The Psychology behind Politicians and their Politics

Lies are historically and inexorably tied to politicians, something that has not changed in recent times. President Trump, for instance, has claimed many facts that are without factual basis: his inaugural crowd was bigger than any before it, he won more electoral votes than any president since Reagan, and his phone lines were wiretapped by President Obama, among others. It is undeniable that these lies are unacceptable for an administration to make. A more interesting question is: does President Trump actually believe these lies?

Lies are made to further an agenda, whether that agenda is leftist (aiming to raise a paranoid awareness of the failings of the justice system) or alt-right (aiming to increase fear of ominous foreign powers). Politicians promote these agendas with the selective presentation of certain biased facts. Too often, however, they present these alternative facts as truth. In particular, President Trump seems to get away with outright lies. Why does the man always seem to ignore anything with a factual basis? Psychology may have the answer.

Many psychologists seem to concur on their diagnosis of Mr. Trump: classic narcissistic personality disorder. Some say they even plan to use video clips of him to demonstrate textbook behavior of typical narcissists. To clarify the psychology, there are three main “clusters” of personality disorders. The most relevant is the “dramatic” personality group, with personality disorders such as antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic. President Trump most embodies this cluster, defined as a group by the DSM-5 because of the disorders’ tendency to blend together.

One symptom of “dramatic” personality is having fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, or other supreme qualities. These fantasies tend to shift the patient’s perception of reality, giving them a false sense of success and accomplishment. What this suggests is that if Mr. Trump really does have a personality disorder, he may not be able to see facts as facts.

Trump is not alone in showing narcissistic traits. Narcissism is a common trait in many presidents, according to research. In fact, a study done by professors at Cambridge and the University of London finds that narcissism is positively correlated with “wealth and success.” It almost seems as if a requirement for politicians is having some amount of psychologically diagnosable narcissism. The greatest leaders tend to seek attention and a crowd (typical hallmarks of narcissistic behavior), therefore acting as great orators and strong forces of personality.

Political leaders across the left-right spectrum have practically no difference in their psychological ailments. Every president has overstated facts, or declared falsehoods as a means to an end. Recall, for instance, President Obama’s infamous statement, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Both sides are equally stubborn about their perceived adherence to fact.

It is important to remember that perceived psychological symptoms do not necessarily mean a psychological disorder. In fact, the Goldwater rule qualifies it as unethical to diagnose psychological disorders at a distance unless it is given with authorization and after an examination. I do not presume to diagnose President Trump with anything but a bad tan and a worse hairdo.

However, in terms of psychological differences, politicians on different sides of the aisle tend to have completely different unconscious reactions to stimuli. A study done by professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows basic psychological differences between “left” and “right.” For instance, conservatives’ eyes tended to linger 15% more on repellant images. Conservatives tended to be more orderly, as if trying to place order in a chaotic world (since they looked longer at repellant images such as a car crash, researchers concluded they were affected more). Liberals tended to have more travel memorabilia, marking an open-mindedness to different worldviews.

Due to their often narcissistic traits, politicians are more stubborn about their beliefs and how they see the world. When this is combined with psychologically different worldviews, clashes occur, lending discord to a divided Washington. So, how can psychology help cure this divide?

An article in Scientific American cites researchers that propose rephrasing political rhetoric. Phrasing climate change as “a threat to the American way of life” (instead of a barrier to economic growth) may help attract the support of conservatives for climate change. This way, conservatives would see global warming as a factor that would drastically change American life.. Another proposal involves helping both sides gain respect for each other by emphasizing that neither side of the aisle is immoral, but simply each side puts emphasis on different moral values.

These steps may not close the divide between politicians, but they can create consensus among regular folk. Once steps are taken to calm the rhetoric at the local level, this calm would spread through the votes of the people to Washington, and it would hopefully mend some of the harmful division that is currently present.