Donald Trump has elevated lying to an art form. Not only that, he lies effectively, using standard psychological defense mechanisms such as projection. That is, he accuses others of doing what he is actually doing as a way to smoke screen his activities. With enough shame-faced lying and bluster, many have either been deceived or engage in the same kind of ‘emotional reasoning’ that he indulges in order to reach the same conclusions.
Of course, the simplistic explanation is that Trump is a very accomplished con man. Actually, he isn’t that accomplished at the con. What makes him so successful is the brazenness with which he lies. Understanding why people are taken in by him so easily is what this blog is about.
We first start with a presumption that I believe is borne out by experience: most of us presume that others are going to process information in a way similar to ourselves. The presumption is what is borne out by experience, as in, ‘How could you possibly think that?’, which is a fair question to ask. Indeed, one of the keys to understanding and reconciliation is to be able to understand precisely that: how someone could think and feel in such a radically different way to ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we agree, it just means that, at last, we can understand.
For example, one of the key points to understand is how people in ‘red states’ in the US, or the ‘red wall’ in the UK, can consistently vote against their own interests. In order to begin to understand that, we have to start with the four basic ways of processing information.
Most discussions of understanding Trump have been written in traditional psychiatric or psychological terms, such as narcissism, psychopathy or Machiavellianism, the ‘dark triad’ of personality traits. These are rooted in the traditional ad hoc schema of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Those books have included Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, by Mary Trump, his niece, and The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, by Brandy X. Lee, et al. Harvard University, that bastion of conservatism, rewarded Lee for her efforts to protect the nation, democracy, and the world, by firing her, much as they had fired Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass, 4 decades earlier.
However, I am going to discuss Trump and other industrial scale liars, such as Boris Johnson, Tucker Carlson, and others, through the lens of the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment, a specific application of attachment theory, or what some of us are beginning to call attachment science, meaning that it has been confirmed to such an extent that it is becoming recognized as a law, similar to the law of gravity.
We begin with the most basic, widespread, and healthiest of the information processing strategies, the B strategy. Information comes to us in two varieties: facts and feelings. A fact is an absolute, no matter what the circumstances. If the saber cat kills you and eats you, that is a fact. If NASA launches the shuttle so far outside of safe operating conditions that the O rings fail, an explosion could and did occur. Facts are indisputable – or so the B strategy thinker tells herself.
Feelings, on the other hand, are malleable. We can change what we feel about the facts of the situation based on what we believe. Our feelings motivate us to action. But to run on feelings alone is like being on a sailing ship with under full sail with a good breeze but no rudder in the water!
The B strategy takes account of both facts and feelings in making decisions or deciding the truth or viability of a proposition. This leads to comfortable and balanced decision making that takes into accounts both our feelings about things and also the facts of the situation. B’s automatically opt for beliefs that help them to deal with the situation effectively, that are based on known facts and reality, and are logical.
The down side of the B strategy is that they do not understand pathology. Because it is not a part of their makeup, they cannot comprehend the thought processes of the other two strategies, the A and C. Whereas the B strategy is subdivided into 5 classifications, the A and C strategies each have 8 subdivisions, numbered 1-8, with the pathology becoming more pronounced the higher the numbers. Not only does the reliance on emotions and discounting of facts, for the C, and the opposite for the A, become more distorted, but also the higher the numbers the more distorted their primary reliance – facts for A’s and feelings for C’s – becomes more distorted also.
The A strategy relies on facts, but suppresses negative feelings, and also, as the pathology progresses into more florid suppression, distorts the facts that support the feelings. Thus a B speaker might say, ‘My father beat me a lot when I was a kid, but only because I was bad and deserved it.’ They tend to make things their fault and excuse others.
The C strategy – and that is what Donald Trump uses – relies on feelings only, and ignores or discounts facts that are contrary to feelings. We have no better example of this strategy at work than Trump himself, insisting that he won the election even though there have been over 60 court cases deciding that he didn’t. These decisions have been made by judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents, including Trump himself.
The C strategy relies on emotion to get what they want. Trump famously said in a deposition that his net worth depended on how he was feeling that day. This is famously fatuous. C’s learned in childhood that they could get what they wanted by ignoring facts and emphasizing their negative feelings. In fact, a good mnemonic device for the A strategy is ‘Avoidant,’ meaning they avoid confrontation and negative feelings, for the B strategy is ‘Balanced,’ meaning they use both facts and feelings, undistorted, in their relationships with others. The mnemonic for the C strategy could be ‘Coercive,’ meaning that the person uses the strength of their emotions to coerce others into doing what they want.
The C strategy can be lovely. It could also stand for ‘charming.’ In the less pathological levels, C1-2, Threatening and Disarming, respectively, it is barely noticeable. We do not consider C1-2 to be ‘clinical’, meaning that are not likely to seek counselling or therapeutic help or be intervened on by social agencies. They are what we consider to be part of the ‘normal’ population. C3-4, Aggressive Anger and Feigned Helplessness, use the alternating affects of being aggressive and threatening alternating with feigning helplessness in order to manipulate others into giving them what the want. They are fairly blatant and open in their feelings.
The C5-6 level, Punitive and Seductive, use more subtle techniques and disguise their motivations. They are intentionally deceitful in order to ‘seduce’ others into what they want. Alternatively, they are punitive toward those who don’t give them what they want. We saw this repeatedly with Trump, e.g. firing James Comey, etc. This seems to be the level that Trump operates at most of the time. He maintains a personable, reasonable persona that is meant to charm and seduce people. Alternatively, he becomes punitive, as in the ‘lock her up’ theme that he used regularly during the 2016 campaign.
He justifies his punitive stance by projecting onto others his own motivations. Again, we have no better example than the ‘stolen election.’ That theme is not only unsupported by the evidence, it has been actively rejected in over 60 court cases. Meantime, Trump’s minions were cooking up the fake elector scheme, Trump was coercing Brad Raffensperger into ‘finding’ just enough votes to give him Georgia, and he was coercing President Zelensky to launch a probe into the Biden’s. But his greatest claim to infamy at this point was to invite a mob to Washington on January 6th with his ‘will be wild!’ tweet, and then incited them to violence on his behalf.
Chillingly, he has just held a rally in Waco, Texas, on the anniversary of that cult’s infamous self-immolation.
We can look deeper into this process of information distortion with John Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s book, Authoritarian Nightmare. In it, they identify three personality types that support authoritarianism and Donald Trump and his ilk. The first of these are the Authoritarian Followers. These people are the equivalent of the A strategy: the most robust association is with the A7, Delusional Idealization, and A8, Externally Assembled Self. These are followed closely by other A strategies, A6, Compulsive Self-Reliance, and A5, Compulsive Promiscuity (can be social or sexual), then A4, Compulsive Compliance. The names suggest the ways in which these categories can be lured into the orbit of Trump. They don’t want to be the leader, but they want a ‘strong’ leader to follow.
The other category they identify is the Social Dominators. These correspond with the C strategy, which we have already discussed. Here the C3-4 is Aggressive Anger, and we have certainly had that in spades, and the Feigned Helplessness: ‘what am I supposed to do? I can’t help myself!’ C5-6 uses seduction – emotional persuasion against one’s best interest – and become punitive if they don’t get what they way – ‘I will do it to you before you can do it to me.’ The height of this dysfunction is the C7-8, Menacing and Paranoid. This was on full display with the ‘caravans’ of ‘rapists’ coming from Mexico.
The final category that Dean and Altemeyer identify are the Double Highs: they are people who are high scorers on both scales. These would roughly correspond to the AC category in the DMM: Sociopathy. And Trump is certainly surrounded with sociopaths. Learn more about our attachment psychotherapy techniques to detach yourself from negative past events and unhealthy relationship dynamics.
The key, then, to understanding Donald Trump and those who buy into his falsehoods is to understand the distorted information processing of the C strategy with it’s reliance on how one feels about something to determine the truth of it. This is, of course, a recipe for disaster. Perhaps the most commonly known form of this distortion is what is called ‘spatial disorientation.’ This happens when aircraft fly in limited visibility. If the pilot relies on their feelings, then disaster is likely. Instead, one must rely on the instruments – facts – in order to safely fly and land the aircraft.
So, keep your eyes on the facts. Don’t trust your feelings. They can fool you.
When subjective impressions are mistaken for facts, chaos reigns.