Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has an editorial in USA Today in which he attributes as much as 90 percent of President Trump’s inexplicable behavior to “sympathetic audience control.” In essence, the president lives largely without any strong grounding in the past or clear anticipation of the near future. Rather, he mostly reacts to whatever situation he finds himself in in the present and behaves based on his perception of friends and foes.
For Mr. Epstein, this function (or malfunction) in Trump’s brain allows him to contradict himself without guilt or guile. Most of the time, he is supposedly lying unconsciously because he doesn’t have access to what he’s said in the past and “lying has no meaning to him.”
There’s more detail about this diagnosis and what it might mean in the article, and I think there’s definitely at least some genuine insight in the piece, but I pretty much lost my patience near the outset.
At a minimum, this argument is terribly incomplete. Trump may have a tendency to make up with people with whom he has quarreled, but he also is a legendary grudge holder. He did not forget how President Obama humiliated him at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. In fact, there’s a good chance that one of his main motivations for making a run for president was so he could trash Obama from coast to coast.
Trump has an excellent memory of every politician who ever asked him for money (just ask Lindsey Graham) or attended a family wedding (ask the Clintons). He hasn’t forgotten the pledges he made on the campaign trail, including the insane promises that any other politicians would have discarded the second they were elected: like ripping up the Iran Nuclear Deal, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, trashing NATO, and asking Mexico to pay for a border wall. That last one seems to have gone dormant, but he didn’t give it up lightly.
There are many things that Trump remembers very well, and many ideas that he sticks to with an absurd doggedness. One thing he very clearly adheres to is a commitment to please Vladimir Putin. In fact, he is so thorough in this respect that he must be getting more routine help in understanding what Putin wants than he’s getting from his regularly scheduled private meetings with him. But even if someone is telling him what Russia would like to see in Syria, Macedonia, the Korean Peninsula, and the Baltics, it’s certainly never far from his mind that he should not do anything that might displease Russia. And, if he feels like he may have been cornered into giving some offense, he’s sure to find a way to compensate at the very next opportunity.
Trump remembers things just fine, and when he lies he most often knows that he’s lying. It’s true that he has no conscience about this and that lying means so little to him that he has no real voice in his head alerting him to contradictions. He may very well sometimes be unaware that he’s saying the opposite of what he said just 15 minutes previously, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t realize that what he’s saying is bullshit. It means that one bullshit comment can’t really contradict another bullshit comment because, for him, truthfulness is a worthless practice.
What Trump is most effective at in life is conning people. He’s never much concerned himself with making sure his cons stay secret. Contractors know they haven’t been paid. People who lay down twenty thousand dollars to take a course from Trump University know they have been duped. When the bill comes due, he brings in his lawyers, pays his fines and legal settlements if he must, and moves on to the next scam.
I don’t know what the correct psychological terms are for Trump’s behavior but I consider it an extreme form of narcissism and sociopathy. I think it’s a rather large mistake to think that Trump is a simple-minded person who just likes to please Chuck Schumer or Kim Jong-un or whoever else is in his presence or says something nice about him. He’s a predatory con-artist and every relationship he has is purely transactional.
There’s only one person he won’t sell out at the drop of a hat, and that person is Vladimir Putin. Somehow, in that relationship it was Trump who became the mark.