Analysis |

After Boosting neo-Nazis, How Would Trump Fare in a Test for Psychopaths?

Is there a method to the U.S. president’s madness or is he driven by the compulsive outbursts of a kook?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, New York, U.S., August 15, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, New York, U.S., August 15, 2017.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Last November, less than a month after Donald Trump’s election victory, Keith Olbermann said on his Resistance videos for GQ that the president-elect posed an existential threat to the future of the United States. Trump, he said, was “manifestly, profoundly and dangerously psychologically unbalanced.” How is it possible, he asked, that control over the largest nuclear arsenal in the world was about to be given “to a man who has no control over himself?”

The question resurfaced recently after Trump’s “fire and fury” warnings against North Korea. The concern over Trump’s mental state reverberated even more strongly this week, after he defended neo-Nazis marching in Virginia and stood up for the heroes of Southern slavery. Trump’s apologetics for white supremacism, which were shocking in their bluntness as well as in its moral blindness, sparked a political typhoon in a reality in which new political storms are created every week. The unholy balance that Trump struck between bigots and those who protest against them brought his public standing to a new low, which many people thought had hit rock bottom. It renewed speculation about an imminent end to his tenure, though he has been prematurely eulogized many times before.

On Thursday, after his image was tarnished and his stature diminished and some of his remaining allies started to make their way towards the exit, Trump once again reverted to a form that seems self-destructive and detached from reality. He denied comparing neo-Nazis to their left-wing opponents, even though everyone saw and heard him on live TV. He reiterated his opposition to the “shameful” removal of statues commemorating Confederate heroes, even though they symbolize the crimes against humanity perpetrated against his fellow Americans. And he savaged GOP Senators Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, who had criticized him, even though he can’t afford to alienate even one more Republican senator without losing his party’s Senate majority.

Trump himself compels people to ask whether he is driven by gut instinct or muddled thoughts. Are his revolting, inciting, divisive and often ridiculous statements and tweets a true reflection of his beliefs or a manifestation of internal turmoil? Is he aware of the potential political, public and international ramifications of his words, or is he disappointed and frustrated by the way they are perceived and received? Is there a method to his madness or is he moved by the compulsive outbursts of a certified kook? Does the nucleus of his electoral base continue to support him, as a poll released on Thursday showed, because of or despite his bizarre conduct?

These questions have accompanied Trump since the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015, when he told America that Mexico is sending murderers and rapists across the border but would pay for the wall that would stop them. Ever since, Trump has provided a steady stream of questionable actions and unhinged declarations that deepen the doubts about his perception of the world and his ability to make rational decisions. A week doesn’t go by in which one or another media outlet doesn’t try to compile the latest list of crazy stuff that Trump has said and tweeted. The nominees are numerous, so choosing is hard, and the candidates just keep on coming.

And the nominees are ...

So which is actually crazier – that Trump spearheaded the anti-Obama “birther” movement or that he claimed Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination? Which was more depraved – that Trump was caught on tape boasting about grabbing pussies or that he openly seemed to lust for his daughter Ivanka? Which was more repugnant – that Trump sparred with the family of a Muslim soldier who died for his country or that he mocked war hero John McCain for being captured? Which was more grotesque – that Trump insisted the elections he won were forged or that his inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, despite incontrovertible proof that Obama’s in 2009 was much larger? Which was more self-incriminating – that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia investigation, that he derided his loyal attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not shutting it down, or that he disseminated threats to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller if he got too close to the truth? And which was more demented – insulting the Pope, badmouthing Angela Merkel, supporting Marine Le Pen, hanging up on Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, praising the murderous Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, alienating Europe, aggravating China, sucking up to Vladimir Putin or abandoning the climate accord? Take you’re pick, they’re all loony.

Whoever thought Trump would calm down after he gained some experience and confidence in the White House got it backwards: Trump’s amok is only accelerating and escalating. He enraged or at least embarrassed sane Republicans and titans of the business world by equivocating on Nazis in Charlottesville, but the week before he nearly gave the world a heart attack by threatening North Korea with a nuclear holocaust, only hours before he united South America against him by publicly contemplating a military operation in Venezuela. A few days before that, he enraged army commanders by surprising them with his unilateral decision to ban transgenders at the same time that he offended many Americans with lewd and inappropriate remarks to the Boy Scouts. And staying true to psychiatric findings that emotionally disturbed people tend to attract underlings with similar issues, we also saw the verbal meltdown of in-and-out Communication Director Anthony Scaramucci against Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, which led to the dismissal of both. Not to be outdone, alt-right darling Steve Bannon also gave an impromptu press briefing to the liberal American Prospect in which he seemed to pooh-pooh the president’s posturing against Pyongyang by asserting that an attack on North Korea just isn’t feasible. “He’s a good man,” Trump said of Bannon, as he said of Priebus just before he got rid of him. “So are they all, honorable men,” as Marc Anthony said of Brutus and his fellow assassins, just before he ensured their execution.


The combination of impulsiveness, frenzy, empty grandstanding, superfluous skirmishes and delusional portrayals of reality, to name but a small part of the traits that Trump displays every day, ensures that talk of his emotional and mental capacities is never far away. Less than a month ago, after the failure of Trump and the GOP leadership to repeal and replace ObamaCare sparked concerns that they wouldn’t get a budget passed either, a hot mic picked up Rhode Island’s Democratic Senator Jack Reed telling Maine’s Republican Susan Collins that he fears Trump is truly “crazy.” On Thursday it was reported that three Democratic members of Congress would consult with Yale psychiatrist Bandy Lee about setting up a panel of that would issue a verdict on Trump’s mental state. If the panel decides that Trump isn’t all there, more pressure will be exerted on Vice President Pence and Trump’s cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment and relieve Trump of his duties.

Lee is one of the leaders of “renegade” psychiatrists who claim that Trump’s disturbed state is a matter of life and death – pikuach nefesh, if she spoke Hebrew – which overrides the professional obligation of the so-called Goldwater Rule that prohibits professional mental hygienists from diagnosing public figures from afar. In April, Lee was one of the organizers of a conference in New Haven that featured John Gartner, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, who claims that Trump is suffering from incurable “malignant narcissism.” Over 61,000 mental health professionals signed a petition organized by Gartner calling for the 25th Amendment to be invoked.

The psychiatrists and psychologists are at odds about the legitimacy of diagnosing Trump by remote control, but also about the diagnosis itself. Some believe he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, others that he is a psychopath and still others that he is a classic case of Dark Triad, which is narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism combined. Each one of these disorders can be measured on a scale from harmless to disturbing to very dangerous, depending on their severity and circumstance: Numerous studies published in recent years have found that the proportion of narcissists and psychopaths among politicians and CEOs of major companies on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley is much higher than in the general population, and similar to that found among hardcore criminals. The experts haven’t decided whether such individuals can lead their organizations to long-term success or whether their faults will inevitably lead to tragedy and ruin.

Psychiatrists have devised various tests and evaluation methods to assess the existence and severity of such personality disorders, some of which routinely feature as harmless quizzes in popular magazines. One of the most respected and widely used evaluation mechanisms designed to diagnose psychopaths was put together by Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, based on Hervey Cleckley’s ingeniously titled classic textbook on psychopathology, “The Mask of Sanity.” Hare composed a 20-part questionnaire on classic traits of psychopaths in which 0, 1 or 2 points are given for each, depending on their existence and degree. A score of over 30 – 25 in the United Kingdom – indicates a psychopathic personality. The characteristics examined include superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, excess need for stimulation, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of emotions, lack of empathy, a parasitic lifestyle, poor self-control, promiscuous sexual behavior, early behavioral problems, lack of realistic long-term goals, excessive impulsiveness, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for ones actions, numerous short-term marriages, juvenile delinquency, a tendency to violate parole, and an indifference to the scope and variety of illegal actions.

Psychiatrists insist the test should be administered only by professionals and must be complemented by a personal interview and other examinations, but that doesn’t prevent mere mortals from evaluating their acquaintances, their president or even their prime minister.

Why Israelis love him

The question is, of course, what are the unique personality traits that have brought Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu together and whether some of these might also account for Trump’s relative but enduring popularity among Israelis. A Pew Survey that sought to compare worldwide confidence in Trump and Putin to handle international affairs found that Israel leads democratic countries in trusting Trump and is in a close fourth place, behind Vietnam, Nigeria and the Philippines, in the entire world. Fifty-six percent of Israelis say that are confident in Trump’s handling of world affairs compared to only 7 percent of Spaniards, 11 percent of Germans, 14 percent of French people and the like. Israelis trust Trump more than his own citizens: Only 46 percent of Americans trust Trump to deal with the world.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Israel did not go out of its way to dissociate itself from Trump’s controversial response to neo-Nazis who marched in Virginia while shouting hateful slogans against Jews. On top of the indisputable fact that Israel depends on Trump and may not want to antagonize him, many Israelis actually like the president, see him as a friend and an ally and as one of us. Israelis appreciate his blunt and direct talk, which seems quintessentially Israeli, and many identify with his attitudes as well – against political correctness, against knee-jerk liberalism, against politeness and etiquette, against Muslims, against Europeans, against minorities, against immigrants, against international institutions and possibly against Jews as well, at least if they are leftist and liberal and probably connected to BDS.

Nazis and white supremacists are passé, as Yair Netanyahu wrote on Facebook this week, but leftists are hostile and dangerous. This is exactly what his father has been preaching for many years. He will undoubtedly give Trump and other world leaders a run for their money in the race to get the highest grades in Robert Hare’s test.

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