The Psychopath in Chief
I spent hundreds of hours with Donald Trump to ghost-write ‘The Art of the Deal.’ I now see a deeper meaning behind his behavior.
May 28 · 12 min read
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
“Imagine — if you can — not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken … You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain undiscovered. How will you live your life? What will you do with your huge and secret advantage?”
— Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door
Among the accomplishments Donald Trump parades most proudly is that he has won 18 golf club championships. Like so many of his claims, this one is pure fiction. When the sportswriter Rick Reilly investigated for his book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, he found that 16 of the claims were transparently false, and no evidence existed to support the other two. In one instance, Trump said he had won a championship at the Bedminster, New Jersey, club he owns, even though he was in Philadelphia on the day the event was held.
When Trump does play, Reilly reported, he takes “mulligans” (extra strokes that aren’t counted in one’s score ), throws opponent’s balls off the greens and into the bunkers, and kicks his own errant shots back onto the fairway so often that one of his caddies nicknamed him Pele, after the soccer star. “Trump doesn’t just cheat at golf,” Reilly concluded. “He cheats like a three-card Monty dealer. He throws it, boots it and moves it. He lies about his lies. He fudges and foozles and fluffs.”
How do we deal with a person whose core impulse in every part of his life is to deny, deceive, deflect, disparage, and double-down every time he is challenged? And what precisely is the danger such a person poses if he also happens to be the leader of the free world, during a crisis in which thousands of people are dying every day, with no letup in sight?
The first answer is that we must understand exactly who we’re dealing with, and we have not, because what motivates Trump’s behavior is so far from our own inner experience that it leaves us feeling forever flummoxed.
The trait that most distinguishes psychopaths is the utter absence of conscience — the capacity to lie, cheat, steal, and inflict pain to achieve their ends without a scintilla of guilt or shame, as Trump so demonstrably does.
In July 2016, shortly before Trump became the Republican nominee for president, I was interviewed by Jane Mayer for an article in The New Yorker that was eventually titled “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All.” Mayer described my experience with Trump over the 18 months it took me to write The Art of the Deal. During that time, I spent hundreds of hours with him.
Like many other Trump critics, I believed that he was driven by an insatiable narcissistic hunger to be loved, accepted, admired, and praised. That remains prima facie true, but it deflects attention from what drives Trump more deeply: the need to dominate. His primary goal is to win at any cost and the end always justifies the means. Ultimately, he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks or feels. For Trump, the choice between dominating and being loved — saving himself or saving others — is no contest.
The catalyst for my shift came after a friend sent me a long paper written by Vince Greenwood, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist. Greenwood makes a detailed clinical case that Trump is a psychopath, a term that is now used nearly interchangeably with sociopath. Psychologists continue to debate whether it’s legitimate to diagnose anyone from a distance without the benefit of a clinical interview. In Trump’s case, his life history is so well documented that a thorough assessment does seem possible. As I once did up close, we can observe every day which psychopathic traits Trump manifests in his behavior. The highly regarded Hare Psychopathy Checklist enumerates 20 of them. By my count Trump clearly demonstrates 16 of the traits and his overall score is far higher than the average prison inmate.
The trait that most distinguishes psychopaths is the utter absence of conscience — the capacity to lie, cheat, steal, and inflict pain to achieve their ends without a scintilla of guilt or shame, as Trump so demonstrably does. What Trump’s words and behavior make clear is that he feels no more guilt about hurting others than a lion does about killing a giraffe.
“Let’s face it,” actor and Trump supporter James Woods tweeted recently, “Donald Trump is a rough individual. He is vain, insensitive, and raw,” to which Trump blithely responded: “I think that’s a wonderful compliment. Thanks James.” Absence of conscience gives Trump the license to invent his own rules, define his own reality, declare victory in any competition, and insist on his superior expertise on subjects about which he knows almost nothing.
What makes Trump’s behavior challenging to fathom is that our minds are not wired to understand human beings who live far outside the norms, rules, laws, and values that the vast majority of us take for granted. Conscience, empathy, and concern for the welfare of others are all essential to the social contract. Conscience itself reflects an inner sense of obligation to behave with honesty, fairness, and care for others, along with a willingness to express contrition if we fall short of those ideals, and especially when we harm others.
Repentance for one’s sins is a basic tenet of every major religion, but Trump adamantly resists seeking forgiveness from anyone for anything he’s done. “I have a very great relationship with God,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper during the 2016 presidential campaign. “I like to be good. I don’t like to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”
So long as we seek to understand Trump’s motivations and behaviors through our own lens, we will feel forever at sea. Viewing Trump through his lens helps clarify that his behavior is completely predictable, and why it has become more extreme during each year of his presidency. “When somebody’s president,” Trump declared on April 13, “the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total. It’s total.” When it became clear to Trump that total authority also meant personal responsibility, he backed off that claim. But Trump is akin to a battering ram. He just keeps coming at you. The only limitation on his behavior is whether he believes he can get away with whatever it is he’s trying to do.
“People with a strong sense of conscience speak truth to power,” Greenwood explains. “Trump speaks power to truth.” Since his election in 2016, Trump has told more than 18,000 lies without acknowledging or apologizing for any of them. The frequency of his lies has risen from five per day in the first year of his presidency, to more than 23 a day during 2020. For Trump, lying is second nature. Facts are simply are obstacles to be batted away when they contradict his preferred fictions.
It is a fact, for example, that Trump has been a defendant in nearly 1,500 lawsuits over the past three decades — by government agencies seeking to collect unpaid taxes on his properties, contractors trying to get paid for services rendered to him and his companies, and women charging him with sexual assault. As far back as 1973, Trump and his father Fred were sued by the U.S. government for refusing to rent to African Americans in Trump Village, a housing project built by his father Fred. The two Trumps fought the charges for two years but eventually signed a consent order that included agreeing to take a series of actions to end their discrimination.
In 2015, Trump settled two class-action lawsuits charging him with defrauding students at Trump University by paying $25 million in penalties, and agreeing to close down the business. In 2018, in response to a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general against Trump and his three oldest children alleging “persistently illegal conduct,” the Trumps agreed to shut the phony foundation, and to allow its remaining assets to be directed to charities chosen by the court.
The second quality that sets Trump apart is his lack of empathy. In the face of a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, we expect leaders to feel our pain, and to respond with expressions of compassion and comfort. Not Trump. In 13 hours of comments he made over a recent three-week period, The Washington Post reported that he spent a total of two hours attacking others, including the media, 45 minutes praising himself and his administration, and a total of just 4.5 minutes expressing rote condolences for Covid-19 victims and front line workers.
Trump doesn’t appear to make heartfelt connections with anyone, nor to value relationships beyond the extent to which they serve his immediate self-interest. Turnover in his administration — 85% in the first 32 months — dwarfs that of his five most recent predecessors for their entire first terms. Trump treats even his relationships with family members as transactional. Consider the way he describes his relationship with his father, arguably the most important influence in his life. “I was never intimidated by my father, the way other people were,” he explained to me for The Art of the Deal. “I stood up to him and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike. I sometimes wonder if we’d have gotten along so well if I hadn’t been as business oriented as I am.”
Trump rarely speaks with affection about Melania, his third wife, or any of his children — with the exception of Ivanka — or his grandchildren. “I know friends who leave their businesses so they can spend more time with their children, and I say “Gimme a break,” Trump once explained. “My children couldn’t love me more if I spent 15 times more time with them.” But his children have sometimes described a different experience of their father. In 2004, Donald Jr. told a reporter that “My father is a very hardworking guy, and that’s his focus in life, so I got a lot of the paternal attention that a boy wants and needs from my grandfather.” In 2006, Trump’s younger son Eric mused that he was largely raised by his older brother. “My father, I love and appreciate,” he said, “but he always worked 24 hours a day.”
Ivanka is the one child Trump has often praised, including for being “voluptuous and having the best body.” When she was 26, Trump told hosts of The View that “If Ivanka wasn’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” Trump’s most emphatic declaration of love during the past four years has been directed at North Korea’s Kim Jung Un, one of the most ruthless dictators in the world. “I was being really tough and so was he,” Trump said in 2018. “And we would go back and forth and then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters, and then we fell in love.” What Trump especially admires in authoritarian leaders, among them Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro — all of whom he has lavishly praised — is their ability to exercise absolute power. “I wouldn’t mind a little bow,” Trump once said. “In Japan they bow. I love it. Only thing I love about Japan.”
Trump expects and demands loyalty, but it only goes in one direction. His mentor, Roy Cohn, served dutifully as his attorney for many years. “Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy,” Trump told biographer Tim O’Brien. “He brutalized for you.” For The Art of the Deal, Trump described Cohn to me as “the sort of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed… literally standing by you to the death, long after everyone else had bailed out”
As for Cohn, he referred to Trump not just as his client, but also as one of his closest friends. Still, when Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, Trump effectively ended the relationship. “Donald found out about it and dropped him like a hot potato,” explained Cohn’s longtime secretary, Susan Bell. “It was like night and day.” According to Bell, Cohn wasn’t surprised. “Donald pisses ice water,” he told her ruefully.
The third trait that most characterizes Trump is his need for dominance, and the evident pleasure he takes in exercising it. “I love getting even when I get screwed by someone,” he explains in his book Think Big and Kick Ass. “Always get even. When you are in business you need to get even with people who screw you. You need to screw them back 15 times harder.” In the absence of a conscience to shape and limit his behavior, Trump defaults to a more primitive and predatory impulse. Life for him is a zero-sum game. He either wins or he loses, dominates or submits. This explains why Trump felt no compunction about lashing out this week at a frequent critic, Joe Scarborough, by falsely accusing him of murder, even in the absence of a shred of evidence to support his claim. Cruelty is second nature to Trump.
Perhaps nowhere is Trump’s need for dominance more evident than in his relationship with women, captured most vividly in his comments to Billy Bush on the Access Hollywood tape. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]. I just start kissing them,” he bragged. “It’s like a magnet. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.” More than 20 women have now publicly accused Trump of sexual assault.
Another tactic that Trump employs to assert his authority is declaring his unique expertise on virtually any subject. He instinctively disdains and dismisses the knowledge of experts, including scientists, and instead casts himself as the leading expert on anything and everything. Topics that Trump has claimed to “know more about than anyone” include ISIS, drones, social media, campaign finance, technology, polls, courts, lawsuits, politicians, trade, renewable energy, infrastructure, construction, environmental impact statements, nuclear weapons, banks, tax laws, income, money, and the economy. In fact, because he can never focus his attention for long, his knowledge about any subject tends to be superficial and severely limited. Trump has even felt free to contradict the health care professionals on his own team during the Covid-19 crisis, most notably in describing the potential healing power of injecting disinfectants into the body. “Every one of these doctors said, “How do you know so much about this?” he explained. “Maybe I have a natural ability.”
In order to protect our democracy and our shared humanity, it’s critical to push back, calmly and persistently
So what does all this tell us about how we can expect Trump to behave going forward? The simple answer is worse. His obsession with domination and power have prompted Trump to tell lies more promiscuously than ever since he became president, and to engage in ever more unfounded and aggressive responses aimed at anyone he perceives stands in his way.
In the end, Trump does what he does because he is who he is, immutably. The research now strongly suggests that the absence of conscience has a strong hereditary basis, even as it may also be activated by adverse childhood experiences. The genetic abnormality itself manifests in the limbic system, the set of brain structures involved in the processing of emotions. People without a conscience, it turns out, often have an undersized or under-active amygdala and less gray matter in the limbic area of the brain.
For four years, along with millions of other Trump critics, I have wrestled with the best way to respond to a president who is incapable of shame or empathy and cares only about his self-interest. There is no effective treatment for a person with these traits, and Trump wouldn’t seek one if there was, because he genuinely doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with him. The horrifying truth is that it’s precisely what he’s missing that gives him a permanent advantage over the vast majority of us who are guided by a conscience and concern for others.
Trump revels in attention, domination, and cruelty. “The sociopath wants to manipulate and control you,” explains Martha Stout, “and so you are rewarding and encouraging him each and every time you allow him to see your anger, confusion or your hurt.” Even so, in order to protect our democracy and our shared humanity, it’s critical to push back, calmly and persistently, against every single lie Trump tells, and every legal and moral boundary he violates. We must resist what Hanna Arendt has called “the banality of evil” — the numbness and normalizing that so easily sets in when unconscionable acts become commonplace. “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply,” Arendt has written, “but some people will not.”
Understanding what we’re truly up against — the reign of terror that Trump will almost surely wage the moment he believes he can completely prevail — makes the upcoming presidential election a true Armageddon.
Vote as if your life depends on it, because it does.