Feb 25, 2021 | Empathy, Leadership, Politics

Feb 25, 2021 | Empathy, Leadership, Politics

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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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