An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have starkly different personalities.

As the cliché goes, a week is a long time in politics. America has seen its presidency change from Republican to Democrat before, and vice versa. There have been regular swings in the sizes of leader egos too, but has the country ever seen as great a change in the personality of Presidents?

Trump

During his Presidency Donald Trump’s personality was questioned by those closest to him. Some claimed that he was a narcissist. The features of narcissism include patterns of grandiosity, the need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. An additional psychological label seemed prevalent as well. Former FBI director James Comey and Trump’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci are two of people who used the word sociopath. This is consistent with the views of those close to Trump before he became President.

As ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz spent 18 months with Trump. He camped out in his office, joined him on his helicopter, sat in on meetings, and spent weekends with him at both his Manhattan apartment and his Florida estate. Schwartz felt he’d got to know Donald better than almost anyone else outside the Trump family. When asked what the title of the book should have been, Schwartz suggested, The Sociopath.

Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, supported this diagnosis in her book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, referring to her uncle’s antisocial personality disorder. This describes patterns of disregard for the rights of other people, lack of conformity to social norms, deceitfulness, including repeated lying and conning people for personal profit, impulsivity, irritability, aggressiveness, irresponsibility and lack of remorse.

If Donald Trump is a sociopath, it is worth looking into how his personality could have evolved. In her book and subsequent interviews, Mary Trump offers profound insight to the shaping of Donald Trump.

Childhood

As a young boy, Joe Biden recalls his mother reminding him to imagine walking in the shoes of others, as she repeatedly instilled the values of empathy, courage and loyalty. According to Mary Trump, at a similar age Donald Trump’s father was teaching his son that sadness, kindness, and generosity were weaknesses, and that he had to win at all costs. Negativity was banished from the Trump household. Being a loser just wasn’t tolerated.

Mary paints a picture of an incredibly toxic climate for a child to grow up in. She defines the architect of that climate, Donald’s father, Fred Trump, as a “high-functioning sociopath” and describes his bullying, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and xenophobia, which are all traits the former president has been accused of.

Donald Trump’s mother, also called Mary, suffered health problems, leaving the future president and his siblings even more at the mercy of their father’s values. It was Donald’s older brother, Fred Jr., who received the most attention until their father realised his eldest son lacked the killer instinct he insisted on. Feeling ignored in his early years, Donald craved his father’s attention and learned the behaviours required to get it.

Already distant from his mother due to her illness, Donald was rejected further still by being cast away to military school at just 13 years old. Trump later described the school as “a tough, tough place” where the instructors “used to beat the sh*t out of you.” The anger about being exposed to this tough environment as a child, the lack of connection with his mother at a crucial development stage, and the values passed down from his father seem to have shaped Trump’s future relationships, his lack of understanding and connection with women in particular.

As we know, Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct and assault by more than 20 women. He denies all such claims. But can we take Trump at his word?

Scaramucci has repeatedly confirmed Trump to be a liar. In his book Fear, Bob Woodward quotes Trump’s outside counsel John Dowd claiming that when questioned Trump “just made something up” because “that’s his nature.” PolitiFact suggest that only 3% of the claims made by Trump are true, 9% mostly true, 15% half true, 20% mostly false, 36% are false, and 17% “pants on fire.”  This deceit and treatment of women is certainly behaviour that can be considered consistent with sociopathy.

Biden

Conversely, the word empathy seems to have attached itself to Joe Biden, and he wears this label with pride. Biden experienced problems in childhood, but his problems were external and conquered with the support of his family. Biden’s debilitating stutter made him a target for bullies, but he could go home and be honest with his mother about what was going on. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, believes that the experience of having a stutter ultimately gave her brother more empathy and compassion toward others.

Childhood

Biden attended the St. Helena School until he gained acceptance into the Archmere Academy, where he had to clean windows and weed the school gardens to help his family afford tuition. In comparison, Donald Trump’s education allegedly relied on his payment to another pupil to take his SATs, so that he could go to college. As Mary Trump explains, money was the only currency in his family. In Biden’s family, the dominant currencies seem to have been love and support.

The support of a family was maintained throughout Joe Biden’s childhood adversity and into his adult life. The tragic loss of his wife and daughter was something Biden says he could not have got through without the support of his extended family. He concludes that his personal tragedies have led to a greater empathy with people who are struggling.

Opinion

Mitchell S. McKinney, a University of Missouri professor who focuses on presidential debates and rhetoric, perceives Biden to be “reasonable and steady-as-you-go, comforting and empathetic.” When he awarded Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Barack Obama said of him, “To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretence, service without self-regard.” Americans may have chosen a leader with the qualities the nation needs.

The people who know these two presidents well have offered deep insight. If their characterisations are true, then America now has a far more empathic leader and should start to notice significant change. Empathic leaders bring people together, spread empathy to those they lead. They create more supportive and safer climates too, the like of which all of our children deserve to be raised within. All this is a reminder that as parents we need to give our children the support to thrive, so that they can parent and lead in a way that makes the world a better place for everyone.

References

Mayer, J. (2016). Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All – The New Yorker.

Price, W. (2020). Mary Trump on the Political Psychopathology of President Donald.

Wehner, P. (2020). Biden’s Empathy Is What Matches Him to This Moment – The Atlantic.

Article first published at Psychology Today

 

Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

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Rashford V Johnson : Passing Empathy to Politics

Rashford V Johnson : Passing Empathy to Politics

Rashford V Johnson : Passing Empathy to Politics

Empathy

Empathy is about understanding and is often fuelled by experience. Empathic politicians need to understand those they represent, yet we regularly see evidence of a lack of understanding, due to a lack of empathy. This leads to a fall in popularity or essential and embarrassing political U-turns, the like of which we have seen this week.

An estimated 1.3m children in England will be able to claim school meal vouchers during the summer holidays due to the pressure asserted by footballer Marcus Rashford. Former Education secretary, Justine Greening summed the situation up well: “I think there should be a post-mortem on how come a Premier League footballer is providing better advice to the Prime Minister than ministers and his wider government.”

The answer is empathy. We know that Marcus Rashford was able to provide such good advice because he has relied on such vouchers himself.

Marcus Rashford: Food voucher U-turn after footballer’s campaign >

Marcus Rashford

To begin with, we know that Rashford’s mother struggled to earn enough to feed her five children and had to rely on vouchers to bridge the gap. in addition, we are aware that there are more people in the UK living the experiences of the Rashfords than people living the experiences of the Johnsons. However, it is the decisions of the Johnsons of this country that influence the lives of the Rashfords.

To the best of our knowledge Boris Johnson has never had to rely on food voucher schemes. It seems unlikely that any of his family have, or any of his friends or indeed anyone he has ever known. Furthermore, most of his ministers have life experiences similar to his. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t provide better advice, for they too lack the empathic understanding that comes from shared experiences. This was highlighted when Matt Hancock referred to Marcus Rashford as Daniel. He blamed this on the similarity of the name Rashford to Radcliffe, the name of the actor who plays Harry Potter. Marcus Rashford is a Manchester United and England centre forward, but maybe our politicians are more familiar with quidditch than our national sport of football.

Politicians

A UK politician’s unfamiliarity with mainstream culture is no rarity. We didn’t have to wait long for another example. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, no less, revealed his level of understanding for the gesture of taking a knee by saying it came from Game of Thrones. Raab was apparently unaware of the actions of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL.

Looking back there are equally comical examples. In 2015, the PM, David Cameron showed his lack of understanding of football by confusing West Ham with Aston Villa.

Election 2015: Cameron ‘brain fade’ over West Ham / Aston Villa support

A year later, London Mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith couldn’t name which London football team play at Loftus Road. Neither could he name a Central Line tube station in the centre of the capital.

Zac Goldsmith Crashes And Burns In Quiz On London

Of course, we can’t all have the same experiences as others. Empathising is possible without shared experiences, although it’s more difficult and you have to be a motivated and skilled empathiser. You have to be able to use your imagination, drawing on everything you know about similar situations in order to understand another’s perspective. This is often referred to as mentalising or cognitive empathy. Ideally, political leaders employ cognitive, rather than emotional empathy, in order to protect themselves from the draining experience of the constant sharing of emotions. Developing cognitive empathy is certainly possible for those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of those they lead.

Empathy is becoming a more essential tool in contemporary politics. It seems voters are starting to expect it. When it’s clearly lacking our leaders will struggle to hold onto power. Marcus Rashford will walk onto the pitch a little taller this week, due to his empathy, which has enhanced respect and popularity; two things politicians crave. When it comes the empathy, in the match between Rashford and Johnson there is only one winner!

 

Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

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  Empathic Leadership The style of empathic leadership is based on the understanding that it is impossible to connect with or to motivate followers if you cannot envision life from their perspective. This realisation has led to empathy becoming a highly...

read more
What is Empathy?

What is Empathy?

So what is it? When we talk about empathy we are focusing on a way of understanding another’s perspective by vicariously experiencing their emotions. This is often referred to as ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. However, this phrase can be misleading, for we need...

read more

The Empathy of Cummings & Trump

The Empathy of Cummings & Trump

The Empathy of Cummings & Trump

Cummings and Trump

We have seen Cummings and Trump dominate the news and public discourse for two weeks, with both being accused of lacking empathy. Moreover, Piers Morgan recently suggested to the viewing public that President Trump, who he knows personally, has a “complete inability to show empathy”, and that he’d prefer Angela Merkel to be leading the US’ coronavirus response instead. The science concerning gender differences in empathic ability remains hazy. Some male subjects have managed to match female levels of empathy, but only when financially incentivised. It’s clear that women are expected to be more empathic than men and we tend to fulfil such expectations. Female leaders across the globe have done little during the pandemic to weaken this expectation; Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Sanna Marin of Finland, Erna Solberg of Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan being fine examples.

A Lack of Empathy

The lack of empathy attributed to Trump seems focused on his individual skillset rather than him being a man. Morgan’s comment reminded me of when a renowned expert in empathy suggested to me that Trump’s success in getting elected was down to his empathy. This may have been true. Empathy for the electorate certainly provides crucial knowledge and therefore a pathway to success. It’s possible that Trump saw things less like the establishment politicians up against him and more like some voters. Yet a shared perspective on issues is not proof of empathy. As his Presidency has proceeded, it’s been a struggle to believe that Trump is particularly skilled in understanding or sharing the perspectives of others.

To understand and feel the way others do it helps if we have shared experiences. It’s no secret that Trump inherited significant wealth. His struggles are incomparable with most of his voters. They are predominantly from a very different demographic. Research tells us that in-group empathising is far more likely and achievable than empathising with someone in another group. When we consider other groups in society, like gender, cultural or racial groups, Trump is challenged further still.

Infedelity

If infidelity is indicative of a lack of empathy for partners, Trump, and Boris Johnson for that matter, tick the box. Trump’s infamous comments objectifying women fail to counter this. Should it come as a surprise then when he is accused of lacking empathy for people of a different colour skin? It’s argued that Trump’s empathic deficit was demonstrated during the protests and riots across America with his echoing of the words of late Miami police chief Walter Headley “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Headley, once bragged that he was one of the first to train black police officers, though he insisted they be labelled ‘patrolmen’; only white officers were allowed to be called ‘policemen’. After the backlash, Trump denied knowledge of this quote from 1967. It’s possible he didn’t hear it at the time. He was busy planning his medically deferment from a military draft. He was later reclassified as exempt for having bone spurs on a foot. Trump admitted this in 2015, yet was unable to remember which foot had been problematic. It’s possible that to Trump the draft was for other people, outside of his set.

Priviledge

Like Trump, the majority of our leaders in the UK come from a privileged background and attended private schools; and like Trump, many were sent away to board. In Nick Duffell’s excellent book Wounded Leaders, he argues that this experience impairs empathic development. Young children, struggling to cope with separation from their parents, shut down their emotions, and fail to develop bonds with others. Without close relationships we find it difficult to practice empathy. We are not born with empathy. We are born with a capacity for it that we develop through these close interactions, with our parents and close family in particular. This must have consequences for those in leadership positions. Lacking experiences that align with those being led may make leading difficult enough without being further handicapped by a lack of empathic ability. Without empathy they cannot feel into another’s perspective in order to gain understanding. The alternative of course is misunderstanding.

If we consider groups defined by schooling, privately educated UK politicians belong to a different group to 93% of the population. This may explain why the government so often misreads the mood of the nation, making what most of us see as blatantly obvious errors of judgement. Dominic Cummings could be guilty of this; rather than sheer arrogance. A man lauded for his ability to judge the nation’s mood when it came to Brexit, which he then utilised to help win an election, seemed to get it so wrong when it came to breaking lockdown rules. Could it be that he didn’t think the rules applied to his group? Maybe he thought the virus itself would appreciate his position and look instead to the less privileged masses.

Support for Cummings

MPs supporting Cummings appear to do so disingenuously or because they too struggle to understand the public’s perspective. If they belong to the same group as Cummings, they are more likely to empathise with him rather than the public. Despite thousands in far worse positions refraining from such rule breaking, one MP suggested that the public should have more empathy for Cummings. This requires imagining what one would do in his situation. It is clear that the public has been unable to place themselves in the shoes of Cummings and understand his actions. When people attempt this, they are possibly imagining themselves in his situation rather than imagining being Cummings for a moment. To achieve this you’d have to be more like Cummings, part of the same demographic, living within the same culture and having had the same life experiences.

Empathic Concern

Empathising doesn’t always lead to pro-social behaviour. The knowledge gained through empathy can be used to manipulate or take advantage. Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis suggests that when we empathise, we are motivated to act with care or compassion. This is often termed ‘empathic concern’. Occasionally there are empathic conflicts; those wishing to express empathic concern for others by social distancing may also wish to show empathic concern by attending Black Lives Matter protests. This must have been a difficult decision for some. The balance may have been tipped by the example set by Cummings. The social distancing cause certainly lost a little power through his actions.

To risk delivering the virus to people at a rural hospital, in a less afflicted part of the country, might indicate that Cummings has a lack of empathic concern for the wider public. Add to this the fact that the rules broken were ones Cummings expected this public to follow, together with an apparent inability to foresee the public’s reaction to him doing so, and the picture of an empathically deficient man becomes clearer. Empathy has certainly become a more familiar concept in the media and public discourse in recent times. The accusations that Cummings and Trump lack empathy confirm that there is now an expectation that people in such positions are evidently empathic.

 

Peter Sear, Founder, The Empathic Minds Organisation

An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

An Unprecedented Swing in the Personality of Presidents

Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have starkly different personalities. As the cliché goes, a week is a long time in politics. America has seen its presidency change from Republican to Democrat before, and vice versa. There have been regular swings in the sizes of...

read more
Empathy and Schadenfreude

Empathy and Schadenfreude

Empathy and Schadenfreude in Sports A fan's perspective. When it comes to sport on TV, what’s the next best thing to sharing in the experience of your own team’s victory? Whatever your sport, you probably prefer to watch your own team rather than any other. You may...

read more
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read more
Rashford V Johnson : Passing Empathy to Politics

Rashford V Johnson : Passing Empathy to Politics

Empathy Empathy is about understanding and is often fuelled by experience. Empathic politicians need to understand those they represent, yet we regularly see evidence of a lack of understanding, due to a lack of empathy. This leads to a fall in popularity or essential...

read more
The Empathy of Cummings & Trump

The Empathy of Cummings & Trump

Cummings and Trump We have seen Cummings and Trump dominate the news and public discourse for two weeks, with both being accused of lacking empathy. Moreover, Piers Morgan recently suggested to the viewing public that President Trump, who he knows personally, has a...

read more
Empathic Communication

Empathic Communication

  Communication is possible without empathy, but a non-empathic communicator will never be as effective as they could be. Empathic communication is characterised by listening, compassion, concern, and support. Such efforts are noticed and appreciated. They have a...

read more
What is Empathic Leadership?

What is Empathic Leadership?

  Empathic Leadership The style of empathic leadership is based on the understanding that it is impossible to connect with or to motivate followers if you cannot envision life from their perspective. This realisation has led to empathy becoming a highly...

read more
What is Empathy?

What is Empathy?

So what is it? When we talk about empathy we are focusing on a way of understanding another’s perspective by vicariously experiencing their emotions. This is often referred to as ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. However, this phrase can be misleading, for we need...

read more