Trump’s Dark Triad, and Ours

We dabble in parlor-game theories of What’s Wrong With Him. We'd rather not talk about what’s wrong with us.

A month ago we could only suspect what Donald Trump would do to lead a nation to the suspicion — voiced more and more often since his installation as president of the United States on January 20th — that (in the words of GQ Special Correspondent Keith Olbermann) “there’s something ... wrong with him.”

From almost the beginning, Trump’s mental state has been called into question, as misbehaviors from the merely baffling to the flat-out bizarre have played out live from Washington, in front of a less-than-grateful nation and a terrified world.

The New Republic went so far as to speculate that the president “may have an untreated sexually transmitted disease that has led to a condition called ‘neurosyphilis,’ characterized by ‘irritability, loss of ability to concentrate, delusional thinking, and grandiosity.’”

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Any number of other armchair-shrink theories have emerged as to what’s happening; one of the more compelling and comprehensive arguments is that Trump suffers from malignant narcissism, characterized by a thirst for admiration; a more or less universal suspicion of those outside an inner circle; aggression ... and a host of other behavior patterns.

Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists recognize this and other factors as part of a “dark triad” personality, one that exhibits three distinct traits: machiavellianism (a manipulative inclination), narcissism (excessive love of one’s self), and psychopathy (lack of empathy).

Allen Frances, a renowned psychiatrist, dismissed most of the non-clinical assessments in a Feb. 14 letter to The New York Times. “Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder,” he wrote. “I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill ...

"It is a stigmatizing insult to the mentally ill (who are mostly well behaved and well meaning) to be lumped with Mr. Trump (who is neither).”

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Frances’ opinion has a lot of weight; he’s the former chairman of the psychiatry department at Duke University School of Medicine, and the chairman of the group that wrote the fourth edition of what is considered the gold standard of working psychiatric literature, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (shorthanded as the D.S.M-IV.

His reputation is formidable, but so are the reps of more than 25,600 health professionals who've signed a Change.org petition seeking Trump's removal from office "according to article 3 of the 25th amendment to the Constitution." And the reputations of 35 mental-health professionals and social workers who signed and published a letter in The New York Times on Feb. 21, claiming that Trump showed a “grave emotional instability” making him “incapable of serving safely as president.”

“It doesn’t matter what goes on in his head,” Frances told the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 19, “the goal is to tame this guy. We are not going to do it by analyzing his motivations. What we have to do is reduce his power ...”

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Frances is wrong and right on this. The history of psychiatry may or may not understand that both are necessary, but the world of politics certainly does. In order to reduce Trump’s power, it’s necessary to first have some referential frame, to gain some comprehension of what makes him tick. Human nature compels it, so does good strategy. Sun Tze said it in The Art of War: To defeat an adversary, one must know him with both intimacy and detachment.

But Frances observes, rightly, I think, that the solution to Trump will ultimately be a political reality, Trump may well be a captive of the dark triad, but his actions and rhetoric before and after taking office indicate moral, presidential, constitutional and geopolitical crises in the making. A clinical crisis may be the least of our worries.

When that solution comes, we’ll thank the resilience of the United States Constitution for it, not the D.S.M.-IV. For now, we get to dabble in parlor-game theories of What’s Wrong With Him ... and avoid going where that speculation ultimately leads — to that unsettling thought of how it’s really about what’s wrong with us, about how we let this happen ... about how any dark triad in Donald Trump reflects on one of our very own.

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross contributes to Medium. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, PopMatters, The New York Times, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Salon, The Root, msnbc.com, BuzzFeed, and other publications.

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Trump’s Dark Triad, and Ours