an adult’s concern about the well-being of future generations, something that comes into sharper focus as people age.

In previous books, McAdams applied his tools of psychological interpretation to the lives of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Despite their differences, both leaders had moving redemptive life stories, atoning for past mistakes, overcoming obstacles or mounting powerful comebacks.

But for Trump, there can be no comeback story, because when a hero wins every scene, there is nothing to come back from. There is no comeback because there is no story. “He can't show any kind of growth or learning, because to grow you have to have once been small,” McAdams says.

It may appear that Trump has stories. He can spin a tale about Mexican drug smugglers and proclaims himself to be the “greatest president ever,” “a stable genius,” and the “smartest man on the face of the earth.”

“But these are proclamations of a generic trait and statements about the self, not stories about the self,” McAdams writes. “They don’t show how he came to be and where his life may be going. They do not explain how he has changed over time, how he has developed and how he was once one thing and is now another. They do not convey any sense of humanity.”

One of the most shocking and unprecedented features of the Trump presidency is Trump’s refusal to adopt a moral language for leadership, McAdams says, which stems directly from his failure to create a moral story for his own life.

“He sees the US as a force in the world, but not a moral force,” McAdams writes. “Unlike any U.S. president for the past 100 years, Trump does not even feign interest in championing such hallowed American values as respect for human rights or opposition to tyranny.  He is purely transactional.”

"The features of Trump’s strange personality -- his orientation to love, his proclivity for untruth, his narcissistic goal agenda, his authoritarian sentiments --- can be fully appreciated and understood only if we realize that they revolve around the empty narrative core, the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was,” McAdams writes.

The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning is published by Oxford University Press. It will also be available as an audiobook through Recorded Books, the largest independent publisher of audiobooks and provider of digital content to the library, school, and retail markets. 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/8/20