A psychologist explains how Trump's own words reveal the traits that make him unfit for office

A psychologist explains how Trump's own words reveal the traits that make him unfit for office
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, takes questions from reporters during a Coronavirus Task Force update Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo D. Myles Cullen)

This continues the series, "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump Revisited: Mental Health Experts on the Devastating Mishandling of a Pandemic." Whereas we could not have predicted a pandemic three-and-a-half years ago, the authors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President anticipated how the president would respond, should there be a crisis. We tried to warn the public of the very consequences that are unfolding today: abuse of power, incompetence, loss of lives and livelihoods of many Americans, and increasing violence.

Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Stanford University, is a scholar, educator, and researcher. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for his landmark Stanford prison study. Among his more than five hundred publications are the best seller The Lucifer Effect and such notable psychology textbooks as Psychology: Core Concepts, 8th edition, and Psychology and Life, now in its 20th edition. He is founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project (heroicimagination.org), a worldwide nonprofit teaching people of all ages how to take wise and effective action in challenging situations. He continues to research the effects of time perspectives and time perspective therapy.

Lee: Your lifetime work in social psychology and more recently on time perception have guided me and others for a long time, but especially since the beginning of our publicly speaking up. What are your current observations on Donald Trump?

Zimbardo: Our president has two new distinctions: first the analog of the worst prison guards of the Stanford prison experiment; and secondly, he is the most extreme present hedonist in the universe. Two quotes that exemplify part of my presentation that will follow are, first, Trump's desire for dominance over everyone can be fully realized as his new role as the mean prison guard who rules over all citizens as his imaginary prisoners. And secondly, as an extreme present hedonist, Trump makes important national and international decisions, as we just heard from the previous speaker, without ever thinking about the future consequences. He also becomes addicted to any activity that is novel and readily accessible, notably Trump's Twitter mania.

How have you come to these conclusions?

First, Trump as domineering prison guard. I often analogize between Donald Trump and the worst prison guard in my Stanford prison experiment. That student, who by chance was assigned to play a prison guard, soon internalized that role in the extreme. He reported later that he felt as if he were a puppeteer, and the prisoners, who were other students, were his puppets. That he could make them do anything by pulling their strings. This total dehumanization of others is like a dictatorial mindset that characterizes much of Trump's treatment of everyone, starting with his personal staff, his appointed team, extending to women, American minorities, immigrants, climate scientists, victims of extreme natural disasters, and all political opponents. Power is Trump's aphrodisiac. And then I want to add another of his mindless addictions. Virtually everything he has done publicly since becoming president of the United States is part of his addiction.

Secondly, Trump's previous manifestation of sexual addiction pales in comparison to his recent Twitter over-the-top addiction. In the past three years he has made almost 22,000 "tweets." His "tweets" have been regularly increasing: 6.5 daily in 2017, eight daily in 2018, almost ten daily in 2019, and, so far, more than 34 daily in 2020! As he becomes more manic, his Twitter explosion has been as high as 200 "tweets" on one day and night in June 2020. Some are totally incoherent as if he were publicly revealing he is mentally unraveling. Many of these "tweets" reflect his egocentric megalomania and extreme grandiosity, as Trump is praising himself as brilliant: "I'm a stable genius." Even more self-aggrandizing assertions such as being able to achieve anything he wants to that no other American president in all of history has ever been able to do, and that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

You have described since the beginning what people find to be the most compelling characteristic about him: his present hedonism. Would you explain what that is?

As an extreme present hedonist, Trump lives in the moment without any concern for the validity or prior foundation of any of his assertions. Since becoming president, Donald Trump has made over 20,000 lies, more for misleading claims, many of them repeated hundreds of times, and have been rising exponentially over the years. These conclusions are based on decades of scientific research on the psychology of time perspective. I developed a scale called "the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory," and we studied people around the world, and to be a present hedonist means you live in the moment, you seek novelty, you live only for enjoyment, you never think about the future, you never link what you are doing now to its future consequences. My inventory is the most reliable and valid measure of individual differences in time perspective, and many researchers and businesspeople around the world are using it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

He is also an extreme narcissist. Everything is about I, he, and me. We saw this in the first debate where he was uncontainable. They could not hold him down, he was oozing all over the place! In the second debate where they had a mute, he was contained, but two interesting things. The moderator asked Joe Biden and Donald Trump: "Imagine you are elected as president in the next election, what would your acceptance speech be to the nation?" And Biden said, this means you have to imagine, something that is going to happen next month, and Biden accepted that and simply said, "My fellow Americans, as your president, I will do the following three things." When it was Trump's turn—this is his most fervent desire, to be the president—he could not do that. He could not project himself into that future, and he kept complaining about what he had been talking about earlier, that people do not appreciate what he has done, he is under-appreciated. So, that is one instance.

Recently, he has been going around the nation. He actually loves being up on the stage. He loves these things. Recently, he was going on and on about how washing machines and showers waste water. But not just mentioning it, taking five to ten minutes to this audience, what this was, he was following up on Biden's sense at that, he is not interested in conservations. He is not interested that we have to do to conserve our resources, given the climate change. His inability to project what is needed by America to go from where we are to where we should be, and also what it means to be a present hedonist is, you seek novelty. You are bored by sameness. And he has virtually said this: "The problem with COVID-19 is it keeps coming on, it is on and on. It is boring." Waving his hand, he said: "Let us get past it, let us get by it, let us get on." So, these are the traits that make him totally unfit to be a president, make him unfit to be anything, and continues to be a danger. One thing that can happen is, we vote him out of office.

Read previous interviews with Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, Dr. Judith Herman, Dr. James Gilligan, and Drs. Dee Mosbacher and Nanette Gartrell.

Follow Dr. Lee at bandylee.com.

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