Psychologizing Trump

Andreas Ortmann
4 min readJan 16, 2021

In the final days of his four-year run as president of the USA, Trump has become desperate, deluded, and outright dangerous, for the social fabric of that country and the trust in its institutions alike. People like (former defense secretary) Cohen have called him “blatant in (his) criminality”. In light of his obvious role in the incitement to armed insurrection and the subsequent storming of the Capitol (with the possible intent to capture, and even kill, lawmakers; see also this corroborating testimony), there is a good chance that the Senate will convict him. In Liz Cheney’s words: Trump “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. … Everything that followed was his doing. … There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

There are indeed good strategic (i.e., opportunistic) reasons for GOP Senators to convict him. (My prediction: McConnell will vote to convict Trump. Not because it is the right and principled thing to do in light of Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol but because McConnell is a supreme strategist who understands that it is a dominant strategy to dis-associate the GOP from what is an all-around losing, and at this point rather pathetic, proposition.)

Trump has delivered the presidency, (two years into his tenure) the House, and now also the Senate to the Democrats. The Donald deserves much of the credit, with some minor kudos to McConnell and Pence, and the rest of the GOP, for having done their share to indulge him.

Quite a success story Trump is, isn’t he?

I propose there are four key characteristics that explain why Trump ended up they way he does and will.

First, throughout his life as (not particularly successful) entrepreneur he has learned that he can (or so at least it seemed to him) get away with everything including massive tax avoidance, outright and unashamed corruption, and plain nasty behavior, as also illustrated by his recent decision to not pay his most prominent attack dog, Rudy Giuliani. (Could not have happened to a nicer chap, no?) That Trump was acquitted, very much along partisan lines, in the first impeachment proceedings, can only have strenghtened his belief that he was untouchable and could indeed get away with murder (at least in the opinion of his followers).

Second, he has become, last but not least because of 1., a psycho- and sociopathic narcissist and megalomaniac. He always fancied himself a top-dog but the presidency added to his delusion and his belief in his IQ. There is both a misogynist and, importantly, racist streak to this belief— it is not coincidence that the Capitol invaders and rioters were overwhelmingly white men, one of the many troubling aspects of this whole sordid and shocking affair.

The first two points are the essence of what Mary Trump, in her best-selling tell-all, has laid out with professional competence and in brutal detail; here the Vanity Fair version. (After his role in the siege of the Capitol, she called for his immediate removal.)

Third, Trump has declined in his cognitive abilities for years. Contrary to his belief in his IQ, he never was the sharpest tool in the shed in the best of times but his cognitive decline over time is well documented and can also be inferred by reading transcripts such as that of his call to Republican Secretary of State for Georgia, Raffensperger. In my view, there is no evidence that his vulgarity and limited vocabulary are a smart rhetorical strategy to connect with his “base”, the simple-minded misogynist and racist masses that were on display January 6. Trump simply is not able to sketch out a complicated game tree that captures possible outcomes as suggested by this German author or as intimated by this US author, nevermind to think half-way coherently. Trump’s incompetence, was and remains, the saving grace.

Fourth, Trump, and that plays into 3., has yet to understand that different rules apply for private business and public life. I believe this to be the key point towards any attempt at psychologizing him. Having for years learned that he could bully everyone into submission, with lawsuits or tweets, surrounding himself with sycophants catering to his image of himself as untouchable, systematically banning from his inner circle everyone who was even remotely critical, and demanding — and seemingly being granted — loyalty by his inner circle, Trump did not understand that private business and public affairs follow very different principles and that the seeming loyalty was conditional on him being in a time-limited position of power and influence, and that some politicians (notably McConnell, Pence, Raffensperger, and other GA election officials), military leaders, and even social media overloards, come push to shove, cannot be bought because they pledged their allegiance, and loyalty, to the constitution rather than a deluded wanna-be dictator. While he seems to have been concerned about legal liabilities once he would be private citizen again, Trump did not foresee how quickly things could unravel. (Truth be told, few did. I didn’t.) It is clear that the events of 6 January 2020, really hastened that unravelling and in hindsight look like a huge self-own and blessing in disguise last but not least because they robbed Trump of the direct lines of communication, manipulation, and fund-raising that social media so willingly provided for way too long.



Andreas Ortmann

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …