The Real Psychology of the Trump Presidency, Stanley Renshon

Reviewed by William G. Mayer


“The intense effort to make direct use of psychological and psychiatric theory for a clearly political purpose, to remove President Trump from office, is unprecedented” (p. 233), writes Stanley Renshon. And no one has done more serious writing and thinking about the connection between presidential personality and presidential performance than Renshon himself, a political scientist and psychoanalyst who has written in-depth psychological studies of each of Trump's three predecessors. Renshon's book on Trump, which clocks in at more than 550 pages, is an admirable, well-researched effort to come to terms with this most unusual and puzzling of presidents, yet I suspect it will leave many readers unsatisfied.

The Real Psychology of the Trump Presidency is at its best in its treatment of the remarkable number of psychiatrists, psychologists, and self-described “mental health professionals” who accused Trump of being “unfit” for the presidency, flashing their professional credentials and invoking psychological terminology even though it was frequently clear that what really bothered them were Trump's policies. My favorite entry in this parade of scientistic horrors is the person who, after first claiming to have been “uncannily prescient” about Trump, offered 15 predictions for 2020–2025, starting with “Sanders will win the [Democratic] nomination” and “Trump will win re-election” (p. 203).

Perhaps in reaction to the excesses of so many other analysts, Renshon often seems far too indulgent of Trump's many behavioral flaws. Take, for example, what is perhaps the single most common criticism of Trump's personality, that he is a pronounced narcissist. In using this term, most critics have in mind not the description one would find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but the most straightforward dictionary definition: a person with an extraordinarily inflated opinion of his own abilities and achievements. Granted that no one is willing to endure the rigors of the contemporary presidential election process without a healthy sense of his or her own capacity to do the job, Trump clearly stands out even when compared with such contemporaries as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Over and over again throughout his presidency, Trump made statements in which he claimed that he knew more about many policy issues than anyone else, that he had a very high IQ (and a very large male sex organ), that he had done more for blacks than any president since Lincoln, and on and on and on. And there is good reason to think that this had a major impact on his conduct as president: that he was loath to admit his mistakes or take advice from his “advisers,” that he often seemed to act as if the principal problem with the COVID-19 pandemic was that it threatened his own reelection. Yet Renshon's verdict is that Trump has merely been “seeking recognition… for his accomplishments” (p. 219).

There are many other examples of the same tendency. Of the numerous women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault, Renshon dismissively concludes that “not one of the allegations have been backed up by concrete evidence beyond the assertions. And when actual evidence has surfaced, it has disproved the allegations” (p. 10). His discussion of Trump's business career emphasizes his real successes, but contains only the most fleeting references to his many business failures, the six times he has filed for bankruptcy protection, and the substantial boost he received from his father's wealth and contacts. Nor does Renshon devote much space to the numerous ways that his behavior proved self-destructive, such as the 41 House seats his party lost in the 2018 midterm elections.

Future biographers will no doubt find Renshon's book a helpful assemblage of the many psychologically based accusations directed against Trump, but I doubt they will think that Renshon's analysis provides a solid resolution of such matters.

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