What Makes Donald Trump Tick and Why He Was Elected

Featured, Leadership

This article was written in February 2017; just one month after President Trump took office. I believe it could provide the framework for a very interesting discussion centered around the behavioral tendencies of POTUS. I hope you will find this article timely, insightful, and thought-provoking.  

This is Part 1 of a series of articles that are geared to critically assess the behavioral tendencies and style of Donald John Trump, President of the United States of America. The term “critical” as in Critical Thinking refers to the ability of separating my biases and preconceived assumptions about President Trump in order to see him in the clearest way possible. It is basically “stepping out of my Trump paradigm” in order to observe his behaviors and decisions through a neutral framework. 

After what I have observed in regard to our electoral process and governance in the last two years, this analytical examination will be very challenging for me. You may ask “who am I” to write about this subject? Why should you read and put any credence in my opinion and what are my credentials that make me an authority to address this subject? All these questions are legitimate concerns, so let me answer in the hope that you will give me the benefit of the doubt. I am just a regular guy you may pass by in the street and who you probably would not even notice but what gives me credibility to perform such a critical assessment of the President is that for the last 40 years I have been consulting in the field of Organizational Behavior and throughout my career have had the privilege of working with organizations in the United States, Mexico, South America, and Europe. 

My areas of expertise are Leadership Development, Team Building, and Senior Executive Assessments. I am contracted by my clients to assess senior leaders within their organization and provide the consultative insight they need to identify leadership potential for key roles. Additionally, I am asked to conduct comprehensive assessments of potential candidates for senior executive positions. I identify a candidate’s leadership abilities, character, motivation, and cultural fit as well as potential risks or derailers that can have significant implications in both the short- and long-term success of the enterprise. I have been lucky to make a living doing what I love which is listening to others, observing behaviors, identifying patterns of behavior, and acting as an “unbiased” mirror for my clients. 

I identify a personality type by analyzing the verbal statements, messages, or narrative of individuals and by observing their nonverbal expressions, demeanor, tone of voice, points of emphasis, language/vocabulary used, the way of dressing, and the way they organize their thoughts. Based on this analysis, I am able to identify an individual’s personal tendencies and how those tendencies drive behavior and the impact they will tend to have on others. 

I confess I have not done much research into the history of our President except what has been published or seen in the media, and I have not read his book “The Art of The Deal.” My observations are based on what I have read and seen about him over the course of the last 30 to 35 years. When assessing President Trump, I frame my assessment on the following tendencies or competencies: 

Abstract Reasoning: The ability to analyze information, detect patterns and relationships between apparent unrelated events, and solve complex problems on an intangible level. It includes being able to formulate theories about the nature of objects and ideas and being objective in the analysis of an issue in order to make a judgment 

Aggressiveness: The tendency to protect the self through emotion-based expressions and the tendency to dominate, diminish, or destroy a perceived threat through attack and an instinctual reaction to fight. 

Cautiousness: A self-defense tendency that is part of our brain function and which we continue to develop (or not) in order to deal with uncertainty, prevent or avoid danger, or minimize risk. It’s often displayed by searching for information and data, researching similar situations and actions taken by others, and assessing the outcomes. It requires holding back in order to understand and reduce the uncertainty, danger, or failure when acting cautiously, we move or act slowly. 

Creative Ideation: The tendency to think “outside the box,” develop new ideas and ways of looking at things and be experimental and innovative. 

Critical Thinking: A mode of thinking about a subject, content, or problem in which the individual improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing the problem in order to see what is presented to him or her apart from his/her preconceived assumptions or biases. 

Dependence: The tendency to rely on external structures, protocols, policies and procedures, and authority figures in order to guide an individual’s decisions and actions. 

Ego Drive: The need to win and to convince others as a way to assert and enhance the individual’s self-esteem. 

Ego Strength/Resilience: Resilience is the self-confidence and ability to handle rejection and accept criticism in a manner that is positive and growth oriented. 

Empathy: The tendency to read and understand the feelings and emotions of others in order to better understand them and their emotional condition and state of mind. 

Extroversion/Gregariousness: The tendency to enjoy being nurtured, being surrounded by groups of people, being  able to express emotions, and maintaining outgoing, talkative, and energetic behavior. 

Flexibility: The tendency to adapt or change according to emerging situations and/or requirements. 

Independence: The tendency to behave without external protocols, directions, or procedures the drive for self-determination. 

Openness: The tendency to be receptive to new ideas, options, or perspectives that differ from an individual’s preconceived notions.

Risk-Taking: Reflects the degree of comfort one has in taking chances or trying new things. 

 Self-Esteem: An overall sense of self-worth or personal value it’s the image that we carry of our self throughout our lives and defines how we live our lives, the choices we make, and how we interact with others. It “sets the script” of our life. We rely on the perception of others in order to enhance, maintain, or protect our sense of worth. 

Skepticism: The tendency to distrust the motives of others and see them as a potential threat. 

Urgency: The tendency to reach closure as soon as possible. Urgency is often driven by anxiety as well as the need to see actual results, and urgency may turn into impatience. 

Vigilance/Watchfulness: The tendency to defensively observe the actions or behaviors of others in order to protect one’s self-worth.  

What Makes President Trump Tick?

One key element in President Trump’s approach to life is as a result of his low self-esteem or self-worth. A poor self-image (low Ego Strength/Resilience) is a key motivator for his achievements as well as his failures, it sets his “life script.” He indirectly enhances his self-worth through the reactions of others toward him and his actions. For President Trump, he needs to win, be at the top, and possess all the materialistic things that display his grandiosity. 

Before, during, and after the primary debates, it was easy to see his tendency to minimize others by using demeaning nicknames or making negative remarks. He referred to fellow contender Marco Rubio as “little Marco” and Ted Cruz as “lyin Ted.” He called Jeb Bush lightweight, not a smart man, stiff, a spoiled child, boring, and a very low energy guy. He insulted Rand Paul on his physical appearance (“I never attacked him or his looks and, believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there”) and made disparaging comments about Carly Fiorina (“look at that face, would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”). He mocked Chris Christie about his weight (“you’re not eating Oreos anymore”) and likened him to “a little boy,” and he critiqued John Kasich’s manners (“I have never seen a human being eat in such a disgusting fashion”). Using this approach in the debates, Trump was able to position himself as the aggressor, force others to defend themselves, and move the discussion to a level where he was able to be the dominant one without having to engage in any significant, content-rich debate. 

He was able to exploit the vulnerability of the 17 other potential nominees and aggressively engage in belittling them with little or no regard for their feelings (low Empathy). With his “bullying” and complete disregard for “protocol” (low Dependence), he became the protagonist of the debates which was then enhanced by the incremental amount of attention he received from the media (e.g., CNN, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many others). Watching Donald Trump at the Republican debates garnered more viewership than his television reality series, The Apprentice. The “Trump Show” was a precursor to what would later become the presidency of the United States of America. 

Throughout the debates, Trump didn’t follow a script or a teleprompter. He seems to prefer being unstructured and not limited by any external structure, he reacts emotionally based on the circumstances triggered by the moment. His behavioral tendencies displayed during the debates were low Self-Esteem, very high Aggressiveness, very low Empathy, high Skepticism, high Vigilance, and low Dependence. For Trump, every debate became an invigorating, energizing experience that stimulated his need to be popular and the “alpha male.” Trump’s low Self-esteem was being nurtured indirectly by the reaction of the press and by the number of people who were watching the primaries just to see his ascendency toward being the Republican nominee for president. 

Once nominated as the Republican presidential candidate and up against Secretary Hillary Clinton, Trump’s strategy remained the same with the use of derogatory nicknames (“crooked Hillary”) and rabble-rousing comments (“lock her up”). He repeatedly called Secretary Clinton a “liar,” labeled her the “devil” and contended she had “tremendous hate in her heart.” He referenced the President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky relationship to continue his offensive, minimizing strategy of Secretary Clinton, and he continued his relentless attack over her emails as well as blamed her for the birth of ISIS. During their debates, Trump continued to display very high Aggressiveness, high Skepticism, extremely low Empathy, and low average Abstract Reasoning and Critical Thinking. The latter is due to his inability to sustain a thoughtful and content-rich debate and his apparent lack of ability to defend or oppose any position with empirical data or well-founded research. He reacted “in the moment” with little or no discipline and made statements which he contradicted days later. It appears that he relied on his instinctive vigilance to identify and target his attack on the most vulnerable part of his opponent without regard to any protocol or debate etiquette, he simply broke the rules of engagement. This became appealing to the masses who saw Trump’s behavior as daring and a challenge to the status quo.  

Trump’s vocabulary seems to be fairly simple which displays a low level of verbal and conceptual sophistication. Among his most preferred words are “disgusting, terrible, disaster, beautiful thing, tremendous, huge, amazing, fake, and mess.” The lack of content behind his judgmental words is a clear example of his simple and basic vocabulary. His low self-image is evident as he enhances his competencies with inflated statements. According to Trump, nobody knows more about banking, debt, politicians, trade, taxes, or the system than he does. No one respects women more, reads the Bible more, is more conservative, is bigger or better at the military, or more pro-Israel than he is. There’s nobody who’s done so much for equality or who feels more strongly about women’s health issues, or who builds better walls—and he knows more than the generals. Nobody’s ever been more successful than he! 

Trump’s relationship with the media in many ways is what made him the president and, as we have all witnessed, that relationship is very contentious. References to the “fake media” and the “fake news” invalidate all media except for Fox News. In his view of the world, those who disagree with him or criticize him become “bad people.” His nonverbal demeanor such as pointing fingers and dismissive hand gestures, his ordering someone to “sit down,” his ignoring questions, and his judgmental, offensive, or devaluing tweets in response to what is being said about him are all descriptors in contradiction to how he wants to be seen. They are a display of his high aggressive tendency, his very low self-image (low Ego Strength/Resilience), and his defense mechanism which is to instinctually attack. 

Throughout this article, I am analyzing Trump’s directives, proposals, and patterns of behavior. As an example, his promise to “build a wall.” As we all know, President Trump is the founder of the Trump organization. He attained his wealth and fame as a prominent New York real estate developer and increased his notoriety more recently as the producer and host of The Apprentice television reality show. His wealth has come from his ability to build big buildings which can be seen and touched, buildings are concrete, they are not ideas or abstractions. Donald Trump loves to build, see the results, and put his name on top of a building. He is a concrete-oriented person with a strong urgency to see the outcome of his efforts. Building a wall along the United States-Mexico border is something concrete, he can see it and the world can see it. It’s a physical statement of his “concrete” orientation. What he fails to analyze is the feasibility, sustainability, economic, and political implications of such a wall. His ability for critical thinking and abstract reasoning again prove to be very low. His belief that a wall will stop drug trafficking, crime, and rapists from entering the country indicates the simplicity of his solutions to complex problems. Upon taking office, President Trump engaged in the signing of a barrage of Executive orders driven by his urgent need to implement his campaign promises without fully contemplating the strategic, political, and economic consequences. Simply stating his promises, let alone implementing them, are again examples of his behavioral tendencies…high Aggressiveness, high Urgency, low Cautiousness, low Thoroughness, and low average Abstract Reasoning and Critical Thinking. For President Trump, an opinion that differs from his is, by principle, wrong as often displayed in his exchanges with the media or, as an example, in his phone conversation with the Australian Prime Minister. He tends to get angry, impatient, and judgmental. From a behavioral observation, this reflects his low level of Openness and Flexibility, high Urgency, low Cautiousness, and high Aggressiveness. 

Another example is President Trump’s announcement about Israel and the Jews. Prior to Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, he publicly promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a promise that was made without understanding the political implications of such a move, not just for the USA but for Israel and the Muslim world. Such an ill-conceived promise reflects President Trump’s low average Critical Thinking and Abstract Reasoning, low Thoroughness, and low Dependency as well as his very high Urgency that may turn into recklessness. Currently, Israel is experiencing one of the most peaceful times in its history. The State of Israel is maintaining relationships with Egypt and Jordan and is sharing intelligence with the Saudis and the Emirates. They all have a common enemy, Iran and the Assad regime. Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem may force a unification of the Muslim world and become a catalyst for uniting the Muslim world against Israel and the United States.  

President Trump is often described as a narcissist and I certainly agree with that description of him. A “narcissist” from a psychiatric perspective is a mental personality disorder characterized by a person’s overestimation of his or her attractiveness and abilities. In simple terms, it can be defined as excessive self-admiration and self-centeredness. However, being a narcissist does not imply the absence nor the abundance of the behavioral tendencies used in this analysis. From my perspective, President Trump has a low concept of self and in order to feel a higher sense of worth, he engages in a process of indirect self-acceptance. 

This dynamic is one where a person seeks admiration or wishes to be envied and feared by others. He or she seeks recognition of assumed personal attributes, such as being smarter, stronger etc. Often, these individuals display their accomplishments through material possessions such as mansions, expensive cars, expensive watches, and private airplanes. In many societies, a male surrounds himself with beautiful women or a “trophy wife” to display virility, assumed attractiveness, and masculinity. By doing so, such a man turns women into “objects.” 

Each person chooses their own strategy to feed their sense of worth. They become addicted to their indirect self-acceptance strategy and when they feel depleted, they look for an “inoculation” in order to feel good about themselves. One of the most conspicuous ways our President “gets his shot” is by constantly attending rallies where everyone calls his name (TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!) and where people see him as “the one” who is going to save them from their misery, people who need to have hope for a savior, for the mythological Hercules or Superman. 

Since I began the process of writing this article in late January of 2017, President Trump’s significantly troubling behavior and response to certain events are worth analyzing. 

His constant use of tweets: A behavior that reflects a very high Urgency, a combination of low Independence with low Dependence, high Risk-Taking, and high Extroversion. 

 The content of most of his tweets: A display of low Critical Thinking, low Empathy, high Vigilance, high Skepticism, high Aggressiveness, low Thoroughness, high Extroversion, low Flexibility, high Ego Drive, low Cautiousness, high Risk-Taking, low average Abstract Reasoning, low Self-Esteem, low Dependence, and low Independence. 

Accusing President Obama of wiretapping: Obama is an obvious target for Trump’s low Self-Esteem. He sees Obama as a threat to his self-worth and uses this accusation in order to devalue Obama. This behavior reflects high Aggressiveness, low Empathy, high Vigilance, low Cautiousness, low Thoroughness, low average Abstract Reasoning, high Risk-Taking, low Dependence, and low Independence. 

Angela Merkel: When sitting next to her in front of the cameras and “in front of the world,” he displayed dismissiveness, alpha male dominance, and arrogance which are all perfect examples of high Aggressiveness, extremely low Empathy, high Vigilance, low Openness, low Flexibility, low Dependence, low Independence, and high Skepticism. The same type of behavior was displayed more recently when he pushed aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro at the NATO summit. 

President Trump consistently displays his natural tendencies in most of his actions that have been captured by the media. In less than 60 days since his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States of America, we have seen many behaviors, read many tweets, and heard many statements, directives, and proposals from President Donald Trump such as the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and his proposed budget. I invite you to choose a behavior, tweet, statement, directive, or proposal that is not referenced in this article and analyze it through the competency framework I have presented. Then ask yourself as a citizen of the United States of America: Is this the man I would select to be the leader of our country? Is this the leader who is “going to make America great again”? Is he the leader who I would empower to decide the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal or be our Commander in Chief? And, as a citizen of the world, would you trust him with the decisions that assure the sustainability of our planet so that your children, your grandchildren, and future generations enjoy the opportunity to prosper in our healthy, beautiful, and amazing Planet Earth? If your answer is no, it behooves you to ask the question: Why did Donald Trump become the President of the United States? Let me try to give you an answer based on my tendency model. 

President Trump has a very high Ego Drive that translates into his need to convince others of his perspective, opinion, or decision, a need to “sell” to others in order to build up his self-worth. He has very high Vigilance/Watchfulness and high Skepticism that is displayed by his high level of distrust as to the motives of others. He is constantly “scanning” his audience in order to identify those who he sees as not being trustworthy and, by default, identifies the ones who value and admire him. Once he recognizes his “audience,” he intuitively crafts his message to appeal to that group of people instead of trying to invest energy in convincing those who see him as untrustworthy or those who may tend to be disapproving of him. To summarize, he chooses the path of least resistance by “selling” to the crowd who is ready to “buy” the promises they are craving to hear. 

President Trump also has a high level of Extroversion/Gregariousness. As an extrovert, he enjoys and gets nurtured when he is surrounded by large groups of people. He possesses a keen ability to “work the room,” and engage in superficial talk with a large number of people. He also has an innate ability to recognize names and faces which he uses to his advantage. By recognizing a recipient of his attention by the person’s name, it makes him or her feel important and, for President Trump, a strong prospect for his sales pitch.   

President Trump combines his very high Aggressiveness (easily identifies anger in others) with his passion (an expression of controlled aggressiveness or emotional intensity) so he can convey a sales pitch that resonates with those individuals or groups of people who are angry and ready to “buy” his simple solutions. 

President Trump has a low average Abstract Reasoning ability that translates into his simple language, simple messages, and big promises They can easily be understood and have resonance by addressing the core of such issues that his audience strongly embrace without thinking or reflecting on the complexity, impossibility, or negative consequences of what he is promising and selling to them. In essence, the citizens of this country with the help of the archaic Electoral College process and the support of a fairly polarized Republican Party elected a very capable “used car salesman.” 

As responsible citizens of the United States, whether we are Republican or Democrat, we should ask ourselves the question: What are the competencies, tendencies, and capabilities that are required to be the most effective candidate for the presidency? Then, when it’s time to exercise our right to vote, we focus on the attributes of the candidate rather than on the promises they sell. President Donald Trump, from my perspective, is not the person with the attributes or competencies to be the 45th President of the United States of America, the most powerful democracy in the world. 

In the next article (Part 2), I will be analyzing and examining President Trump’s behaviors and decisions as he deals with the complexities and challenges of his role of President as well as his approach to governance.