SESP Psychologist Explains Trump’s Survival Strategy

SESP Psychologist Explains Trump’s Survival Strategy

Trump ilo  book cover Donald Trump moves through life as “the episodic man,” viewing each day as a “temporary moment of time,” Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in  an opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times.

Research by McAdams, a faculty member at the School of Education and Social Policy, suggests that nearly all adults use storytelling to explain who they are. These stories — what psychologists call “narrative identities” — reconstruct the past and imagine the future to give people a sense that their lives have meaning and coherence over time.

“As you make daily decisions, you implicitly remember how you have come to be, who you are, and you anticipate where your life may be going,” McAdams wrote. “You live within narrative time.”

Trump, however, is the rare person who doesn’t follow this pattern, McAdams said. Instead, the “episodic man immerses himself in the angry, combative moment, striving desperately to win the moment. Like a boxer in the ring, he brings everything he has to the immediate episode, fighting furiously to come out on top,” he wrote. “But the episodes do not add up. They do not form a narrative arc.”

This can be problematic because life stories give us meaning and purpose and provide moral frameworks, said McAdams, the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and professor of human development and social policy. Trump’s view that life is a series of battles to be won and his inability to connect moments and experiences means there’s no chance for reflection and no potential for growth.

It also explains his penchant for lying. “It’s as if (Trump) wakes up each morning nearly oblivious to what happened the day before,” McAdams wrote. “What he said and did yesterday, in order to win yesterday, no longer matters to him. And what he will do today, in order to win today, will not matter for tomorrow.

For the episodic man, “truth is whatever works to win the moment. Trump does not have the psychological luxury to consider whether his tactics comport with the conventional criteria for truth — such as consistency over time or concordance with the objective reality of the outside world. Every day is a war. All is fair.”

McAdams, the author of The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning (Oxford University Press), helped pioneer the study of lives and has researched how the life stories of individuals change over the course of adulthood. Generativity, or concerns that people feel for the next generation, is a consistent theme of many life stories.

Parenting, volunteering, activism, and mentoring are examples of generativity, which adults generally develop at midlife. It’s usually expressed through redemptive life stories, or stories in which a negative or bad life scene is followed by a good outcome.

McAdams has spent more than two decades studying people’s life stories and how we create narratives to make their lives meaningful and purposeful. “And now I’ve met my match,” he said in a radio interview. “I’ve run into the one man in a prominent position, who has no story in his head.”

“If you don't have a story in your mind about who you are, you aren’t likely to have a moral framework,” McAdams said. “Narratives ground us in the world and give us a sense of virtual and value. And that's a foreign language to Donald Trump.”

Related Coverage:

CNN Tonight

August 8, 2020

Inside the Mind of Donald Trump

New York Times

July 28, 2020

Like Father, Like Son: President Trump Lets Others Mourn

Ronn Owens Report

July 7-8, 2020

Ron Owens and Dan McAdams Delver into the Mind of Donald Trump. Part One. 




By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 8/20/20